Turning Japanese: Avoiding insolvency

Although the government’s efforts have not been rewarded with either inflation or a healthy economy, it has resulted in the highest sovereign debt in the world at a whopping 200% of GDP. The only reason why Japan is immune from bond vigilantes is because most of the debt is held by locals at home

It appears that Japan is on a roll. Since the election of Abe Shinzo last fall the Japanese stock market has risen by 41% since last November. As the market has risen, the Japanese yen has fallen. Traders have knocked 15% off its value compared to the dollar. What ignited this change? Oddly enough, more of the same: Abe promised more free money and stimulus. He has proposed one of the largest stimulus packages in history. He has also appointed Haruhiko Kuroda an advocate of unorthodox monetary policies to head the Bank of Japan. The process is supposed to create inflation and end 20 years of deflation.


The fly in the ointment is that this programme is not really all that new. Various Japanese governments have been borrowing money to stimulate their economy for more than a decade. During that period the economy has never grown faster than 2% and usually has a negative quarter once a year. Before Abe took office, Japan was in the midst of its fifth recession in 15 years. The market has never risen above 18,000—less than half its 1990 high of 40,000. The recent run up is still less than a third of its all time high. Although the government’s efforts have not been rewarded with either inflation or a healthy economy, it has resulted in the highest sovereign debt in the world at a whopping 200% of GDP (gross domestic product). The only reason why Japan is immune from bond vigilantes is because most of the debt is held by locals at home.


Apparently the failure of the policy in the past does not mean that it should not be tried again. In fact, the plan of continued ultra loose monetary policy is imitated and admired. According to the president of the US Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Charles Evans, the reason it did not work was that there was not enough of it. According to Mr Evans the worry is that accommodative policies might be taken away too early: "It is the spectre of repeating the Japanese experience that now keeps me up at night.” The obvious question is after 20 years, what is early and what is enough?


But politicians in all countries love the idea of free money. It seems to boost equity markets and carry few risks. When there is at least the illusion of economic growth and stability, politicians in many countries do not feel the need to do anything. We saw in Europe that the momentum for structural reform exists only when it appears that there is the possibility of a collapse. Without market discipline policy makers only congratulate themselves on a job well done and do nothing.


This is a real problem with the issue of bankruptcy. It is a fundamental tenet of capitalism that bad companies need to fail. But failure is anything but pleasant for the people involved. Bankruptcy hurts the owners or shareholders, management and employees. All of these people lose money and jobs. Generally, the people who benefit from the process are the creditors, banks and bond holders, the people who supplied the loans and the credit in the first place.


Bankruptcy suffers from a fatal flaw. There are usually more and better organized shareholders, owners, managers and employees than there are banks, depositors, creditors, and bondholders. So the political power usually ends up with the former rather than the latter. Often even the banks join the constituency against bankruptcy. Bankruptcy forces them to recognize a loss that could conveniently be rolled over. The result is that governments and central banks will often do anything and everything to prevent bankruptcy.


In developed rule-based countries like the US, this is generally not a problem. While it is true that the Federal Reserve, Bank of England and the European Central Bank have been doing everything in their power to keep marginal companies afloat by providing an endless supply of cheap money; their authority does not extend to the bankruptcy courts.


In the US, these have been quite successful. During more placid economic times in 2008 there were 21,000 bankruptcies in the US. Not surprisingly these rose to 61,000 in 2009 at the height of the recession and have since fallen to 42,000. In contrast, the relationship based Japan, companies hardly go bankrupt. In 2007 they had only 1,100. This increased a bit in 2009 to 1,500 and decreased to 900 last year. The same problem exists in Europe. The northern more rule based countries had relatively high rates of bankruptcy compared to the more relationship based systems in southern Europe. In Luxembourg and Denmark, they had 316 and 182 bankruptcies per 10,000 businesses respectively. In Greece and Spain, the numbers were five and 18.


