As the UK-Japan Free Trade Agreement is in its final stages, it seems a good moment to revisit our Top 30 Japanese companies in the UK. Although the headlines seem to be heading towards “pork for cars”, the most important win-win for the UK and Japan should be protecting Japan’s investments in the UK. Japanese companies employ around 170,000 people in the UK by our estimates, and many thousands more indirectly.
The EU-UK deal is still the biggest source of concern for Japanese companies
There is a limit to what the UK-Japan deal can do to protect those investments, however. For Japanese companies in the UK, the EU-UK trade deal is the bigger source of concern. Many of them have their regional headquarters in the UK or have invested in the UK as their base for exporting to the rest of Europe.
The shape (or non-existence) of a UK-EU trade deal will determine not only whether it is worth continuing with manufacturing in the UK for Japanese companies but also whether Japanese companies will continue to coordinate services regionally out of the UK such as finance, legal, IT, HR, engineering, R&D etc. These services account for why the UK has a trade surplus in services exports to Japan – it’s largely due to Japan HQ sending money to their UK based regional operations to fund professional support services needed both for acquisitions and day to day operations.
If the barriers between the UK and the EU to mutual regulatory recognition and movement of people become too high to run European operations from the UK effectively, and as a consequence UK companies are no longer attractive investment targets, Japanese regional HQs and acquisitions will begin to drift to the continent. In fact, they already have started to shift piecemeal to the EU. No amount of bilateral recognition of services and data regulations between the UK and Japan is going to help stem this.
According to our estimates, the number of people employed by Japanese companies in the UK levelled off comparing 2018/9 to 2017/8 – rising by only 0.2% to 170,187, having risen around 6% a year in the previous two years.
Japanese automotive sector dominates Japanese jobs in UK, but is declining
Our Top 30 Japanese employers in the UK employment total has also levelled out at around 94,000 or 55% of the 170,000 people employed by Japanese companies in the UK.
Nissan (#1), Honda (#5) and Toyota (#8) employ around 18,400 – 11% or so of the total. If other Japanese automotive suppliers are added such as Denso (#20) and Unipres (#30), the total number employed is 37,489 (22% of the total employed by Japanese companies), down 2.8% on 2017/8.
Making sure that there are tariff free automotive components from Japan for manufacturing in the UK will help sustain Japanese manufacturing in the UK at least in the short term, if tariffs are imposed on EU automotive imports as part of the UK-Japan FTA or there’s a no deal. But the shift in automotive production to eastern Europe has been going on for some time.
Japanese trading companies growing steadily in the UK but no acquisitions
The UK, or more especially London, has been the commercial and trading location of choice for Japanese companies in Europe for over 100 years. At the heart of this are Japan’s trading companies – Mitsubishi Corporation, Mitsui & Co, Sumitomo Corporation, Itochu, Marubeni and Sojitz. They are still involved in commodity trading but also financing and more recently acquisitions – although there have not been any UK acquisitions since 2017. The most notable recent European acquisition was Mitsubishi Corporation acquiring Dutch energy company Eneco in 2019 for €4.1bn.
Japanese trading companies currently employ around 14,700 people in the UK, and this has grown just under 2% a year over the past couple of years
Japanese financial services holding steady in the UK
The next biggest Japanese sector in the UK is financial services, including MS&AD (#15), MUFG (#16), Nomura (#17), SMFG (#22), Mizuho (#29). It accounts for around 13,000 employees and growth has been around 1% to 2% a year.
All Japanese financial services companies that are impacted by Brexit have set up or strengthened their subsidiaries in the EU, but the scale of these organisations is still far smaller than their UK operations. There may be an issue eventually not so much about the quantity as the quality of these EU subsidiaries for the EU – they will want to see the decision makers based in the EU as a condition for regulatory approval. But as most decisions are ultimately made by multiple people in Japan headquarters, it is not clear how Japanese companies can respond to such a demand. In the meantime, Japanese financial groups are repositioning their London operations as EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) headquarters.
Electronics, ICT and acquisitions
Fujitsu (#3), the pioneer of big acquisitions in the UK (ICL in 1990) is no longer the biggest Japanese employer in the UK, having shrunk its workforce by 38% since 2014/5. Sony (#9) has also cut its workforce by 11% over the past four years. Canon (#12) and Ricoh (#7) have grown by less than 10%, Brother (#28) grew around 15%, Mitsubishi Electric (#27) by 17%. Konica Minolta (#24) has grown over 40% in the past 4 years through acquisitions but seems to be shifting more towards the Czech Republic recently.
NTT (#11) and Hitachi (#2), both with ex Japan global HQ in the UK, have grown 60% and 175% respectively over the past 4 years, partly through acquisitions but also in Hitachi’s case through organic growth, with the investment in the rail manufacturing and assembly plant in Newton Aycliffe.
Other new entrants over the past four years have been through acquisitions too – Outsourcing (#26) in recruitment, Sumitomo Rubber (#19) through its acquisition of Micheldever in 2017 and SoftBank acquiring (and soon to be disposing of) ARM.
A holding pattern until the fog clears
The years of double digit growth and acquisitions by Japanese companies in the UK seems to be coming to an end, or at least is on hold until the picture is clearer after the fog lifts from the UK-EU negotiations and the coronavirus pandemic. The UK-Japan FTA does not clear this fog, but at least lays out a path for the UK, which Japan very much would like it to follow, of reintegrating itself back into the rules based international order, towards joining the CPTPP and continuing to be one of Japan’s closest allies in terms of digital security and strategic interests.
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