Tokyo Stock Scandal Angers Small Investors, But May Spur Few Reforms

AFTERSHOCKS from Japan's stock scandal two weeks ago appear likely to have some impact on efforts to reform the market. But it remains to be seen whether such reforms will be more than cosmetic.The presidents of Japan's largest and third-largest brokerage houses resigned last week following disclosures by the government that their companies had provided financing to organized crime and reimbursed their biggest clients for millions of dollars in losses following last year's stock slide. The two firms - Nomura Securities Co. and Nikko Securities Co. - then lied about the nature of the payments, the government says. "I think all of the presidents [of Japan's top securities firms] should resign," says Sukejiro Itani, whose wife lost almost 10 million yen (about $71,000) on the stock market this year. "She didn't get compensated [for her stock losses]." "The system isn't fair," adds Mr. Itani, the director of a small real estate firm in Tokyo. "There seems to be one set of rules for the big brokers and the big, rich companies and another for people like us." So far, prosecutors have not released names of all those potentially involved, but there is widespread speculation that members of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party may be involved. The outcry over Nomura's activities "demonstrates that there's a kind of growing consciousness that some of the old rules are no longer acceptable," says Alicia Ogawa, a market analyst at S. G. Warburg & Co. Ms. Ogawa says the scandal may eventually lead to a restructuring to international standards: Last week's disclosures could become new fodder for foreign firms battling Japan's closed financial markets. And if few reforms result, foreign pressure could force change. But market watchers also point out that the pragmatic incentive is that the disclosures will likely help the securities industry here save money. By ordering an end to the practice of giving compensation to top clients for market losses, the Finance Ministry might help securities firms save millions. Last year, an estimated 70 percent of industry profits were paid out in compensation of one form or another - the highest such percentage in history. Tokyo financial experts say the ministry was all but certain to have known of the controversial compensation arrangements before the scandal broke: The disclosures come at a time when the financial markets in Japan need all the help they can get amid bruised profits from last year's stock market plunge and increasingly stiff competition from American securities firms. "One could almost hear the sighs of relief" when the Finance Ministry said mid-week it was considering outlawing the special compensation accounts, says Craig Chudler, a securities analyst with UBS Philips Drew Securities in Tokyo. "It had been getting costly to have them anymore." But don't look for significant reforms any time soon, says market analyst Robert Zielinski of Jardine Fleming Securities Ltd. Mr. Zielinski, author of a book critical of ingrained inequities in Japan's securities markets, says it is common for Japanese in the glare of a public scandal to resign, but that there is life after scolding. Already there is speculation that outgoing Nomura chief Yoshihisa Tabuchi might get his job back. When he resigned, he did not quit the company: A new post, that of vice-chairman, was created for him. At Thursday's shareholders meeting, Tabuchi denied there was anything wrong about the payments Nomura made to its big clients - who make up nearly two-thirds of its total. Confessions have occured before, as have cleanup efforts by government. "Not much is going to change as a result of this scandal," Zielinski says. The scandal comes two years after the Recruit Cosmos brouhaha felled Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and other politicians and businessmen. It also comes amid increasing public awareness of Yakuza crime syndicates, which are expanding from drugs and gambling into more sophisticated businesses. An investigation of mob involvement in the market is expected to turn up more skeletons. Amid such turmoil, there is growing political speculation that Mr. Takeshita may try to get his old job back this fall when Kaifu's term ends, and "it's enough to make anyone wonder if this market has simply gone the route of the dogs," Zielinski says.

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