In emerging markets, bankruptcies that follow a legal process almost do not exist. In Brazil, for example, insolvency takes four years and recovers only 15% of the claims. India takes a little longer but recovers a bit more. It takes 4.3 years for a bankruptcy to wind its way through Indian courts but creditors get about 25% of claims. The OECD average is 1.7 years with a recovery rate of 70%.


In other countries like the UAE, insolvency and even bouncing a cheque are considered crimes. A single bounced cheque can result in a three year prison sentence. Whether it is a crime or if a legal process does not exist, often the only way to go bankrupt is to just leave the country. In some countries this has become institutionalized. Criminal gangs are hired by nervous creditors to wipe out all of the assets before other creditors know about a company’s financial problems.


In China private firms usually just shut down, but state-owned firms have developed the process of managed insolvency to a high art. Insolvency though is really not the right word, because the companies never really shut down.


According to the World Bank, more than one in four Chinese state firms lose money. Many of these firms are owned by local governments. These governments are not likely to see both their investment and the largest local employer go under. So they find ways to keep them afloat.


One example is Shandong Helong, a manufacturer of rayon and other fibres for clothing. Shandong is located in the city of Weifang which owns 16% of the firm. During better times, the company, like many other state firms, moved into other lines of speculative businesses often real estate. Shandong was no exception. It overextended itself in real estate and cargo port development. The increase in commodities prices for its fibres added to its woes.


In order to make up some of its losses it borrowed from a state-owned bank. Some of these loans to the tune of 1.7 billion yuan ($272 million) were guaranteed by Weifang. But these loans did not prove sufficient, so it took advantage of some of the recent reforms and borrowed $60 million in commercial paper from investors. When the firm continued to lose money, these loans became questionable. Defaulting on a state-owned bank loans is easier than defaulting on commercial paper. Unlike state-owned banks, investors in the commercial paper might cause social unrest. Besides it is hard for banks to enforce their claims. These claims have to be enforced in the courts of Weifang, which are not about to bring judgment against a local firm. So the holders of the commercial paper were paid and bank loans in the amount of 919 million yuan ($147 million) were ignored.


Some of these managed bankruptcies can go on for years. The state-owned firm Huludao Zinc Industry (HZI) started losing money in 1998. Part of the problem was that the factory had huge social costs. To get around this problem in 2002 HZI was stripped of its debts. The debts were placed in Huludao Nonferrous Metals Group (HMNG) in exchange for a controlling interest in HZI.


As a state-owned business HMNG was able to access loans from state-owned banks. Although it lost 700 million yuan ($112 million) between 2003 and 2005, it was still able to get loans worth 4.5 billion yuan ($720 million) from the banks plus a dividend of another billion yuan ($160 million) from its subsidiary HZI which was profitable at that time. Sadly by 2007 HZI’s days of making money ended.


To solve this problem, the Chinese relied on a favourite tactic. They merged the money losing companies HMNG and its subsidiary HZI with a stronger and larger firm, in this case Metallurgical Corporation of China. Both companies were relieved of their debts and listed, but the listing did not make them profitable. Between 2007 and 2008, HZI amassed another 1.6 billion yuan ($256 million) worth of losses. Despite its terrible balance sheet, it’s was still able to borrow another 1 billion ($160 million) and its immediate parent HMNG was able to guarantee 3 billion yuan of its subsidiary’s HZI debt.


The debts came due last September when MCC announced that its two subsidiaries were in deep trouble. HMNG had defaulted on a one billion yuan loan and it had guaranteed 90% of a 2.5 billion yuan overdue loan of HZI. The punch-line is that after the announcement MCC shares dropped 11% while the shares of its partially-owned subsidiaries HMNG and HZI rose!


