Tag Archives: Japan

The (sad) state of Japanese entrepreneurship

Ever since Edward Feigenbaum and I wrote our book on Japanese entrepreneurship back in 2002, I’ve been interested in the evolution of Japan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.  My impression, drawn from conversations with many entrepreneurs and investors, has been that startups still face the same problems–risk aversion, lack of risk capital, insufficient access to human resources, and a dearth of early adopters–that we identified in our book.  It seems that the overall situation has not improved, and may even have deteriorated.  Data from Terrie Lloyd‘s recent newsletter suggest matters may be even worse than I had realized.  From the newsletter (delivered by email and not yet posted online at the time of this writing):

whatever the reason, whether it’s the market competition, lack of sources for funding, or a risk averse culture, the number of new start-ups is falling steadily, meaning that the future commercial base of the country is being eroded. According to the Statistics Bureau there were somewhere around 29,000 small and medium-sized companies started up in 2006, down substantially from the 45,000 started in 1999. (General Edition Sunday, October 24, 2010, Issue No. 587)

The IPO market is way off, and comparison with South Korea indicates that the decline cannot be blamed entirely on the financial crisis:

2009 produced a record-low (in recent times) number of IPOs: just 19, and this year will not be much better. In stark contrast, perhaps surprisingly so, the South Korean IPO market is booming and there were 66 IPOs in Seoul last year, with an expected 70 lined up for FY2010.

IPOs were a bright spot when we wrote our book, but apparently not any more.  To make matters worse:

fiscal 2009 venture capital investments fell 40% over those made in 2008, for a total of JPY63.7bn by the nation’s top 20 VC companies. To put things into better perspective, in a recent UK firm’s survey of 100 global institutional investors about the attractiveness to VCs in Asia and Oceania, Japan ranked bottom of the list…

Those interested in more details and analysis may wish to read the complete article; presumably Terrie will post it on his web site soon.

One of my friends is running an algae-to-fuel biotech startup in Japan.  His company is arguably Japan’s premier startup in this very promising space, but he has two orders of magnitude less funding than competing US-based startups: millions of dollars versus hundreds of millions.  Even if his technology is superior (I’m not qualified to offer an opinion), most Japanese entrepreneurs are playing in the minor league–or perhaps the little league.

This does not bode well for Japan’s economic future.

Japan and market fundamentalism: Hatoyama versus Tabuchi

Yukio Hatoyama, slated to be the next prime minister of Japan, has an op-ed piece in the New York Times criticizing the excesses of globalization and American free-market fundamentalism.  His comments on both topics are right on target. To begin with, Hatoyama calls for an

end to unrestrained market fundamentalism and financial capitalism, that are void of morals or moderation, in order to protect the finances and livelihoods of our citizens

He is right to do so.  During the past few decades, the behavior of many American companies and the teachings of influential American economists have certainly been “void of morals or moderation”.  If this seems extreme, read about health insurance companies and nursing homes operated by private equity companies.  And recall that Milton Friedman published a well-known article in the New York Times Magazine titled “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits”.

With respect to globalization, Hatoyama says:

globalism has progressed without any regard for non-economic values, or for environmental issues or problems of resource restriction.

If we look back on the changes in Japanese society since the end of the Cold War, I believe it is no exaggeration to say that the global economy has damaged traditional economic activities and destroyed local communities.

Under the principle of fraternity, we would not implement policies that leave areas relating to human lives and safety — such as agriculture, the environment and medicine — to the mercy of globalism.

Hatoyama might be interested to read my good friend David Grewal’s book Network Power, which provides carefully reasoned support for these positions.

The New York Times has also published a response to Hatoyama’s article, in the form of an article by Hiroko Tabuchi.  The article is generally critical in tone.  Tabuchi writes that:

many economists here [Japan] say Japan may need more American-style deregulation and market-led growth, not less, to invigorate its stagnant economy.

Of course, that’s hardly surprising: there are few maladies for which mainstream economists do not prescribe “deregulation and market-led growth”.  The article is framed to support this position, making it read more like an opinion piece than like a journal article.  Tabuchi goes on to say:

Japan may be famous for its ruthlessly efficient, competitive manufacturing industries — like Toyota’s just-in-time production, in which parts are delivered just before assembly to keep inventory low. But its domestic service sector, which makes up 70 percent of the economy, is an overregulated, inefficient mess, businessmen and economists say.

