Japan needs more Jim Beam

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Japan needs more Jim Beam


William Pesek

Two things caught my eye last week: the Bank of Japan, which decided to lay off the monetary stimulus, and Jim Beam - the latter not for reasons you might think.

BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda is a smart and battle-tested policy maker. By now, he has to know that pumping more money into the economy won’t end Japan’s deflation. Falling prices are as much about the aging population as anything else, and only structural change can arrest the trend. Kuroda seemed to admit as much by taking no new action as the BOJ’s historic stimulus fails to gin up money and credit growth.

Then there was Nobutada Saji’s Suntory Holdings, which said it might raise about $980 million through overseas bonds to help refinance loans used to purchase the maker of Jim Beam bourbon earlier this year. More recently, the billionaire tapped an outsider, Harvard-educated Takeshi Niinami, as president - the first for the fabled brewer founded in 1899.

Niinami, 55, is an adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on competitiveness. But what makes his hiring decision so intriguing is his success as chairman of Lawson, Japan’s second-biggest convenience-store chain. In a nation plagued by low productivity, companies such as Lawson are a rare bright spot. It’s also a company that understands that deflation is more of a secular than cyclical phenomenon. Rather than sit back hoping consumer prices rise, which seems to be Sony’s strategy, Lawson expanded aggressively overseas into growth markets, including China. Niinami also is prodding the government to lower trade barriers, improve corporate governance and encourage more risk-taking among executives.

You could might Suntory’s overseas debt deal as a technical financing maneuver. More likely, the Osaka-based beverage maker is reloading for its next foray overseas. It’s something the company’s insular peers should be emulating. Over time, such investments will do more to create economy vitality than all the liquidity Kuroda & Company can churn out.

Japan needs more gusty moves overseas. In this regard, few even come close to SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son. This week, local media circled Japan’s second-richest man to chronicle his comeuppance over a failed nine-month effort to acquire T-Mobile US. What I’m more intrigued about is what’s next for the Son after last year’s cross-border triumph buying Sprint? Where might a guy with the smarts 14 years ago to invest in Alibaba, this year’s sexist initial public offering, be looking? Let’s give Son an “A” for effort and stop the Monday-morning quarterbacking. Too bad there aren’t more in Japan like him.

As for Suntory, it was an early Japanese adopter of using Americana in brand-building. Forty years ago, it tapped Sammy Davis Jr. for a series of memorable commercials. Many will also remember Bill Murray’s turn as a Suntory-shilling Hollywood has-been in 2003’s “Lost in Translation.” (Pitch line: “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time”). Now, the company is putting American consumers with a yen for Jim Beam, Laphroaig and Maker’s Mark in the starring roles of its latest project.

Yet the bigger storyline here is a new breed of Japanese companies going overseas as the domestic market shrinks. Kuroda’s monetary largess may have set the stage for a turnaround. Now it’s up to more Japanese business leaders to do something with it.

BY William Pesek, Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo.

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