Whither MAS (Malaysia Airlines) in a Political Blame Game


July 18, 2017

Whither MAS (Malaysia Airlines) in a Political Blame Game

by P. Gunasegaram@www.malaysiakini.com

But the way it is going, it may be that Malaysia Airlines may eventually become somewhere between a low-cost and full-service airline, neither here nor there, floundering between small profits and losses – an inconsequential airline in other words. What a comedown for a once proud brand!–P. Gunasegaram

During electioneering, it is common to make political capital out of everything. Malaysia Airlines Bhd was not spared when Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak blamed one of his “predecessors” at a Hari Raya open house earlier this month for “horrendous decisions”.

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Malaysia Airlines (MAS)An Inconsequential  National Carrier

He was very obviously referring to former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, although he did not name him. But to be fair, Mahathir was not responsible for the latest disaster at Malaysia Airlines. Paradoxically this happened largely during Najib’s time.

This latest disaster which resulted in losses of billions of ringgit and required a RM6 billion injection of capital and privatisation in 2014 by Khazanah Nasional Bhd, the previous major shareholder and now sole shareholder, resulted after Malaysia Airlines was turned around in 2007.

What Najib was referring to was the previous disastrous privatisation of Malaysia Airlines, to a Mahathir-Daim crony Tajudin Ramli who bought a controlling near 30% stake in the airline in 1994 for RM1.8 billion. After mismanaging the airline into the ground, he sold back his stake in the airline to the government – at the same price – in 2000. The market price was less than half that.

Turned around in 2007

Najib’s immediate predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi brought in Idris Jala from Shell to turn around Malaysia Airlines in 2005, the same Idris who would head the Performance Management and Delivery Unit or Pemandu at the PM’s Department in 2009 and join the cabinet.

Two years later, in 2007, Malaysia Airlines had turned around. In Idris’ first year on the job, he reduced the losses to RM133 million and turned the company back into the black with a record profit of RM853 million in 2007, according to this letter written by a former investor relations manager at Malaysia Airlines, Song Eu Jin, to Malaysiakini.

“The profit in 2007 was the highest in MAS’ corporate history and was earned through a massive operational cost reduction of RM745 million as well as on the back of record revenues of RM9.4 billion. The profit numbers were real as reflected in the cash balance at that time of RM5.3 billion which had grown from RM1.5 billion at the end of 2005, when Idris joined MAS (Malaysia Airline’s forerunner),” the letter said.

But in 2009, Idris left Malaysia Airlines to join Najib’s cabinet and head Pemandu. A succession of CEOs after him proved to be incapable and sent the airline down back into losses of billions of ringgit yet again. And no mistake about it, this happened during Najib’s time.

Horrendous decisions but by whom?

This is what Najib said at the open house: “The history of MAS was fraught with, I would say, horrendous decisions in the past. I’m not going down that road but that was a nightmare that was inflicted upon MAS that was done by one of my predecessors.

“But I will put it right. I will make sure MAS recovers and becomes one of the leading airlines in the world,” said Najib to applause from thousands in the audience present at the event. How ironic that is when the latest problems occurred during his time entirely.

I have followed the Malaysia Airlines saga over the years – from the 80s onwards and read up its history before that. Idris did turn the airline around solidly although it incurred a huge hedging loss of RM557 million in 2009 on fuel when fuel prices fell. The contracts had to be marked to market.

The way he did this was to focus on two things – yield and load factor. Yield represents the unit amount that the airline got from selling tickets and load factor is a measure of how much aircraft are filled. The right pricing of seats results in the best combination in terms of unit revenues from seats sold and load factor to maximise revenue.

In practice, this revenue management system is extremely complicated and uses sophisticated computer modelling which critically requires right inputs. That focus helped Malaysia Airlines increase revenues, helped along by an important fact – the airlines’ services were among the best in the world, as measured by Skytrax, the industry standard by which airlines are measured. Skytrax gave five-star status to Malaysia Airlines, with less than two handfuls among hundreds of airlines in the world qualifying.

Meantime, on the cost side, Malaysia Airlines’ was among the lowest in the world for full-service carriers but still advances were made here as well. The combined reduction in costs with an accompanying increase in revenues was what turned Malaysia Airlines around under Idris.

