March 29, 2018 / 10:26 AM / 4 months ago

Activist investors say their voices are being heard by Japan Inc

TOKYO (Reuters) - Activist investors in Japan may be struggling to get companies to embrace their proposals but are optimistic that management is warming to shareholder activism that will likely shape more of Corporate Japan’s decision making.

Japan's national flag is seen in front of a crane at a construction site at a business district in Tokyo, Japan, January 5, 2017. Picture taken on January 5, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Activist investment has been gaining momentum since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe advocated strengthening corporate governance, and the peak season of annual general meetings in June could see more of such proactive shareholders attempt to influence management.

Japanese asset manager Sparx Asset Management’s (8739.T) proposals to synthetic fiber maker Teikoku Sen-i (3302.T) were rejected at its annual shareholder meeting on Thursday, according to a preliminary announcement from the company.

These included tripling dividend payouts from the current 30 yen ($0.28) per share and halving board members’ terms. Details of the actual vote will only be available next week.

Nevertheless, Sparx does not think it is leaving the meeting empty-handed. Teikoku Sen-i did announce a small increase in dividend last month.

People walk on a crosswalk at a business district in central Tokyo, Japan September 29, 2017. Picture taken September 29, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

“I think our proposal did have an effect. They surely don’t want to do exactly what we asked. But if we hadn’t made the proposal, they probably would not have raised dividend,” said Shuhei Abe, founder and chief executive officer of Sparx.

A Teikoku Sen-i spokesman said the dividend hike was to celebrate the company’s 110th year anniversary in 2017 and to reward investors for their support, and declined to comment on the shareholder proposals.

Abe also said active engagement helps improve shareholder value.

“Considering the globalisation of the market and Japan’s market and economic situation, we firmly believe the tides have already turned toward shareholders actively raising issues and having constructive dialog with firms, and that this trend will continue to grow stronger,” Abe said.

In another battle, Hong Kong-based hedge fund Oasis Management said on Tuesday its six proposals to Japanese internet and cryptocurrency firm GMO Internet (9449.T) were rejected at its AGM last week.

But Oasis said it was encouraged by the fact that some of its proposals won support from nearly 90 percent of minority shareholders who voted, including some domestic institutional shareholders.

Their proposals were voted down largely because of a 41 percent stake its founder and CEO Masatoshi Kumagai and his personal office hold.

“This vote makes it clear that investors in Japan will stand up and make their voices heard by voting for positive corporate governance changes, against recommendations of management, whose interests have unfortunately deviated from what’s best for the company and all stakeholders,” said Seth Fischer, founder and Chief Investment Officer at Oasis.

GMO’s Kumagai said he appreciates that Oasis’s proposals are aimed at boost GMO’s value, and asked other investors to understand that management and Oasis are not in confrontation.

Meanwhile, San Francisco-based activist hedge fund ValueAct Capital, a mostly long-term value investor, said it was considering making its first investment in Japan this year.

Allison Bennington, partner of the fund, said ValueAct is aware that activist funds have long been viewed as “vultures” in Japan but its approach will be more constructive.

($1 = 106.6000 yen)

Editing by Jacqueline Wong

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