Tabuchi is parroting a fairly standard, biased description of the Japanese economy.  She gives no statistics to support the extreme claim that the “domestic service sector … is an overregulated, inefficient mess”.  Indeed, casual observation suggests that she is dead wrong.  Health care is arguably the most important service industry of them all, and Japan’s health care system certainly is not an inefficient mess, though the government plays a major role.  Here are the statistics, from PBS Frontline: Japan spends 8% of GDP on healthcare, versus 15.3% for the U.S.; Japan’s life expectancy is 82 years, versus 77 for the U.S., and Japan’s infant mortality rate is 2.8, versus 6.8 for the U.S.

How about finance, another important service industry?  Japan’s financial industry certainly is not as innovative as America’s, but financial innovation probably does not have much social value anyway.  Certainly Japanese finance did not bring the world to the bring of economic collapse.  Though I do not have the data on hand, I am reasonably certain the Japanese financial sector does not account for 40% of corporate profits.

My personal experiences with the Japanese railway, retail, restaurant, air travel, health care, professional services, and hotel industries contrast sharply with Tabuchi’s characterization of the domestic service sector.  Indeed, Tabuchi’s only evidence for Japan’s service sector being an “overregulated, inefficient mess” is that a new airline has had difficulty getting a license for international flights, and that Japanese businesses employ more people than necessary.  These are both spurious.

The airline industry has very high fixed costs and low marginal costs, so free competition will drive prices below average cost, reducing profits to the point where firms cannot service the debt taken on to finance fixed investments.  The result, as we know here in the U.S., is one bankruptcy after another, often together with layoffs and broken promises to employees.  Small wonder that Japanese airlines have better service.  That a prospective entrant could not get a license may well be evidence of appropriate regulation and dynamic efficiency, though careful analysis would be necessary to say so with any confidence.

As for Japanese businesses employing more people than necessary, this does not necessarily indicate overregulation or inefficiency.  Indeed, as Tabuchi points out:

Japan’s jobless rate is at a record high of 5.7 percent, and it could be as high as 12 percent if not for a government subsidy program that encourages companies to keep surplus workers

So firms should fire their excess employees and leave them feeling betrayed and worthless, and without income?  That certainly would not contribute to economic growth or the general welfare.  Why not keep people employed, where at least they have income, some sense of purpose and belonging, and maybe even a chance of being useful?

Carrying the absurdity a bit further, Tabuchi continues:

Now, with a rapidly aging population and almost no immigration, Japan must increase its productivity, economists say.

Of course, if 12% of the labor force might as well be unemployed, there can be no shortage of labor.  If growth picks up, surplus labor will flow to the sectors that are willing to pay a premium for it (and the government will probably cut employment subsidies).

Perhaps Tabuchi should consider performing her own analysis rather than relying on what “economists say”.  They often get it wrong anyway.

Varieties of capitalism on Hime Island

The New York Times offers an example of a Japanese island that has developed a communitarian form of capitalism.  Residents share government jobs, watch free cable television, enjoy immaculate parks and public toilets, and limit displays of wealth to prevent jealousy from undermining community solidarity.

Under Hime’s system, village employees earn about a third less pay than public servants elsewhere in Japan, though they work the same hours. This has allowed the village to create more jobs: it now directly or indirectly employs a fifth of all working islanders. Most of the rest are engaged in fishing, also government-subsidized. In fact, village officials say, there are few fully private-sector jobs on the island.

This is an interesting case study, because it shows how a community can engineer capitalism to their own liking.  Creating such communitarian economic institutions probably requires a certain amount of social closure, so being an island may help.  (Just to be clear: Hime Island’s economy is certainly capitalist; individuals living there have considerable freedom to deploy their human and financial capital as they please, and the entrepreneurially-minded open restaurants or small hotels for tourists.)  The whole world cannot be Hime Island any more than Hime Island can be Silicon Valley, but the example suggests that communities may have more control over their destinies than neoclassical economics would predict.  My friend David Grewal explains why such freedom requires collective action in his book Network Power.

The financial crisis provides an opportunity to revisit the assumptions of capitalism and recognize many possible varieties of capitalism, many of which have yet to emerge.