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AirAsia–The Award Winning Low Cost Carrier 9x in a row and Global Brand

Subsequent CEOs lost focus. They thought budget carrier AirAsia was the competition when Malaysia Airlines was a full-service, five-star airline. Yield dropped, load factors went up too much but still revenues were not enough. Fuel prices continued to climb, exerting further pressure. Revenue management deteriorated. And then came the two unfortunate crashes of 2014 (MH 370 and MH 17) which depressed revenues even further.

When Khazanah Nasional came in with their recovery programme during and post privatisation in 2014, I was flummoxed – nothing about revenue management, it was about cutting costs. But with unit costs for Malaysia Airlines still among the lowest in the full-service industry, revenue management was the key.

Enter Mueller

Khazanah Nasional went on a worldwide search for a CEO and found Christoph Mueller, a German, who reputedly turned around Ireland’s Aer Lingus. He joined in May 2015. He continued with extreme cost-cutting, shrunk the airline to a regional one, maintaining one flight to Europe, London. He made a deal with Emirates (the airline) for code sharing, all but killing Malaysia Airlines’ more international routes.

I was not impressed with him – turnaround means making unprofitable routes profitable, not cutting them and keeping only profitable ones – any fool can do that and show a profit, albeit a shrunken one which will never recover to the levels seen before. It meant that Malaysia Airlines’ main competitors would be the low-cost airlines – yes, AirAsia again.

Mueller’s cost-cutting would lose Malaysia Airlines five-star rating, one of its main assets. Because of the drop in level of service as a result of severe cutbacks, Malaysia Airlines asked not to be rated anymore. Insiders maintain to me that he was scathing about that rating, saying that many airlines had better service than Malaysia Airlines.

That and the frequent reference to Malaysia Airlines’ previous two crashes – both of which could not be pinned on the airline itself – made me wonder whether he was the best person to be running Malaysia Airlines. On the one hand, he runs down highly-rated services, on the other he makes frequent references to crashes to show his difficult position, both not in the interests of the airline itself.

Barely a year into his three-year tenure, Mueller announced his intention to resign “for personal reasons” but six months later in September 2016, he joined Emirates as chief digital officer, the same airline with which he negotiated the code-share agreement as CEO of Malaysia Airlines. What a conflict of interest!

On balance, my opinion is that Mueller was bad for Malaysia Airlines and I find it difficult to understand why his hiring did not have stringent conditions attached about joining competitor airlines.

His successor Irishman Peter Bellew, who took over in July 2016, was then chief operations officer at Malaysia Airlines. He was hired from low-cost airline Ryanair and had no experience in a full-service airline before that. However, he has said that Malaysia Airlines is trying to regain its 5-star status.

Recently I travelled to and fro London on Malaysia Airlines and the service and quality of food have indeed improved, a good sign. But it will take more than that to successfully turn around Malaysia Airlines.

An inconsequential airline

A targeted profit only in 2018 is rather late in the day given that most airlines made good profits recently because of the sharp drop in fuel prices. Despite all that cost-cutting and low fuel prices, Malaysia Airlines is bleeding. Why?

The answer lies in revenue management – how come Malaysia Airlines fares can be lower than AirAsia’s which is a low-cost airline. Surely that is indication that prices have been too low, especially since load factors remain high? Malaysia Airlines has got revenue management wrong and it still remains suspect.

And then strategy – how can you expect to succeed regionally as a full-service airline when there are so many low-cost airlines in the space? Surely you must try the longer international routes and make them profitable instead.

The times I have flown to London on the airline, the flights were full on the A380s. Yet Malaysia Airlines has plans to downgrade this route using lower capacity, smaller A350s. This will substantially reduce its competitiveness in terms of comfort relative to other major full-service carriers.

One more thing, since privatisation nobody knows how much money Malaysia Airlines is losing and what are its yields and load factors. Its performance has become rather opaque because the quarterly reports are not anything like what it was before when it was publicly listed. That makes it more difficult to make conclusions.

But the way it is going, it may be that Malaysia Airlines may eventually become somewhere between a low-cost and full-service airline, neither here nor there, floundering between small profits and losses – an inconsequential airline in other words.

