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September 2008

[Originally posted, with full hyperlinks, at http://eastasiaforum.org/author/lukenottage/]

In 2003, financial journalist Gillian Tett wrote a book with a self-explanatory title: Saving the Sun: How Wall Street Mavericks Shook Up Japan’s Financial World and Made Billions (Harper Collins). It epitomized a school of thought proclaiming a dramatic shift in Japan towards US-style corporate governance more generally. On 24 September, still writing for the Financial Times, Tett concluded that if she were writing her book again, she “would give it a more upbeat slant. Anyone know the Japanese for ‘eating humble pie’?”. The Japan Society of Scotland has already suggested “sunao ni ayamaru (to apologise obediently without protesting)” or “memboku wo ushinau (to lose face)”! Japan’s big financial institutions are certainly now back on the world stage, picking up some big pieces from America’s own financial crisis. And Japanese policy-makers and other commentators now want to lecture the US on how to deal with it.

Who would have thought, even a year ago, that Nomura Securities would be buying up the now-insolvent Lehman Brothers’ operations in Asia (including those in Australia, involving a total 3000 employees – with half in Tokyo) and then Europe (2500 employees)? And for just US$225m and “a nominal sum”, respectively, out of cash reserves of almost $6b Nomura has raised since April? Or that Mitsubishi UFJ, which spent $3.5b to buy out the Union Bank of California, would now be committing up to $9b to take 10-20% of Morgan Stanley, another precarious “Big Five” Wall Street investment bank? Or that Sumitomo Mitsui, which recently spent $1b for 2% of Barclays bank in the UK (which in turn has bought Lehman’s US operations), is prepared to invest US$1-3b in Goldman Sachs if requested by that other precarious Wall Street firm? Or that Mizuho would have recently pumped $1.2b into Merrill Lynch, another troubled firm that took refuge with the Bank of America in a $50b merger announced on 15 September?

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