Photographer: Yuriko Nakao/Bloomberg

Japan Notches $18 Billion of Soured Deals Amid M&A Boom

  • Writedowns booked on Toshiba’s nuclear arm, Sony movie studio
  • Japan Post admits overpaying after rushing into Australia deal

Japan Inc., which has been snapping up everything from drugmakers to beer brands in its biggest overseas acquisition spree on record, is beginning to feel the pain from some of the soured deals of the past.

Companies in Japan booked at least 2 trillion yen ($18 billion) of writedowns on their overseas assets in the fiscal year ended March, according to Bloomberg calculations based on the latest earnings reports released through mid-May.

Toshiba Corp. reported a 1.36 trillion-yen loss from its purchase of Westinghouse Electric Co., pushing the Japanese technology company to sell assets to stay afloat, while Sony Corp. recorded an impairment on the value of its film business, which helped make the recent “Ghostbusters” reboot.

Dealmakers in Japan blame some bad deals on a corporate culture that encourages firms to seek out viable targets but discourages them from focusing on vital details like valuation and compatibility, according to executives Bloomberg interviewed. What can make matters worse, they say, is acquirers are often slow to cut losses when things don’t work out.

“Salarymen-managers struggle to make decisions and that leads to more losses,” said Mitsushige Akino, a Tokyo-based executive officer at Ichiyoshi Asset Management Co., suggesting that more overseas merger disasters may be inevitable.

Some of the other large-scale writedowns in the latest earnings season include: 400 billion yen by Japan Post Holdings Co. on Toll Holdings Ltd. in Australia and Sumitomo Metal Mining Co.’s 80 billion yen on its mine operations in Chile.

Commenting on the writedown that led to Japan Post’s first loss after going public in 2015, Kunio Yokoyama, president of its postal unit, said in April the company rushed to buy the Australian freight transport firm and ended up overpaying.

Nidec Corp. President Shigenobu Nagamori, who has seen his company’s share price beat market benchmarks even after making a slew of corporate purchases, said the key to making successful acquisitions is very straight forward.

“It’s easy to buy but you can’t make profit from even a good company if it’s expensive,” he said at an earnings conference in April when asked what makes a successful deal. “You cannot rush. Only advisers benefit through fees.”

Founder Advantage

Over the past five years, the Kyoto-based maker of small precision motors has made more than 20 acquisitions, including the $1.2 billion purchase of Emerson Electric Co.’s motor, drive and power-generation businesses completed in February. During the same period, Nidec shares have more than tripled, outperforming the 135 percent increase in the Nikkei 225 Stock Average. Since its founding in 1973, Nidec has purchased more than 40 companies.

Companies led by founders, such as Nidec and Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Group Corp., have an advantage over firms with appointed presidents when making M&A decisions, said Tomonori Ito, a professor at Hitotsubashi University’s Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy.

“Compared to those who happen to be presidents at companies owned by somebody else for four years, the level of commitment held by founder-presidents is different,” Ito said. “They can make decisions on what would benefit the company more from a longer-term perspective.”

Yet, despite recent writedowns, Japanese companies are showing few signs of slowing down, even after announcing $105.6 billion of overseas acquisitions last year -- the most since Bloomberg started tracking the data.

New Deals

Japan Post President Masatsugu Nagato said he would consider more acquisitions, speaking at a news conference after announcing earnings that included the 400 billion yen writedown of Australia’s Toll.

Hitachi Ltd. President Toshiaki Higashihara said the company would actively pursue deals totaling one trillion yen even after writing down 66 billion yen related to research and development and commercialization of its nuclear technology at a U.S. affiliate.

Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc., Japan’s biggest bank, is teaming up with the Silicon Valley-based startup accelerator Plug and Play Tech Center, which will select 20 venture firms for its first three-month accelerator program, according to people familiar with the matter.

So far this year, Japanese firms have already announced $35.4 billion of overseas deals, about 42 percent more than the $25 billion during the same period last year, according to the data. And Hitotsubashi University’s Ito said that national demographics could push Japanese firms to buy offshore assets at an even faster pace in the future.

“Amid an aging society and a shrinking domestic market, the move overseas is accelerating and that is helping prolong the current boom,” he said. 

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