What a comedown for a once proud brand!


P GUNASEGARAM says that Malaysia Airlines has been repeatedly grounded by poor management, not by the alleged inefficiency of its staff. E-mail: t.p.guna@gmail.com.

 

A New Course for Economic Liberalism


July 17, 2017

A New Course for Economic Liberalism

by Sebastian Buckup

Sebastian Buckup is Head of Programming at the World Economic Forum.

How policymakers can manage the opposing forces of economic diffusion and concentration.

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The New Man in France–President Emmanuel Macron

Since the Agrarian Revolution, technological progress has always fueled opposing forces of diffusion and concentration. Diffusion occurs as old powers and privileges corrode; concentration occurs as the power and reach of those who control new capabilities expands. The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution will be no exception in this regard.

Already, the tension between diffusion and concentration is intensifying at all levels of the economy. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, trade grew twice as fast as GDP, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. Thanks to the globalization of capital and knowledge, countries were able to shift resources to more productive and higher-paying sectors. All of this contributed to the diffusion of market power.

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But this diffusion occurred in parallel with an equally stark concentration. At the sectoral level, a couple of key industries – most notably, finance and information technology – secured a growing share of profits. In the United States, for example, the financial sector generates just 4% of employment, but accounts for more than 25% of corporate profits. And half of US companies that generate profits of 25% or more are tech firms.

The same has occurred at the organizational level. The most profitable 10% of US businesses are eight times more profitable than the average firm. In the 1990s, the multiple was only three.

Such concentration effects go a long way toward explaining rising economic inequality. Research by Cesar Hidalgo and his colleagues at MIT reveals that, in countries where sectoral concentration has declined in recent decades, such as South Korea, income inequality has fallen. In those where sectoral concentration has intensified, such as Norway, inequality has risen.

A similar trend can be seen at the organizational level. A recent study by Erling Bath, Alex Bryson, James Davis, and Richard Freeman showed that the diffusion of individual pay since the 1970s is associated with pay differences between, not within, companies. The Stanford economists Nicholas Bloom and David Price confirmed this finding, and argue that virtually the entire increase in income inequality in the US is rooted in the growing gap in average wages paid by firms.

Such outcomes are the result not just of inevitable structural shifts, but also of decisions about how to handle those shifts. In the late 1970s, as neoliberalism took hold, policymakers became less concerned about big firms converting profits into political influence, and instead worried that governments were protecting uncompetitive companies.

With this in mind, policymakers began to dismantle the economic rules and regulations that had been implemented after the Great Depression, and encouraged vertical and horizontal mergers. These decisions played a major role in enabling a new wave of globalization, which increasingly diffused growth and wealth across countries, but also laid the groundwork for the concentration of income and wealth within countries.

The growing “platform economy” is a case in point. In China, the e-commerce giant Alibaba is leading a massive effort to connect rural areas to national and global markets, including through its consumer-to-consumer platform Taobao. That effort entails substantial diffusion: in more than 1,000 rural Chinese communities – so-called “Taobao Villages” – over 10% of the population now makes a living by selling products on Taobao. But, as Alibaba helps to build an inclusive economy comprising millions of mini-multinationals, it is also expanding its own market power.

Policymakers now need a new approach that resists excessive concentration, which may create efficiency gains, but also allows firms to hoard profits and invest less. Of course, Joseph Schumpeter famously argued that one need not worry too much about monopoly rents, because competition would quickly erase the advantage. But corporate performance in recent decades paints a different picture: 80% of the firms that made a return of 25% or more in 2003 were still doing so ten years later. (In the 1990s, that share stood at about 50%.)

To counter such concentration, policymakers should, first, implement smarter competition laws that focus not only on market share or pricing power, but also on the many forms of rent extraction, from copyright and patent rules that allow incumbents to cash in on old discoveries to the misuse of network centrality. The question is not “how big is too big,” but how to differentiate between “good” and “bad” bigness. The answer hinges on the balance businesses strike between value capture and creation.

