ECONOMY: Shares dive, new CEO boards JAL… 

At 55, Masaaki Ueda was looking forward to retiring soon with a generous pension after 32 years of loyalty to one company, Japan Airlines. But after a week of bankruptcy protection and merger rumours that saw JAL’s share price fall to just ¥7 (8 cents U.S.) from ¥90 a share, he is uncertain where his employer is headed. “We current employees have to apologize to the shareholders,” says Mr. Ueda, who has worked throughout JAL’s network of airports and offices. “At least we still have our jobs. … But for the shareholders, it’s possible they will lose everything, and there’s nothing they can do about it.”

JAL, Asia’s largest airline group, had more than 446,000 shareholders as of last March, when the share price was well above ¥200, according to a company representative. More than 60 per cent are Japanese individuals, media reports say, while the country’s three largest private banks own another 20 per cent. JAL’s shares plummeted both Tuesday and yesterday, with trading volume breaking stock market records, after Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama suggested that both investors and JAL’s pensioned-off retirees should bear responsibility for the company’s downfall.

Mr. Ueda believes staff of Asia’s largest carrier should carry the burden, saying: “When your own company falls, you have to take responsibility also.” Analysts blame the company’s $16-billion debt on bad managers and politicians who forced JAL to fly money-losing routes for partisan reasons. “JAL’s shareholders are very angry,” said Hideaki Higashi, a strategist at SMBC Friend Securities in Tokyo. “The government says shareholders are responsible, but they weren’t the ones managing the company, and they couldn’t stop its demise. The banks are also responsible, because they lent too much and weren’t able to get it back.”

The government – which faces a national debt twice Japan’s annual gross domestic product – this week removed major hurdles toward steering JAL into bankruptcy protection and a potentially massive bailout of the carrier for the fifth time in a decade. Transport Minister Seiji Maehara on Tuesday night said the heads of Mizuho, Mitsubishi UFJ, and Sumitomo-Mitsui banks agreed to forgive some of the airline’s debt to lighten JAL’s load and keep it operating around the world.

Kazuo Inamori, the 77-year-old founder of electronics giant Kyocera Corp., said yesterday he will take over JAL’s leadership from Haruka Nishimatsu, who led a downsizing effort the past three years, including suspending more than 30 routes worldwide and closing eight offices. Mr. Nishimatsu is expected to step down next week, if the company files for bankruptcy protection as expected. “I’m a total novice when it comes to the transportation industry,” said Mr. Inamori, who vowed to work part-time for no pay. “I’ve decided to accept because the government and the turnaround body want to prevent JAL’s failure by any means.”

Founded in 1951 and privatized in 1987, JAL has lost about $2.5-billion in market value since Jan. 5, amid a flurry of media reports – including that 15,000 jobs could be slashed – which have been denied by JAL officials. Moody’s Investor Service has downgraded JAL to Ca, near default, according to Bloomberg News. Meanwhile, executives from both American Airlines and Delta have been in Tokyo recently, making lucrative offers for a share of JAL, which has 280 planes and access to the large Chinese market.

A major drain on JAL is its pension plan; this week, 67 per cent of its 8,800 retirees agreed to pension cuts averaging 30 per cent. Current employees have accepted 53-per-cent reductions for future pensions. “Instead of having a full pension, I’d rather have a company to work for,” said Mr. Ueda, who notes that many JAL shareholders are employees or retirees. “The [retirees] are worried about their pensions, and now the employees are worried about their jobs. It would be terrible to lose so many jobs, but maybe it’s the only way for the company to go forward.”



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