Japan’s Corporate Governance Conundrum, and How Investors Can Solve it

Out of more than 700 defined-benefit corporate pension plans in Japan, only five non-financial corporate pension plans have signed the SC. Second, a major portion of Japan’s asset owners are the companies themselves, in the form of direct “policy holdings” of the shares issued by other companies. Japan’s dual walls of “conflicted pension governance” and “allegiant shareholders” need to be torn down. Here is how it can be done.

How to Demolish Japan’s Wall of Yes-Man Allegiant Shareholders

By Nicholas Benes

The short story: it will not be so hard if institutional shareholders really want to topple it, and use the technique suggested here. But first, the background.


This is still the biggest defect of Japan’s equity market, and recent reforms have only made a small dent in it. At the average listed company, between 35% and 50% of the stock is owned by such holders if one includes not only firms in “cross-shareholding” relationships but also firms that unilaterally hold stock in order to win business; most holdings by
banks and insurance companies; and parent companies, subsidiaries, and affiliates. Consistent with this estimate, when Japanese listed companies were asked, “what percent of your shareholders can you count to support management?” in late 2017, fully more than two-thirds of companies responded with numbers in the 30-60% range.

These “policy holdings” by “stable shareholders” represent a massive misallocation of capital that is being put at risk largely for the purpose of protecting executive teams at other companies. In 1967, Japan’s one of Japan’s most venerated managers and the founder of Panasonic, Konosuke Matsushita, minced no words in noting his concern about the then-recent rise of “stable” cross-shareholdings in these words: “If this situation continues, I think it is in no way desirable, because of the risk that once again a maldistribution of capital in our country will occur. I believe that this is not a sign of progress in capitalism; rather, it should be considered as a sign that we are moving backwards.”

Public Comment to the METI Fair M&A Study Group (by Nicholas Benes)

As the person who initially proposed the Corporate Governance Code to the LDP in 2013 and 2014, I am well aware of its limitations in various areas. For this reason, I am very pleased that Fair M&A Study Group have decided that its discussions should cover not only MBOs, but also ”cases which are likewise significantly affected by the issues of conflict of interest and information asymmetry”[1], including “cases of acquisition of a controlled company by its controlling shareholder.”[2]

This indeed an important mission, because these topics include virtually all types of M&A transactions and the public statements of executives and boards with regard to them. For many years in the post-war era, the failure of the government and the JPX/TSE to set forth clear bright-line rules that facilitate a fair, robust M&A market in Japan has stunted productivity, dynamism and growth in the Japanese economy.

Amended, Detailed Public Comment by Nicholas Benes to JPX re: “Review of the TSE Cash Equity Market Structure”

NOTE:  This public comment supersedes and replaces the one that I, Nicholas Benes, submitted on January 12, 2019)

As the person who initially proposed the Corporate Governance Code to the LDP in 2013 and 2014, and suggested a number of principles in it, I am well aware of its limitations in various areas and the fact that Japan has not yet attained the quality level for an equity market that is expected by global investors. In this sense I am very pleased that the JPX has decided to review its equity market structure and related standards.

Challenges and Realities

This indeed an important mission, for which is it essential to recognize and discuss the impact of a number of challenges that Japan faces in improving governance, efficiency, and trustworthiness of its equity capital markets. These challenges include:

ICGN Urges Japan to Focus More on Independent Committees and Director Training, Other Key Areas

We are pleased to note that against the backdrop of the recent events at Nissan, the Institutional Corporate Governance Network (ICGN)  has submitted a letter to Japan’s Council of Experts for the Follow-up of Japan’s Stewardship Code and Corporate Governance Code, stressing the importance of independent directors, independent board committees, director training, use of a “skills matrix”, capital allocation, disclosures, and a number of other issues that BDTI has been stressing for many years,  – ever since its establishment in 2009, in fact.   On the topic of director training, Kerrie Waring of the ICGN wrote:

” ICGN encourages the introduction of high quality training for independent directors in Japan to help build an understanding of what their role entails, particularly in relation to monitoring management and public disclosures. This would help ensure objective decision-making in response to business issues and in alignment with the company’s vision, mission and strategy. We also stress the importance of financial literacy to ensure that independent directors are able to challenge management on issues such as capital efficiency, the use of cross shareholdings and CEO remuneration.”  (emphasis added) 

How Many Shares are Actually Held by “Allegiant Shareholders [1]”?