Moreover, policymakers need to make it easier for startups to scale up. A vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem remains the most effective antidote to rent extraction. Digital ledger technologies, for instance, have the potential to curb the power of large oligopolies more effectively than heavy-handed policy interventions. Yet economies must not rely on markets alone to bring about the “churn” that capitalism so badly needs. Indeed, even as policymakers pay lip service to entrepreneurship, the number of startups has declined in many advanced economies.

Finally, policymakers must move beyond the neoliberal conceit that those who work hard and play by the rules are those who will rise. After all, the flipside of that perspective, which rests on a fundamental belief in the equalizing effect of the market, is what Michael Sandel calls our “meritocratic hubris”: the misguided idea that success (and failure) is up to us alone.

This implies that investments in education and skills training, while necessary, will not be sufficient to reduce inequality. Policies that tackle structural biases head-on – from minimum wages to, potentially, universal basic income schemes – are also needed.

Neoliberal economics has reached a breaking point, causing the traditional left-right political divide to be replaced by a different split: between those seeking forms of growth that are less inclined toward extreme concentration and those who want to end concentration by closing open markets and societies. Both sides challenge the old orthodoxies; but while one seeks to remove the “neo” from neoliberalism, the other seeks to dismantle liberalism altogether.

The neoliberal age had its day. It is time to define what comes next.

 

Understanding the Productivity Puzzle


January 21, 2017

Understanding the Productivity Puzzle

by Howard Davies

https://www.project-syndicate.org/columnist/howard-davies

Howard Davies, the first chairman of the United Kingdom’s Financial Services Authority (1997-2003), is Chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland. He was Director of the London School of Economics (2003-11) and served as Deputy Governor of the Bank of England and Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry.

 

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In all major economies, the so-called productivity puzzle continues to perplex economists and policymakers: output per hour is significantly lower than it would have been had the pre-2008 growth trend continued. The figures are stark, particularly so in the United Kingdom, but also across the OECD. And while it goes without saying that economists have many ingenious explanations to offer, none has yet proved persuasive enough to create a consensus.

According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, output per hour in France was 14% lower in 2015 than it would have been had the previously normal trend growth rate been matched. Output was 9% lower in the United States and 8% lower in Germany, which has remained the top performer among developed economies, albeit only in relative terms. If this new, lower growth rate persists, by 2021 average incomes in the US will be 16% lower than they would have been had the US maintained the roughly 2% annual productivity gain experienced since 1945.

The UK exhibits a particularly chronic case of the syndrome. British productivity was 9% below the OECD average in 2007; by 2015, the gap had widened to 18%. Strikingly, UK productivity per hour is fully 35% below the German level, and 30% below that of the US. Even the French could produce the average British worker’s output in a week, and still take Friday off. It would seem that, in addition to the factors affecting all developed economies, the UK has particularly weak management.

Some contributing factors are generally acknowledged. During the crisis and its immediate aftermath, when banks’ efforts to rebuild capital constrained new lending, ultra-low interest rates kept some firms’ heads above water, and their managers retained employees, despite making a relatively low return.

On the other hand, new, more productive, and innovative firms found it hard to raise the capital they needed to grow, so they either did not expand, or did so by substituting labor for capital. In other words, low interest rates held productivity down by allowing heavily indebted zombie companies to survive for longer than they otherwise would have done.

The Bank of England has acknowledged that trade-off, estimating that productivity would have been 1-3% higher in the UK had it raised interest rates to pre-crisis levels in the recovery phase. But they believe the consequences – slower income growth and higher unemployment – would have been unacceptable.

This argument has now been extended beyond the banking system, to the capital markets themselves. Critics of central banks have claimed that a sustained policy of exceptionally low interest rates, reinforced by huge doses of quantitative easing, have caused asset prices to rise indiscriminately. That has not only had adverse consequences for the distribution of wealth; it has also muted the ability of capital markets to distinguish between productive, high-potential firms and others that deserve to fail. According to this view, a rising tide lifts even fundamentally unseaworthy boats.

This argument has some explanatory power, though it says little about the value added by highly paid asset managers and whether they really are prepared to put their money to work simply on the basis of a monetary-policy effect on relative prices, paying no attention to individual companies’ strategies and performance. But the key question the argument raises is what to do about it.

