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Monday, June 24, 2002

THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

U.S. lessons Japan may prefer to skip


NEW YORK -- Americans love to learn and teach lessons. The Japanese love to seek and accept them.

The American propensity has been manifest, in recent months, in the reaction to what has now been abbreviated to "9-11" and in what the New York Times has called "the wave of corruption that seems to be engulfing much of corporate America." About the latter, in fact, the Times did a June 9 magazine special titled "The Long Hangover: Paying the Price for the Boom," with the parenthetical subtitle "What we learned -- and what we didn't."

That reminded me of the bewildering slew of Japanese attempts during the 1990s to learn from America.

Within the scope of corporate affairs alone, areas that the Japanese covered were -- are you ready? -- deregulation; restructuring; the means of corporate financing (banks or stocks); mergers and acquisitions, or M&A; the type of "professionalism" required of the elite employee (generalist vs. specialist); the treatment of employees (lifetime employment vs. "flexibility"); academic-industrial relations; small business; Chapter 11; entrepreneurship; 401(k); stock options; business incubation; venture capital; transparency; and corporate governance. The list is far from complete.

Japan, of course, has been trying to learn from others since the beginnings of its history. But the efforts expended during the 1990s were remarkable, especially compared with the preceding decade. In the 1980s Japan had reached its economic height, inspiring awe in the rest of the world. It even made its first attempts to "teach" a few things to the United States. I don't need to talk about what happened in the 1990s.

Nonetheless, as my compatriots' attempts to learn revived and intensified, I couldn't help wondering why they didn't act like members of a respectably industrialized nation. If they identify a problem, they should try to work out a solution on their own, I thought, instead of sending forth droves of special researchers to this country to find an answer.

This wonderment was, in truth, nothing new to me. Long before the onset of the decade of economic difficulties that the Japanese today routinely characterize as "lost," I had felt there was something unseemly about a country too eager to learn from others.

In the 1990s, in any case, as the Japanese search for lessons intensified, so did the American eagerness to teach. In the process, both sides seemed to lose sight of a universal truth. Certain things may work wonders but only in certain circumstances and for a limited period of time. No one really knows what may happen next.

Also, in their mutual eagerness, Americans and Japanese often overlook obvious incongruities.

Take deregulation. For more than a dozen years the U.S. has been preaching this gospel to Japan. Aside from the Californian energy debacle not long ago, though, anyone capable of a moment's thought should have realized there was something odd about the American message. One source of America's pride is Congress, "the greatest deliberative body in the world." Congress' business is to churn out legislation, which, in turn, requires reams of rules and regulations. Look at the U.S. Code Annotated and the Code of Federal Regulations! Then consider the number of lawyers needed to interpret them!

The readiness of the U.S. to assume the pedagogue's role and Japan to accept the student's also creates untenable situations for the student if only because this particular teacher is always on the move for new experiences. For the teacher, a failure is just another experience to learn a lesson from. But when he stops to mull over a lesson, the student is still in the midst of the experience that has proven unwise.

If that turn of events was an embarrassment, the next embarrassment may come from the adoption of stock options or from the M&A pursuit.

Japan introduced stock options in the early 1990s as a means of lifting corporate morale, Japanese officials explained, and the scheme took off in the second half of that decade. As it has turned out, of course, this compensation scheme has been implicated in the latest round of corporate mismanagement in America. Chairman Alan Greenspan of the Federal Reserve Board, for one, is now urging that its tax treatment be changed.

Meanwhile, Japanese firms, especially those in banking, pursued American-style M&A with vengeance, creating improbable behemoths -- an astonishing development to someone who remembers when many of these banks individually dominated the world's top 10. That was during the period -- so transient and now remembered only with faint sarcasm -- when there was talk of the upcoming Pax Japonica.

I'm afraid that these giant mergers will fail. I arrived in this country when creating "conglomerates" was the rage. They are all gone now. As for the frenzied M&A pace during the past decade, a recent Wall Street Journal report was headlined "Firms That Lived by the Deal in '90s Now Sink by the Dozens." Managing a large corporation is well-nigh impossible, or so the redoubtable Wall Street economist Henry Kaufman observed not long ago.

Lessons are hard to learn. If the conglomerates, from the end of 1960s to the early 1970s, were a form of corporate excess, the excess took the form of pure greed in the 1980s -- "the golden age of junk," as one writer called it. Predictably, a gallery of books exposed the shenanigans of the likes of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky. It was only after Americans were supposed to have learned these lessons that Kenneth Lay, Dennis Kozlowski and the others like them emerged to pursue an even purer form of greed. And no one stopped them.

To deal with the latest round of corporate excesses, the New York Stock Exchange set up a Corporate Accountability and Listing Standards Committee, which on June 6 issued a set of recommendations. The Securities and Exchange Commission immediately endorsed it. But the Wall Street Journal was skeptical. The matter has to do with self-policing, which seldom works. And the actions the NYSE recommends do not go far enough.

I am glad to be able to report that many Japanese are aware of the dangers of accepting American practices wholesale. Corporate governance is one subject on which Japan sent many researchers to this country. Many papers must have come out of the investigations. I have looked at one of them. It is cautious.

It points out that the usual dichotomy between Japanese corporations, which are supposed to stress the importance of their employees, and American corporations, which are supposed to stress the importance of their stockholders, may not be entirely valid.

As for the narrowly defined area of corporate governance, which has to do with the role and authority of the board of directors, the report doesn't come out wholly on the side of the recommendations made by an American entity. That's a good thing because, when the report was put together two years ago, the American model was beginning to show signs of unraveling.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.


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