My least favourite Japanese expression is “kusai mono ni futa” – when it stinks, put a lid on it. It is at the root of many Japanese corporate governance scandals. Mistakes are made or problems surface and instead of exposing them and causing loss of face all round, they are swept under the carpet, in the hope that they will somehow magically disappear. But of course stinky things with lids on just get stinkier.
On the face of it, there was nothing stinky about Japanese companies in the UK. The very fact that the UK was such an easy place to do business – on a European and global scale – lulled Japanese companies into complacency. Japanese expatriates like living in the UK, particularly around London, where the vast majority of Japanese business people are based. A couple of years’ traineeship in London is also a great incentive to lure scarce young English speaking Japanese into your graduate recruitment scheme.
Brexit exposed complacency about profitability in the UK
Over 125 Japanese companies in the UK are the European headquarters, employing over 25,000 people (of the 160,000 UK employees in total who work for 1000 Japanese companies), with a combined turnover of over £40bn. Much of that turnover derived from management fees from Japan headquarters, dividends from European subsidiaries or royalties from intellectual property, so the profitability or otherwise of the UK business itself was not so exposed.
Profitability in manufacturing is far more obvious. Nissan, Honda and Toyota’s factories in the UK had high levels of productivity – they had to be to win the right to make each new model. But Honda never managed to sell enough of its cars in Europe for Swindon to reach full capacity. The car industry is going through a shift away from petrol and diesel to electric. Japanese manufacturers like to be near their key markets to develop new models, and for electric vehicles, China is a far bigger and more promising market than Europe. The supply chains for electric vehicles are more developed and close knit in their Japan base.
Brexit yanked the lid off some stinky realities. As the JETRO annual survey on business conditions for Japanese companies in Europe details, 60% of UK based Japanese companies predicted the future impact of Brexit on their business would be negative, and 25% said it had had a negative impact already. Most cited the threat to the supply chain of customs duties and customs procedures or divergence in regulations being introduced as their top concerns.
Over 90% of Japanese companies could withdraw their European headquarters from the UK because of Brexit
61% said that they had already decided to relocate/withdraw or had already relocated or withdrawn certain functions from their regional headquarters in the UK and another 32% are considering it – mostly as a partial relocation to another EU member state. As is well known, Panasonic and Sony have already done this. It was not just the threat of Brexit disrupting invoicing and customs clearance, but also in response as much to the new Japanese tax haven law. The UK’s lowering of the corporation tax rate of 17% to show Global Britain was still open for business meant revenue from dividends and royalties received in the UK would be considered as tax avoidance by the Japanese tax authorities.
More than two thirds of Japanese companies could withdraw their European sales functions from the UK
29% of Japanese companies in the UK have decided to relocate/withdraw or have already relocated/withdrawn their sales functions and a further 38% are considering doing so. Sharp Electronics has moved their inventory to Sharp in France along with responsibility for logistics and warehousing. Various automotive sector companies have moved customer accounts and product lines to Germany.
Moving sales or regional headquarter functions out of the UK does not have an immediate impact on jobs in the UK. In fact labour shortage is cited as the top concern for Japanese companies across Europe. So they are likely to try to hang on to the employees they have, and the regional management will just operate in a much more virtual way – Sharp says its UK base will still have an executive/board level responsibility for Europe, as that is where its European executives are currently based. For now.
Nearly two-thirds of Japanese manufacturers are withdrawing or considering withdrawing manufacturing from the UK
33% of Japanese manufacturers have decided to relocate or withdraw or have relocated or withdrawn their manufacturing from the UK and 30% are considering doing so. This may seem surprisingly low given the fuss made over the car companies and their supply chains being impacted by Brexit. But actually most Japanese manufacturers have alternative plants in Europe they can use if necessary. Those who do not are usually manufacturing highly specialised products that are less supply chain time critical, or for UK sales only or that they are presumably confident they can sell across Europe no matter what barriers there are.
No deal preparations
The JETRO survey did not specify the type of Brexit when asking Japanese companies in Europe in general about relocation or withdrawal plans, but did ask if any countermeasures had been taken for a no deal Brexit. Just over 10% of all Japanese companies – in the UK and Europe – had already made plans or were currently making plans. A further 15% of Japanese companies in the UK were intending to plan for no deal but only 4% of non UK EU companies were intending to plan (this was as of October 2018). The most popular countermeasure was stockpiling (21%), followed by reorganising functions within the company group (10%).
Financial services already prepared for all possibilities
All the Japanese financial services companies that would be affected by Brexit have already put their plans into action – most now have licenses for the UK and obtained financial passporting or licenses in the EU as necessary. Again, having to take a hard, cold look at their European operations has taken the lid off some long standing whiffy problems, particularly for Nomura, which looks like it will be shutting down its global wholesale side in London entirely.
No rollover and then there were none
Stockpiling as the main countermeasure for a no deal Brexit assumes that eventually a deal will be reached, before the stocks run out. But such deals take time. The EU-Japan European Partnership Agreement (EPA) started in 2013, finalised at the end of 2017, signed off in July 2018, and was in force from February 2019. Known as cars for cheese – it was actually meant to promote food and car exports both ways. Japan has already been promoting European wines and cheeses in its supermarkets and announced the first shipment of fully farmed tuna to Europe under the EPA agreement.
Similarly, reduction on tariffs on cars and car parts was meant to protect Japanese branded manufacturing in Europe (because they could easily import Japan manufactured parts) and help European car manufacturers export more cars to Japan.
Hard stinky cheese
If a no deal Brexit happens, although Japan started talks with the UK about rolling over the EPA, it has stated this would not be a cut and paste job. Japan is clear that it expects more concessions from the UK than in the EU deal – including cheese and cars. So British cheese makers may find their exports to Japan have a longer time to ripen than they were planning, in the event of a no deal.
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