Would it really have been preferable to tighten policy far earlier, to kill off weaker companies in the interests of improving productivity? The BoE has given an explicit answer, and the other major central banks implicit answers, to that question. They do not think so.

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http://www.institutionalinvestor.com/Article/3315202/The-Great-Divide-over-Market-Efficiency.html#.WUpY4elRPIU

A preferable approach to resolving the problem might be more vigorous use of the tools available to market regulators. These authorities tend to focus more on investor protection than on the allocational efficiency of the markets they oversee. Investor protection is important, of course, but as the Nobel laureate Eugene Fama put it, “the primary role of the capital market is allocation of ownership of the economy’s capital stock.”

A regulator focused on that objective would be especially rigorous in overseeing the transparent disclosure of information, and would seek to promote vigorous competition among companies and also, crucially for this objective, among investors. It should not be acceptable for asset managers to earn extravagant returns for following a market benchmark.

There are, no doubt, other dimensions to the productivity puzzle. Maybe we are not measuring output well. As developed economies become more service-based, our measures of output become less objective. In many service industries, outputs are effectively measured by inputs. Maybe we are not measuring enhancements in quality, which may mean that output increases are understated. Maybe we have reached a point at which the productivity boost from Internet-based technology has been cashed, and we need another technological leap to move forward again.

But one key challenge for central banks, as we edge toward the normalization of interest rates, will be to develop a framework for thinking about the impact of monetary policy on the allocation of capital. The task is urgent, as the social and political implications of a prolonged period of no productivity or real wage growth may be very serious. Indeed, arguably they have been factors behind the political upheavals in the US and the UK already.

FGV Falls from Grace but Isa Samad Stays: Governance Malaysian Style


June 16, 2017

FGV Falls from Grace but Isa Samad Stays: Governance Malaysian Style

by P.Gunasegarm@www.malaysiakini.com

A QUESTION OF BUSINESS | The latest fallout at Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) controlled Felda Global Ventures Ventures Holdings Bhd (FGV), is just a continuation of the wrong and highly questionable actions of the company since listing in 2012.

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The solution is to simply go back to basics which means that FGV should stick to the business it knows well – oil palm plantations and related processing. It should pay fair prices for related acquisitions, not astronomical sums. And be run by competent professional managers who understand the business and are straight.

But too much damage has already been done by these actions and it will be some time before it recovers completely.

In the latest controversy, FGV board chairperson Isa Abdul Samad announced on June 6 that FGV CEO Zakaria Arshad was to take an immediate leave of absence. He added that it was a board decision.

Apart from Zakaria, FGV chief finance officer Ahmad Tifli Mohd Talha, FGV Trading chief executive officer Ahmad Salman Omar and Delima Oil Products Sdn Bhd senior general manager Kamarzaman Abd Karim were also suspended.

Zakaria hit back saying he had tried to stop hundreds of millions in investments by the company’s board which he described as “ridiculous”.

Amongst the investments, he said, were plans for a 100 million pound sterling (approximately RM551 million) expansion of Felda Cambridge Nanosystems Ltd, a nanocarbon company, which had already lost RM117 million in the last three to four years.

“Now they (the FGV board) want to expand, they need another 100 million pounds. To me this is ridiculous, we’re a plantation company,” he was quoted as saying by The Star.

To understand what is going on, it is necessary to go back into FGV’s short history. While it was listed in mid-2012 with high hopes that it will provide great returns for Felda settlers who hold a direct stake, Felda which holds about a 34% stake and various government institutions including the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), the share performance has been atrocious.

When it was first listed on June 28, 2012 confidence was so high that it opened higher than expected over its initial public offer (IPO) price of RM4.55. Reuters reported: “Malaysian palm oil firm Felda Global surged 20 percent in its trading debut on Thursday (June 28, 2012) as investors cheered on the world’s second largest IPO after Facebook’s botched float and the company pledged stronger profits in the coming months.

“The firm raised US$3.1 billion (about RM10 billion then) in Asia’s biggest initial public offering of this year, running against the global gloom in IPO markets and giving the government a political dividend ahead of what is likely to be a closely fought election (the 2013 general election).”

