Olympus Corp. (7733)’s admission that three of its top executives colluded to hide losses from investors fails to address the roles played by other officials, according to the company’s biggest overseas shareholder.
The Japanese camera maker’s shares slumped 29 percent yesterday after it reversed weeks of denials that there was any wrongdoing in past acquisitions. The company fired Executive Vice President Hisashi Mori over his role in covering up the losses with former Chairman Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, who resigned last week, and said auditor Hideo Yamada would step down.
Olympus’ biggest overseas shareholder is now demanding investor relations head Akihiro Nambu go too because of his role as a director of Gyrus Group Plc, the U.K. takeover target used to funnel more than $600 million in inflated advisory fees to a Cayman Islands fund. And after Nambu, the rest of the board must follow, said Josh Shores, a London-based principal for Southeastern Asset Management Inc.
“Even if they didn’t know the specific details around where payments were going and exactly why, they knew that cash was going out the door and they also failed to raise their hands to ask questions,” Shores said. “I don’t know who else is involved, but somebody else is. There is a third party somewhere who received this money.”
Olympus President Shuichi Takayama yesterday said the company was looking into the role played by special purpose funds in hiding the losses, which date back to the 1990s.
At least eight Cayman Islands entities have been linked to Olympus acquisitions that are suspected of playing a role in the accounting scandal. Five of those no longer exist, according to a search of the Caymans registry, which doesn’t give details on the individuals behind the companies.
Kikukawa, Mori and Nambu became the three directors of Gyrus in June 2008 following the $2 billion acquisition of the U.K. medical equipment maker in February that year. They were also directors of three companies set up to handle the takeover, including the decision to pay out advisory fees that amounted to more than a third of the acquisition’s value, filings show.
Olympus declined a request to interview Kikukawa and Mori. In six attempts to talk to Kikukawa at his home, the former chairman didn’t appear. Mori’s home address given in U.K. filings leads to a house under renovation in Kawasaki city, about an hour from central Tokyo. Nobody answered the doorbell on a recent visit to Nambu’s home in a seven-story condominium about 27 kilometers from the city center.
Japanese and U.S. regulators are probing allegations by former chief executive officer Michael C. Woodford that more than $1.5 billion was siphoned through offshore funds. That money may have been used to cancel out non-performing securities that Olympus was keeping off its books, according to a report in the Shukan Asahi magazine, which cited people familiar with the process.
Yesterday’s plunge in Olympus shares pulled other Japanese equities lower on concerns the country hasn’t escaped corporate governance weaknesses that have dogged it since the stock market bubble burst at the end of 1989. Olympus shares have lost 70 percent of their value since Woodford took his accusations public after he was axed on Oct. 14.
“Institutional investors will stay away from Japan’s market until they confirm this is an isolated case,” said Koichi Kurose, chief economist in Tokyo at Resona Bank Ltd. Some “investors probably think that if there’s one cockroach, there may be 10 more,” he said.
Olympus’ revelations echo the practice of hiding losses known as “tobashi” that became widespread in Japan in the late 1980s and led to the failure of Yamaichi Securities Co., according to Yasuhiko Hattori, a professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. Yamaichi used overseas paper companies to hide problematic securities, until it failed in 1997 with 260 billion yen ($3.3 billion) in hidden impairments.
Takayama declined to comment on the involvement of any securities firms in Olympus’ cover-up. The Topix Securities and Commodity Futures Index fell 11 percent, the most of any industry group in the broader gauge. Nomura Holdings Inc. (8604) tumbled 15 percent to the lowest in 37 years.
“There is speculation in the market that Nomura may somehow be involved in this Olympus case,” said Shoichi Arisawa, an Osaka-based manager at IwaiCosmo Holdings Inc. “Individual investors in particular probably sold after seeing a high volume of Nomura’s shares being traded.”
Nomura didn’t participate in Olympus’s concealment of losses, said Hajime Ikeda, managing director of corporate communications for the securities firm.
“We are not aware of any involvement by Nomura in Olympus’s hiding of losses in the 1990s, and we weren’t involved when Olympus wrote off the losses” between 2006 and 2008, Ikeda said in a telephone interview in Tokyo yesterday.
Olympus plunged by its 300 yen daily limit in Tokyo trading, closing at 734 yen. The Topix ended 1.7 percent lower, the worst-performing Asian stock index.
The Tokyo Stock Exchange said it’s considering moving the shares in Olympus, the world’s biggest maker of endoscopes, to a watchlist for possible delisting. Takayama pledged to continue with the investigation into the losses, which he said were probably inherited by Kikukawa.
“The investigation must continue to determine how much rot there is,” said David Herro, chief investment officer of Harris Associates LP. “All responsible must, at a minimum, leave. Also, since the management’s credibility is nearly nonexistent, all of what they say must be verified.”
Bowed in Apology
Harris held 10.9 million Olympus shares as of June 30, a 4 percent stake that makes it the company’s second-biggest overseas investor. Southeastern had a 5 percent stake as of Aug. 16, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Olympus President Takayama yesterday said he was unaware of the hidden losses until he was told by Mori and Kikukawa the previous evening. At the press conference, he bowed three times in seven minutes to apologize.
In the weeks running up to his dismissal, Woodford was engaged in an exchange of letters with Kikukawa and Mori in which he detailed the allegations and which were copied to all member of the board.
After he was fired, Woodford went public with his concerns over the advisory fees and writedowns on three other transactions. All involved payments to Cayman Islands companies or special purpose vehicles whose beneficiaries are not known.
Olympus paid a total of 73.4 billion yen to increase stakes in Altis Co., News Chef Co. and Humalabo Co. between 2006 and 2008, which was also used to hide losses, it said yesterday. Olympus wrote down 55.7 billion yen, or 76 percent of the acquisition value, in March 2009, the company said in a statement Oct. 19.
“It’s beyond belief that Mr. Takayama claims he only found out about it last night,” Woodford said in a telephone interview yesterday. “If he didn’t know before I started writing my letters then he should have known after.”
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