* PM to call on companies to appoint more independent
* Change to come slowly, most boards still filled with
* Investors seeking higher ROE, dialogue
By Ritsuko Ando
TOKYO, May 15 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set
to outline plans to improve corporate governance as part of an
updated economic strategy next month, aiming to overturn Japan's
reputation for neglecting shareholders and salvage his reform
The draft plans, which face resistance from Japan's largest
business lobby, would push companies to appoint more outside
directors as part of a package aimed in part at winning back
overseas investors who have turned sceptical of Abe's ability to
push through politically sensitive reforms on labour and trade.
Currently, Japanese firms are not required to have
"There is a lot of interest in this, especially from outside
Japan," said Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) member Masahiko
Shibayama, who heads a group preparing such reforms, adding that
he hoped the June announcement would deliver "powerful pitches"
on corporate governance as well as reforms of Japan's public
Tokyo stocks have fallen around 12 percent so far this year,
for the first time since Abe took power in late 2012. In
addition to the drag from slowing growth, many foreign investors
remain unconvinced that Japanese boards dominated by insiders
are receptive to the views of shareholders.
Nicholas Benes, representative director of the Board
Director Training Institute of Japan, said a new corporate
governance code was crucial for Abe's "third arrow," the last of
a three-part growth strategy of monetary easing, fiscal spending
and reforms aimed at revitalising the long-moribund economy.
"This is the reform that Prime Minister Abe most needs to
announce in the coming month," he said.
"If the industry were to control the corporate governance
code drafting process... the global investment community would
conclude that Abenomics lacks both substance and spine."
Anticipation of new governance rules and pressure from proxy
advisory firms have persuaded companies such as Canon Inc
to recently nominate independent directors after years
of refusing to do so.
Yet with around 40 percent of companies listed on Tokyo's
main bourse still filling their boards with insiders last year
and under 3 percent appointing independent directors to a
majority of seats, analysts say it will take years to see the
sweeping change in governance which activist investors have long
"There has been progress in the sense that it's now harder
for companies to say they have no intention of appointing even a
single outside board member. But the next step is for companies
to voluntarily appoint more," said Kengo Nishiyama, a strategist
at Nomura Securities.
"That will take more time."
BEHIND THE CURVE
Most developed economies require listed firms to select a
majority of their board members from outside the company, and
corporate governance experts say one or two directors on a board
of more than 10 are not enough.
The three outside directors on Olympus Corp's
former board, for example, failed to detect a scheme to hide
investment losses relating to a $1.7 billion accounting scandal
in 2011. Damages from the scandal continue to weigh on the
Cerberus Capital management struggled in its push for a
management shakeup at Seibu Holdings while Sony Corp
rejected a proposal from activist shareholder Daniel
Loeb to spin off its entertainment business.
Shuhei Abe, CEO of hedge fund SPARX Group, said executives
often forget that shareholders should hold ultimate power over
"In many companies in Japan, management simply assumes that
absolute power is given to them," he said. "They are honest and
hard-working, but they don't know who they are working for."
Japan's large institutional investors rarely challenge
management, a practice analysts say has contributed to
chronically low return on equity (ROE), which measures efficient
use of shareholders' capital. The average ROE among Japan's
listed companies is around 5 percent compared with over 15
percent in the United States.
"There is a heightened awareness now, but Japan really lags
the rest of the world in terms of corporate governance," said
Melissa Otto, a director at asset manager TIAA-CREF.
To address such concerns, the government has recently
introduced a new stewardship code for institutional investors
and promoted a new stock index, the JPX400, which takes ROE into
Lawmakers last year, however, scrapped plans to include a
requirement for independent directors in a revision to company
law, following pressure from the politically powerful Keidanren
business lobby, which is now drawing up its own proposals in a
bid to stave off pressure for change.
It remains unclear how much detail the June announcement
will include, but sources say LDP lawmakers are hoping to at
least provide a outline of a new governance code that would
bring Japan in line with international standards. While not
legally binding, it would require companies to "comply or
explain" - an approach common in Britain and other parts of
Analysts, however, say real change will come slowly. Some
said forcing strict regulations may compel some companies to go
through the motions of compliance without embracing the spirit
of the reform.
A case in point could be Nintendo. After racking up losses
for three straight years as sales of its flagship game consoles
sagged, the company announced last week that it would nominate
one external director to its board for the first time.
But Chief Executive Satoru Iwata made clear the move was
neither a reversal of policy nor an acknowledgement of
long-running criticism that it had turned a deaf ear to
suggestions such as making its games available on smartphones.
He told Reuters that he believed Japan's governance system
still worked, but that nominating an external director was a
concession to the international consensus.
"The reality is that the world's attention is the way it is,
and it was time for us to reconsider our governance," he said.
(Additional reporting by Noriyuki Hirata and Sophie Knight;
Editing by Kim Coghill)