FGV closed that day at RM5.30, some 16% higher than its IPO price but it has been downhill all the way after that, reflecting poor results and an extreme lack of market confidence in the share following a string of poor purchases over the years, squandering some RM4.46 billion net that came directly to FGV from the issue of new shares from the IPO.

Between June 28, 2012 and its last trading day on Friday, FGV’s share price went from RM5.30 to RM1.66, wiping out nearly seven-tenths of its market value. Even comparing with the IPO price of RM4.55, the drop was over 63% – more than six-tenths of value was lost. The EPF itself lost RM203 million when it sold off some of its investments in FGV.

If one thought that this decline in value is because of a general decline in plantation stocks generally, they are wrong. Bursa Malaysia’s plantation index, which aggregates the performance of major plantation companies, declined just 6% over the same period, or about a twentieth of its value against FGV’s seven-tenths, a rate of decline which was 20 times higher.

Acquisition spree

FGV’s acquisition spree under previous CEO Mohd Emir Mavani Abdullah included the takeover of Pontian United Plantations Bhd for RM1.2 billion, Asia Plantation Ltd for RM628 million and RM2.2 billion for Felda Holdings Bhd, and 836 ha of oil palm land from Golden Land Bhd for RM655 million cash.

It culminated in a deal with the Rajawali Group announced in June 2015 for FGV to acquire a 37% stake in PT Eagle High Plantations (EHP) and 93% to 95% stakes in Rajawali Group’s sugar project, in all worth about US$680 million (about RM2.9 billion) in cash and FGV stock.

Emir was strangely involved in a corruption case earlier this month when an employee of The Star newspaper was charged in the Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court with receiving RM20,000 in bribes. M Youganesparan was accused of receiving the money from Emir at The Intermark Hotel, Jalan Tun Razak about 9.15pm on May 30 this year.

By the time the Eagle High acquisition was announced, FGV needed to borrow money to do the deal as it had exhausted the RM4.46 billion from IPO proceeds. The deal was heavily criticised as being way too expensive, even by the EPF, at an estimated 70% premium to market. Also Peter Sondakh, the founder and owner of the Rajawali group was said to be part of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s inner circle and served as his adviser on Indonesian affairs.

Fortunately CEO Zakaria Arshad, appointed on April 1, 2016 and the same one who is now on a leave of absence, nixed the deal, which was officially aborted in July 2016 after FGV started negotiations to restructure the deal in December 2015. Eventually in December 2016, the Eagle High deal was done with Felda which paid US$505 million (about RM2.2 billion) a quarter less, for the same deal.

Zakaria also cut other merger and acquisition deals saying that FGV should concentrate on the plantation business instead, in all saving FGV at least RM4 billion in spending.

Isa was chairman of both FGV and Felda at this time but was replaced as Felda chairman in January this year by another politician Shahrir Samad, although it was not clear why he was replaced. Isa, during Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s time as Umno president, was found guilty of money politics in 2005 and suspended from the party for six years. He had to give up his post as UMNO Vice-President and Federal Territories Minister.

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Idris Jala–The Financial Whiz appointed to fix GFV

Now former cabinet minister Idris Jala is supposed to look into this whole mess and make his recommendations. But at the end of the day, the solution is very straight forward. First, appoint people with impeccable credentials to the board and ensure that there is board diversity, independence and honesty.

Don’t just cram them chock full with politicians, often of dubious quality even then, and civil servants who know little or nothing about the corporate world and how it operates. Directors collectively should have expertise which covers all aspects of running a business.

Then pick a CEO with proven credentials and give him a free hand to run the company within the broad guidelines and mandate set out by the shareholders and the board. Make him accountable for set targets.

The needless failure of FGV is that of basic corporate governance. At the heart of this is the hijacking of what could have been a good, solid plantation company by the politicians for their own purpose, in the process screwing Felda settlers, investors and other stakeholders.


P GUNASEGARAM says too much is discussed but too little is done about corporate governance in Malaysia, even for listed companies. What happens with unlisted government companies, he wonders. E-mail: t.p.guna@gmail.com.

 

Saving the Global Trading System


May 22, 2017

Saving the Global Trading System

By Editors,  Eastasiaforum.com

International trade and investment lift living standards. The evidence for this is irrefutable. And modern economic development is not possible without opening up to international markets, competition and capital.

