Thursday, February 16, 2012

Wall Street Journal Stating the Obvious: "Tepco and the government were made for each other..."

Just like Chisso (of Minamata mercury poisoning fame) and the government were meant for each other, I suppose, with taxpayers footing the bill. Nothing new.

From Wall Street Journal (2/16/2012):

Reading Austen in Tokyo
Tepco and the government were made for each other, if only they would admit it.

By Joseph Sternberg

An Internet wit offers a facetious summary of Jane Austen's collected works: "Female Lead: 'I secretly love Male Lead. He must never know.' Male Lead: 'I secretly love Female Lead. She must never know.' They find out." While perhaps not entirely accurate with regard to Austen's novels, it does describe the comedy of manners now unfolding between the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco.

Nearly a year after an earthquake and tsunami devastated eastern Japan, Tepco is still shaking. Saddled by astronomical costs for clean-up and compensation related to the tsunami-induced disaster at its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the company is fighting the government over the terms of a bailout. The government insists on a majority voting share for taxpayers—an effective nationalization—and some officials have even hinted darkly at the prospect of breaking up the vertically integrated utility. Tepco is resisting any dilution of existing owners while trying to hike commercial power rates.

That both sides are making this look like a genuine feud is enough to raise suspicions in a land where subtlety and indirect speech are the norm. Sure enough, there are good reasons to think that despite the conflict, this Jane and Mr. Bingley will end up living happily ever after together by the time the last chapter is written.

Tepco's calculation is simple: It needs the cash. The government is offering 1 trillion yen ($13 billion) in ready money with which the utility can meet demands for nuclear-related compensation, fully shut down the stricken Fukushima plant, and pay for the more expensive fossil fuels it's burning now that its former generation mainstay, nuclear, has fallen into ill repute. Tepco recently announced it lost 623 billion yen from April to December 2011.

The utility also can make a cogent argument that government money need not come with managerial strings attached. The taxpayer cash injection would amount to an insurance pay-out. There has been a lot of talk over the past 11 months about pre-tsunami management failures and safety lapses at Tepco. Lost in the shuffle is the fact that whatever its inability to plan for or respond to a once-in-a-hundred-lifetimes natural disaster, the company under normal circumstances would have functioned quite happily indefinitely had Mother Nature not intervened.

That makes Tepco different from the case of Resona Bank, a financial institution Tokyo bailed out in 2003 in exchange for management control. Yukio Edano, the trade minister and government point man on Tepco, now says Tokyo views Resona as a model for how to do intervention. In that case, a long string of management failures on matters such as lending standards prompted government to step in. But there is a less obvious argument that Tepco needs better, government-imposed management to . . . do what, exactly? Stop the next earthquake?

Note that the government's interests align neatly with Tepco's, despite Mr. Edano's strong statements to the contrary. Since honest socialism—paying compensation directly from the government purse—seems to be off the table, Tokyo's chief goal is to preserve Tepco as a going concern capable of "paying back" over time taxpayer money used for accident payouts today. Yet while it may be impossible to save the utility without taxpayer cash, it likely would be equally impossible to rescue it with the kind of government control Mr. Edano purports to want.

Consider rates. The rate of increase in electricity consumption has been fairly low over the past decade (and sometimes negative), and is likely to remain so for as long as the overall Japanese economy stagnates. That leaves tariff increases as the only way Tepco could realistically expect to raise the additional revenue needed to pay back government bail-out money.

Such increases are proving hard enough now, while Tepco still is nominally a private-sector company. Last month the utility proposed raising rates for commercial customers by some 17% (it also wants to raise household rates, which are capped by regulation). Political uproar ensued, but the company appears to be standing its ground—to the benefit of politicians who will have to cope with less of a Tepco loss thanks to the increase. It would be hard for politicians to inveigh against rate increases approved by their own proxies on the board.

Similarly, the government doesn't stand to gain much if Tepco were broken up and sold for parts. In theory this would generate sufficient cash to fund compensation claims. But if it didn't? Good luck finding a buyer for whatever piece of a broken-up Tepco got stuck with the nuclear liabilities, and good luck funding those liabilities without revenue from all the other parts of what as a whole is a viable, cash-generating utility. The government would have to step in to pay compensation directly, in a form of socialism a bit too honest for Tokyo's liking.

Thus are our protagonists not-quite-so-secretly pining for each other, and eventually will admit their love. They're likely to do so in a deal where Tepco gets all the cash it needs in exchange for token government board representation, if any. If it all lacks a certain romance, well, it's business we're talking about. And anyway, marriage also had a certain mercenary quality in Jane Austen's day.

Mr. Sternberg edits the Business Asia column.


Anonymous said...

No comment about the HEALTH/HUMAN costs of this disaster. That is real the "long pole in the tent". Cost for medical treatments for children will be just the start. When the country is facing potential cancer in a majority of the children exposed. For example 33.6 % of young children tested showed thyroid lumps/tumors within 10 months of the disaster. As this is normally seen in under 1.8% of the children, the staggering increase is only the start for medical needs. Add the fact 8% of Japan is contaminated, with millions needing relocation --this is disaster on a huge scale. Homes, jobs, foods, health --the basic four are missing in the article. All that can be said is TEPCO and the Japanese Government are bed fellows..and liking it.

Yosaku said...


I think you're confusing lumps, tumors, nodules, cysts, etc. Ex-skf did an excellent write-up of these issues some time ago. Just search for "nodule".

Anonymous said...

They simply do not care. Our lives are worthless to those 1%-er scum. They've been torturing and bombing the Arabs for decades as well as bringing back modern-day workhouses and debtors prisons in the West, and now they're irradiating all of Japan and much of the SE Asia / Pacific region to boot. How can they make their contempt more obvious?

Anonymous said...

Actually, my question would be - and has been for a long time - how much more obvious does their contempt have to become until people finally speak up and say "enough"? There's so many more of us than of them ....

I'm eternally grateful for ex-skf's blog about Fukushima, etc., and all the work he/she is doing to keep us informed. It's an invaluable contribution and maybe, hopefully, will help get people a step closer to finally some day saying "enough." But of course, one can only lead a horse to the water ...

Thank you for all your hard work!

arevamirpal::laprimavera said...

Thank you, Yosaku. I think the first anon must have read the news at a site that either deliberately or out of ignorance confused everything into "tumor".

Every Japanese media that I checked was very careful about stating what they were - cyst, nodules, lumps, but I never saw the word "tumor" anywhere. So I made sure I didn't use the word, and I even asked a doctor in Japan to clarify. Then I got an email from someone in Europe sending me a link about thyroid "tumor" in children in Fukushima. (Sigh.)

Chibaguy said...

"tsunami-induced disaster," I wonder if this was one purpose?

Anonymous said...

More lies - "tsunami-induced disaster", no, it was an earthquake induced disaster, this is important, cos the npp cannot cope with the EQ.

And then the term "once in a hundred 'lifetimes'" - this pretends that it'll not happened again for 5000 years, instead of 100.

The lies & propaganda of the 21st are skillful, you need to pay close attention to the spin.

Chibaguy said...

I meant "on" above.

Anonymous said...

I suppose they figure that with the historic sympathy extended to tsunami victims that was the buzzword of choice.

After all, most people seem to either ignore the threat of an earthquake or view those who choose to live in earthquake prone areas an idiot. Not to mention someone who builds a NPP on a fault line.

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