By Ken Hokugo[2]
Director, Head of Corporate Governance, Pension Fund Association
Director, The Board Director Training Institute of Japan

There has always been confusion surrounding this topic.  From the point of view of those who want to help foreign investors understand the realities of the Japanese market, the most troubling number that is thrown about is the seemingly magic number of “10% or less”.   This number is frequently referred to by the media, with the source given as being the reports by a certain analyst at a research institute that is affiliated with a prominent securities firm.

Quite often, we encounter foreign investors who casually believe this widely-touted number of “10% or less” and therefore are not concerned very much (if at all) with the issue of “cross-shareholdings”  in Japan, in light of recent improvements in Japan’s corporate governance.  Needless to say, it takes a lot of energy to convince such investors that the reality of the Japanese market is different.  In this post, I am not trying to scare foreign investors away from Japan’s stock markets, but rather trying to encourage them to invest based on an accurate understanding of the situation in the context of history, culture, and the overall current environment.

BDTI Update to Supporters, June 2018

Notes: (1) On this page (at top right), you can sign up to receive our English Newsletter; (2) Sign up to receive the (separate) Japanese Newsletter here; (3) Anyone can support the “SEO” of our web site simply by mentioning BDTI on any web page with a link to this page; (4) For details about the chart, see the overview materials.

” Dear Supporter:   I am writing to update you, and to respectfully ask you or your institution to make a donation of 300,000 Yen or more this year, either as a Sustaining Donor or as a Corporate Participating Member. (As explained below in section 5, the latter category now allows donors which are investing institutions to receive 40% discounts on all BDTI courses/seminars that are open to the public, and to share these discounts with companies in their portfolio.)

TBS is Not the Only One – 33 Other Major Companies with Large Investments in Securities

In light of the attention AVI’s shareholder proposal is drawing toward TBS’ huge “non-core” shareholdings in Tokyo Electron, and the light this is shedding on the continued practice of cross-shareholdings in Japan, we thought it would be helpful to screen for companies with similar characteristics.

AVI’s argument draws on solid corporate finance principles that companies should not be diversifying for shareholders when they can do so for themselves in a more efficient manner. Moreover, even when the company is suited toward asset management and has a solid track record for this (e.g., Softbank), investors expect to see behavior that shows that the (quasi) asset manager is exercising judgement as such on an ongoing basis. In other words, the company should exhibit buying and selling activity dictated by profitability and outside forces. In such cases, shareholders tend to view and value the company more as an asset manager than as a company in the originally-stated industry, and therefore expect such behavior.

BDTI/METRICAL CG Research Update: “Linkage between CG Practice and Value Creation”

BDTI and METRICAL collaborate on researching the linkage between CG practices sand value creation. We have recently released our updated analysis as of April 2018 for the roughly 1,800 publicly traded companies with market capitalization exceeding about JPY10 billion.

In this analysis, by examining board practices (CG guidelines, practices, and composition of the Board of Directors) and specific actions (real actions by a company) separately, we try to identify statistically significant correlations with financial performance measures (ROE, ROA, Tobin ‘s q) for each of these respectively – i.e, for, board practices and action respectively.

We have observed a certain degree of improvement in board practices since the introduction of the Corporate Governance Code.  However, assuming that one of the key goals of the corporation is value creation, in order to improve the effectiveness of engagement and stewardship it is very important to regularly analyze the way in which such improvement (and specifically, which improvements) appears to lead to value creation.

We can summarize the results of our recent analysis as follows:

Public Comment to the Proposed Revisions to Japan’s Governance Code – Nicholas Benes

by Nicholas Benes (as an individual)
April 30, 2018

1. Regarding the Overall Revision Process
2. Regarding Principle 2-6 (Activating the Function of Corporate Pension Funds as Asset Owners)
3. Regarding Principle 1-4 (“Policy Shareholdings”)
4. Regarding Principles 4-1③,4-3② and 4-3③ (Appointment and Termination of the CEO)
5. Regarding Principle 4-10① (The Use of Optional Structures)
6. Regarding Principle 4-14 (Training of Directors and Kansayaku)
7. Regarding Revision of the Machine-Readable Format of Corporate Governance Reports

(Note: This is a translation of a public comment which was originally written in Japanese and submitted in that form to the JPX/TSE.  The original version of the public comment is available here.)

1. Regarding the Overall Revision Process

I would like to express my thanks and appreciation for the hard work of the members of the Followup Committee with respect to this review of the Corporate Governance Code (the “CG Code”) . However,I would note that four years have elapsed since the initial drafting of the Code. As you know, in Germany there is a commission which monitors the effectiveness of the governance code on an ongoing basis, and proposes changes on a yearly basis if and as necessary.