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But the world is re-learning the hard way, through Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, that institutions and policies that protect the immediate losers from trade are needed to realise and sustain the benefits of open markets. Having a healthy and a well-functioning macroeconomic environment — one that delivers what economists call full employment — and a flexible labour market are crucial. So is having an effective social protection system.

When economic growth slows it is harder for the winners from globalisation to compensate the losers. The United States’ slow recovery from the global financial crisis, which hit close to 10 years ago, has brought these underlying structural problems into sharp focus. The social safety net is in tatters with the healthcare system, education system and redistributive policies exacerbating inequality — inequality in both opportunity and outcome — and bringing into question the American dream.

Australia, Japan, and many other countries have been able to avoid the retreat from globalisation thanks to well-functioning social protection systems. There may have been an inclination in many countries to adopt US institutions since it is the richest, most advanced and powerful economy in the world, but the lesson from Trump’s rise is a clear warning that now is the time to double down on the social safety net when embracing free and open markets.

When times are tough in any country there is immense pressure to put up barriers to foreign competition as a way to protect domestic producers. Protection may bring short-term relief to some parts of society and have short-term political appeal but is a cost to society as a whole, as well as to other countries.

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The global trading system has been stopping countries from committing self-harm for 70 years. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which later became the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was created in response to countries’ retreating to protectionism after the Great Depression. Countries voluntarily signed up to be bound by the rules and norms of that system and to have disputes with other countries settled within that system.

The 153-member WTO is far from perfect but it has underpinned successful globalisation. The large membership and diverse interests of the WTO have frustrated the completion of the Doha Round of trade negotiations. The WTO does not cover foreign direct investment and many other issues relevant to commerce in the 21st century. But its dispute settlement mechanism continues to function well and has resolved trade frictions that in an earlier time may have escalated into trade if not military conflict. High profile, geo-politically charged disputes such as the alleged Chinese rare-earth metal export embargo against Japan have been resolved peacefully in the WTO with China accepting the ruling against it.

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Three Amigos from of WTO, World Bank and IMF

In this week’s lead essay, Director General of the WTO, Roberto Azevêdo, reminds us that a ‘strong, rules-based trading system is essential for global economic stability’ and explains how that system can be re-energised.

Multilateral trade deals required all members to sign on to the entire agreement, called a single-undertaking, that made it harder to complete the latest round of negotiations, the Doha Round, as the issues became more complex and the number of countries increased. Azevêdo explains the WTO is ‘learning to be ambitious, but also to be pragmatic, realistic and flexible’, as well as ‘creative, finding innovative solutions and engaging in flexible formats’.

That is all good news for making progress on freeing up trade and reviving slumping global trade growth. But the bigger risk is that the WTO itself could be under threat from the United States, the very country that led its creation and which has underwritten the rules-based order for the past 70 years. The United States and Europe have provided a tailwind for the global economic system but have now turned to become the headwind against its forward movement.

President Trump has not carried through on many of his campaign promises and the world holds its breath in the hope that continues. While he withdrew the United States from the 12 member regional trade agreement the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he has not acted on tearing up existing trade agreements, starting a trade war with China or Mexico, or withdrawing from the WTO. But if jobs do not return in the American rust belt — perhaps as US interest rates rise and the dollar strengthens, or just because many of those jobs are gone for good — and Trump needs to demonstrate action on trade, the world will need to be ready to hold the line against following suit and to save the entire system.

Azevêdo explains that East Asia and the Pacific have a key role to play in boosting trade for jobs, growth and development. Asia will play the key role in saving the global trading system and global economy, if it is to be saved.

China is the world’s largest trader, a remarkable story only made possible with its accession to the WTO in 2001. The world, including the United States, has benefited greatly from China’s success. China’s economy is now the second largest in the world and still depends on open markets for development and its pursuit of prosperity. But China alone cannot lead the global fight against protectionism if the United States turns its back on globalisation.

South Asia and many countries in Southeast Asia need open markets to bring millions out of poverty and into the workforce. Japan and South Korea need open international markets to execute difficult reforms to manage shrinking populations. Asia is now a major growth engine in the global economy and has the interest, ability and responsibility to save the global rules-based order.