Chinese investors, like their American counterparts, all assume that the government will bail them out. In this strange world good news is bad, because it means that government money might stop flowing. While bad news is good because the government will step in. The result of this distortion is that the economy loses efficiency. Money gets lent to the most inefficient of firms and is withheld from younger and more entrepreneurial companies. The rotten firms lose money and can’t hire, so employment gets stuck. Without constant signals as to which firms are good and which firms are bad, information within the market is corrupted which furthers the distortion. The end is quite predictable. Either continued recession as in Europe, sub-par growth the US and declining growth in China. So eventually, by preventing the destruction of capitalism everyone turns Japanese.


(William Gamble is president of Emerging Market Strategies. An international lawyer and economist, he developed his theories beginning with his first hand experience and business dealings in the Russia starting in 1993. Mr Gamble holds two graduate law degrees. He was educated at Institute D'Etudes Politique, Trinity College, University of Miami School of Law, and University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. He was a member of the bar in three states, over four different federal courts and has spoken four languages.)


“Include a disposable bag with the sanitary napkin,” says Parisar

The products should be truly by women, for women and to protect the health of women!

Boxes of used sanitary pads have been sent to the corporate offices of Hindustan Unilever, Procter and Gamble and Johnson and Johnson, which are the major manufacturers of sanitary napkins. “This is just the beginning—we will continue sending such gifts to the companies if they continue to ignore our demands. So what if we are waste pickers, should we be picking up absolutely anything? We are women too, our health and hygiene should be a priority too for these companies!” said Baby Mohite, a SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling, or officially, the Swach Pune Seva Sahakari Sanstha Maryadit) member from Pune.


A press conference was held on Friday on International Women’s Day at Patrakar Bhawan in Pune where wastepickers expressed the issues they face while handling such waste. “If each pad is wrapped in an identifiable pouch, we won’t even have to open it. SWaCH members who are old and unable to work anymore make such pouches (ST Dispo bags or sanitary towel disposal bags) and sell them at a nominal price of Re1. Companies should attach these pouches to their sanitary pads, that way our old members are supported financially and we don’t have to handle the pads,” said Mangal Kamble, SWaCH member from Hadapsar. SWaCH sells about 20,000 to 25,000 ST Dispo bags every month after a lot of marketing effort. However, each month 4-5 lakhs of sanitary pads are being disposed as per SWaCH. The gap between the two is really wide.


Parisar, an environmental organization states “Waste pickers in the course of sorting through the garbage for recyclable products inadvertently handle these soiled, bloody napkins with their bare hands. This is entirely unacceptable. A simple solution that has been shown to work is to include a disposable bag with the sanitary napkin. This will allow for easy identification and handling.”


Stree Mukti Sanghatana, a women’s organization and a member of the Alliance of Indian Waste pickers while suggesting the elimination of plastic from sanitary pads to make them compostable and recyclable further states, “ Sanitary pads and diapers should be sold along with disposable bags that  are being made by slum dwelling women. That way, the products are truly by women, for women and to protect the health of women!”


More and more women should be like Mruga Kirloskar, (citizen and entrepreneur) a regular user of SWaCH ST dispo bags, who has said “I wholly support this initiative. I have been using these bags ever since I heard of them and even promote them among my friends. As a responsible citizen, I feel it is my duty to be accountable for the manner in which I dispose my waste.”


This campaign has been endorsed by organizations from all over the country. CEE (Centre for Environment and Education) has written to the personal hygiene companies suggesting a partnership to implement a pilot program where sanitary pads and diapers are sold along with an identifiable disposal bag. Janwani (a social initiative of the Mahratta Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture) too has written to the above companies questioning them about the efforts that they have taken or are planning to take in relation to the issue of disposal of sanitary pads.




4 years ago

Kudos to SWaCH members!! its high time that these measures are taken. This phenomena of disposing off used sanitary pads and diapers in the most careless manner is increasing...
street dogs tearing apart used napkins and diapers are a common sight when we take to walk on streets.
Businesses today feel that once they sell personal hygine products their job is over. Time has come that these companies take responsibilty to protect environment along with consumers.

