An article in Bloomberg View suggests that the accounting issues at Toshiba and Olympus are just the start of what could be equivalent to the more than dozen accounting frauds revealed in the United States after the Tech bubble burst in 2000. The article expressly indicates that there will probably be more revelations of problems due both to corporate governance and culture in Japanese businesses.
According to the article, most boards of Japanese public companies are made up of employees of the company. The lack of external oversight encourages them to expand employee perks instead of maximize shareholder value. The stagnant economy has allegedly led them to fake profitability in order to keep their lifestyle and bank loans going. The conclusion of this section of the article is that if one of the shining stars of the Japanese economy has been cooking the books, then the less successful companies are likely doing so as well.
The U.S. response to the scandals was the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has apparently introduced a new corporate governance code requiring outside directors on boards. The opinion piece indicates it is an important but encourages the Japanese Government to take additional action.
We were contacted last week from a reporter in Japan asking for our opinion of whistleblower law in Japan and the Toshiba scandal. The essential question was why an individual had not come forward to report this scandal before now.
Japan has a law protecting whistleblowers from retaliation that was enacted in 2006. According to our research, the fines in the law are so small that companies would rather just pay the fines than comply with the law.
Japan also hasn’t historically treated its whistleblowers well, so there was probably reluctance to come forward. The whistleblower who brought a case against Olympus under this anti-retaliation law did not fare well. This was the first to reach Japan’s highest court. Additionally, Michael Woodford, the whistleblower in the Olympus accounting scandal, was also fired after blowing the whistle. Until Japan is able to reassure whistleblowers that they will be protected, they won’t come forward to stop scandals like the one at Toshiba.
However, there are options. Employees in Japan of companies listed on a U.S. stock exchange may decide instead to avail themselves of the confidentiality of the Dodd-Frank whistleblower program instead of reporting to either the company or the Japanese government. The SEC whistleblower reward program has provided a financial incentive encouraging thousands to come forward every year to report violations of US securities laws. If the SEC takes action and recovers a monetary penalty of more than $1 million, an eligible whistleblower is due between 10 and 30 percent of the recovery.
There are nineteen examples already of whistleblowers coming forward to this program and helping to put a stop to problems before investors lost all of their money, and receiving an award. The US has received tips from around the globe about violations but since the program is still new, people are still being educated about it. Four people from overseas have received rewards.