The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

Japanese companies need to open up or shut down


May 21, 2017

Japanese companies need to open up or shut down

by  Alicia Ogawa, Columbia University

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/05/16/japanese-companies-need-to-open-up-or-shut-down/

 

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Corporate governance has long been a hot topic for investors worldwide, but it is still a new concept in Japan. The increasing number of Japanese corporate scandals points to the need for a new approach to management. Many once-prominent companies seem to be unable to adapt to the pace of global change. The domestic market no longer offers much growth potential, so Japanese firms need to actively engage with the world or perish.

There is strong global interest in Japanese corporate governance for two key reasons. First, from the point of view of investors, the fact that rates have been low or negative in virtually all major developed economies has encouraged a sharper focus on equity markets for real returns, and Japanese companies fall woefully behind their global competitors in terms of profitability.

Second, as the pace of global competition accelerates, management is under constant pressure to react quickly to changing opportunities, such as the development of new technologies or the consolidation of capacity in maturing industries. Dialogue with outsiders, from shareholders to independent directors, is a prerequisite to navigating this terrain safely.

Japanese companies are at a distinct disadvantage in this new world because of key features of their organisational structures that served them very well in the past, such as lifetime employment. Decision-making is slow and dominated by consensus-seeking groups of senior men who have never worked outside their own firms, who rarely have specialised expertise and whose loyalties are first and foremost to each other.

The first of the major traumas at Toshiba, which came to light in 2015, involved the 152 billion yen (US$1.33 billion) deliberate overstatement of earnings between 2008–2014. This scandal illuminated the unspoken trade-off inherent in a lifetime employment contract: staff must not question decisions made by top management.

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Japan is No Longer a Tiger Economy

An independent investigation into Toshiba’s overstatement of earnings revealed that no CEO during that period directly instructed anyone to falsify the accounts. Rather, there was a long-standing corporate culture which mandated that managers ‘couldn’t refuse’ the profit targets set by the CEOs, no matter how unrealistic. Nevertheless, after the first accounting scandal, Toshiba chose Shigenori Shiga as the new chairman after his predecessor resigned in disgrace. Not only was Shiga yet another lifetime company man, but a former head of Toshiba’s subsidiary Westinghouse — which is now in the process of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States.

Many Japanese companies have raced to create better governance on paper — Toshiba was in fact a trailblazer in this respect, having chosen to replace a traditional Japanese system of governance with US-style executive committees, including independent directors on the board. But despite appearances, an inability to encourage and respect independent thinking has led to the collapse of the former world leader in high-tech products.

Failure by Japan’s corporations to embrace both the letter and the spirit of Prime Minster Abe’s new governance reforms will jeopardise Japan’s future prosperity. CEOs must encourage challenges by their subordinates and aggressive supervision by their independent directors.

Investors are the other key class of outsiders who need to be welcomed into the discussion. The traditional silence of friendly shareholders is yet another wall that insulates management from outside competition.

Much attention has been paid to the unwinding of friendly cross-shareholdings by banks. But most of these shares have been transferred from friendly banks to friendly corporations, who will likely never vote against management; to the Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF), whose size makes it ill-equipped to exercise any positive influence; and to the Bank of Japan, who cannot be a force for better governance. The protection afforded by acquiescent shareholders does not seem to have changed very much.

A survey undertaken by GPIF indicated that 21 per cent of executives regarded investors’ increasing scrutiny of capital efficiency to be a positive development, while 32 per cent regarded this as a very negative trend. Clearly, Japanese managers are a long way away from being comfortable discussing fundamental strategies with investors who own shares in their firms, or with their junior staff. But they had better hurry up.

In the case of Toshiba, lawsuits have been brought by several foreign investors, the world’s largest public pension fund GPIF, and several of the largest domestic banks. Refusing dialogue with your outside stakeholders can carry a devastating price when mistakes are made. It’s better to choose an openness to new ideas and critiques from your independent board directors and your investors, and thereby reap the benefits of dynamism and sustainability.

Alicia Ogawa is Director of the Program on Corporate Governance and Stewardship at the Center on Japanese Economy and Business, Columbia Business School.