Change is afoot at Japan Inc

Shares in Fanuc, a Japanese industrial robotics firm, have jumped sharply to new record highs in recent days. This follows an announcement that the notoriously secretive and investor-unfriendly company, Japan’s tenth-biggest by market value, is to establish a shareholder-relations department and start meeting stockholders. It is also considering returning cash to shareholders by raising its dividend and buying back stock.

These concessions to shareholders come after pressure from billionaire American investor Daniel Loeb, whose hedge fund Third Point owns a stake in Fanuc. Loeb has been agitating for the firm to make its money work harder for shareholders. His breakthrough is a rare victory for activist investors in Japan.

What the commentators said

Fanuc’s business is doing extremely well, as David Pilling noted on It is on track to grow profits by 67% this year, helped by operating margins of around 40%. However, it is sitting on cash of $8.5bn, which it has been reluctant to deploy. And it behaves “more like a cult than a normal company”. It doesn’t like visitors and publishes only “curt quarterly updates”. So it’s no wonder Loeb has been pushing for it to pay more attention to its shareholders.

The good news for Loeb, noted Eric Pfanner in The Wall Street Journal, is that he is pushing at an open door. Previous attempts to extract more value from Japan’s notoriously shareholder-hostile companies went nowhere, but revamping corporate governance is now a flagship government policy.

There is a new stewardship code for institutional investors, while the government pension fund, which is increasing its equity investments, will concentrate on a new index, the JPX-400, which was set up to highlight firms with better-than-average governance.

Not only should investing in stocks become more appealing, but the money from corporate cash piles should flow into the economy. About time, concluded William Pesek on Japan Inc. is finally making “important progress”.

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