Redefining Literacy

Dr Nita Mukherjee describes a decade-old effort that is bearing rich fruit


Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), a Delhi-based not-for-profit organisation, was founded by Osama Manzar in December 2002 under the Societies Registration Act. Its objective is to uplift the downtrodden using information, communication and technology (ICT). Since Mr Manzar worked in a software company, he was acutely aware of the need to bridge the digital divide which haunts India. A large chunk of India’s population is deprived of even basic ICT; telecom facilities and power are either not available or there’s errant supply. Penetration of computers and Internet is low, despite pious government pronouncements. 

DEF believes that lack of information is at the root of poverty and exploitation. Mr Manzar says, “If you lick the problem of information poverty, you would, to a large extent, overcome economic poverty.” He opines that just as, if you build a road, people begin to use it, if you have digital media, people start creating and sharing information. So it is necessary for the State to create and provide the infrastructure for digital media. DEF’s basic premise is that digital media—connoting anything that bridges physical distances for communication—radio, broadband, film projectors, mobile telephony, Internet, etc, have made it easier to empower people with information. Once people are empowered, good governance will follow.
In 2003, Mr Manzar gave up his job to concentrate on DEF’s operations. DEF uses three mechanisms for its development interventions, namely, advocacy, networking and project implementation. Its advocacy initiatives are facilitated by the fact that 
Mr Manzar is a member of government’s working groups on Internet proliferation & governance, national optic-fibre network for universal service obligation fund and screening committee for community radio licence. The Manthan Award, launched on 10 October 2004 to recognise the best practices in e-content and creativity, has enabled DEF to establish a wide network in the social sector. DEF has a database showcasing 5,000 social sector best practices from all over south Asia. Although 70%-80% of these are from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are important contributors.
DEF has done considerable work in ICT application at the panchayat level; although Mr Manzar says they have just made a beginning. Of the three million panchayat members in the country, DEF has trained 5,000 through the 30 rural centres it has opened and created 500 panchayat websites which can be accessed through DEF has held 60 e-literacy workshops for NGOs and developed 2,000 NGO websites for free. Mr Manzar says, “Since our objective is to enable NGOs to create information and share it by making it available in the public domain, we provide the entire service—creating full-fledged web domain and hosting it completely free of cost for one year. We develop websites in the language of the NGO’s choice. From the second year, we levy a nominal annual charge of Rs3,000. All these sites can be accessed through or”
Digital literacy is predicated on availability of broadband, because information at the grassroots is easier to create and communicate in audio-visual rather than textual formats. This has been DEF’s learning, especially in the field of education where it has enabled some 500 schools to upload content on Again, this is a drop in the ocean, but a beginning at least. “We have nearly 1.4 million government schools in the country but not even a tenth of them have IT connectivity. The challenge in such a scenario is: Can the government redefine literacy and announce that we are going to work together towards not higher literacy but for digital literacy. It would indicate that India is working on the medium of the future rather than that of the past.”
DEF has obtained FCRA registration which enables it to raise funds from international donors like the Ford Foundation, Vodafone Foundation and Intel Foundation. It also gets grants from the ministry of IT, Internet Society and Public Interest Registry
Digital Empowerment Foundation
House No. 44, 3rd Floor, Kalu Sarai (Near IIT Flyover), New Delhi 110016 
Tel: +91-11-26532786
Fax: +91-11-26532787
Email: [email protected] 



We are listening!

Solve the equation and enter in the Captcha field.

To continue

Sign Up or Sign In


To continue

Sign Up or Sign In



The Scam
24 Year Of The Scam: The Perennial Bestseller, reads like a Thriller!
Moneylife Magazine
Fiercely independent and pro-consumer information on personal finance
Stockletters in 3 Flavours
Outstanding research that beats mutual funds year after year
MAS: Complete Online Financial Advisory
(Includes Moneylife Magazine and Lion Stockletter)