Living on the Edge

12 minute read
Jim Frederick | Tokyo

On any given day over the past two years, reporters could be found hanging out at the Segafredo coffee bar in the lobby of Roppongi Hills’ Mori Tower, one of Japan’s swishest office buildings. They were usually waiting for Takafumi Horie, the 33-year-old founder and CEO of Livedoor, one of Japan’s hottest Internet companies, whose offices are located on the 38th floor. For passers-by, it was easy to evaluate the magnitude of that day’s Horie news by counting the number of reporters on stakeout—in Japan, you see, Horie made the news almost every day. If Livedoor had just announced the acquisition of another company to add to its growing empire, or if Horie was seen dining with a starlet, there may have been just a handful of scribblers keeping watch. But if Horie was up to one of his grander stunts—running for parliament, say, or trying to take over one of Japan’s largest radio networks (both of which he attempted last year)—a crew from every news organization in the country would be lying in wait to pepper him with questions and follow him to his nearby home.

Just after dusk on Jan. 16, however, something very different and far, far larger was afoot on the Horie beat. More than 100 reporters set up camp outside the building that evening. They had been tipped off by the Tokyo District Court’s Public Prosecutor’s Office that Japan’s controversial corporate wunderkind was about to be raided as part of an investigation into suspicions of illegal securities manipulation. Searching late into the night at Livedoor’s offices (as well as at the homes of top executives), investigators carted off computers, files and papers as flashes popped and video cameras panned. Seemingly overnight, Horie’s universe had imploded, and the shock waves are still reverberating around the country and the global investment community. The news sparked a two-day nosedive for Japanese stocks that cost investors nearly $40 billion, and the volume of sell orders was so great that it forced the world’s second-largest stock market to shut down for 20 minutes, much to the embarrassment of its bemused regulators. The scandal has also unleashed a wave of worry about the solidity of Japan’s much-heralded economic recovery. If Horie, this budding superhero of the New Economy, was not all that he seemed to be, skeptics asked, what other nasty surprises might be lurking ominously beneath the surface?

According to Japanese media reports, prosecutors suspect that Livedoor deliberately provided false information designed to boost the stock price of one of its subsidiaries. In October 2004, Livedoor announced that a subsidiary now called Livedoor Marketing was planning to acquire a publisher called Money Life via a stock swap, although media reports claim it had already acquired that company with cash. From October to November of 2004, the subsidiary’s stock soared 150%, fueled by news of this deal. The penalty for such a crime is a fine of up to $500,000 and five years in prison.

Livedoor and Horie have steadfastly maintained their innocence. But there’s no doubt that the scandal represents an epic comedown. In a country where true business mavericks are rare, Horie’s story is already legendary. In 1996, after dropping out of Japan’s most prestigious school, the University of Tokyo, he founded a website design consultancy with just $52,000, which he tellingly called Livin’ on the Edge. Since then, he has built the company, primarily through mergers and acquisitions, into a Yahoo!-style Internet portal offering everything from e-mail and news to travel and concert tickets, auctions and online banking. Over the past five fiscal years, it has acquired 27 companies, increasing revenue 22-fold to nearly $800 million. Livedoor’s stock has been just as gravity-defying, rising 26-fold in the five years ending in December 2005. Such aggressive growth through acquisitions is rare in Japan, as is Livedoor’s habit of frequently splitting its stock so that small (and often naive) investors can afford to buy the shares. In one of the over 20 books he has written since 1998, Horie declares: “Being a shareholder means being a fan … Livedoor’s share price has become affordable to even grade-school children due to stock splitting … The reason Livedoor kept splitting its stock is because I wanted young people without a lot of money to be shareholders.” Such practices made Horie suspicious to many old-fashioned Japanese businessmen (not to mention money managers worldwide). But, until last week, his gift for promoting the stock served him and his shareholders well. In December 2005, his 17% stake was worth $1.2 billion.

Young, cocky and charismatic CEOs like Horie have cut an increasingly high profile in Japan of late. Eschewing the business practices of old-school Japan Inc., which put a premium on consensus-building, back-scratching and maintaining stability at the expense of efficiency and profits, these new-era leaders have espoused a purportedly American style of business, in which survival of the fittest rules and hostile takeovers are just routine tools in corporate competition. The business establishment’s reaction has been utter revulsion. Many business leaders who still consider manufacturing the only respectable industry have accused the Internet and services firms of playing a “money game,” rather than building tangible products. For many Japan watchers, the clash of business cultures has become far more interesting than the actual economic impact of these upstart companies. Patrick Mohr, head of quantitative research at Nikko Citigroup in Tokyo, says the psychological importance of Japan’s young Internet guns has been tremendous: “The symbolism of someone who’s been one of the most aggressive, vocal movers and shakers in Japan getting put down by old Japan is hard to miss. For a lot of young people in Japan, Horie was a hero. He was an incredibly successful 33-year-old. He was the symbol of entrepreneurial vitality, which is what the country needs.”

Horie has always been a primary focus of the establishment’s ire. Improbably, the chubby, self-avowed geek has adopted the trappings and aura of a rock star. He wears designer T shirts and $400 jeans rather than a business suit. He drives a Ferrari. He dates models and actresses. He is notorious among reporters for being a prickly and condescending interview subject. Yet he could also be tremendously charming, clowning around on quiz shows and starring in one of Livedoor’s most popular TV ads. The range of his projects and interests seemed inexhaustible and always kept him in the news. One day, he bought a racehorse; another, he announced a private space-tourism venture; he even revealed that he was recording a music CD.

Horie’s books were equally eye-catching, with brash titles like Earning Money is Everything: From Zero to 10 Billion Yen My Way, Winning is Earning and Be the World’s Richest! Reading Horie is an amazing experience, a glimpse into a soul unburdened by self-doubt, devoid of self-awareness, oblivious to irony. Often, he seems to veer into megalomania. “I don’t think I’m going to die,” he confides in one book. “At the current rate of scientific research, isn’t it possible that they’ll come up with a way to do away with death, if you pump enough money into it?” Perhaps it’s all a pose, but in retrospect, his writing is riddled with what now look like red flags. In one book, Using Cash Flow Management to Become Number One in the World, he and a coauthor declare: “All that we do is aimed at achieving the simple, central goal of making [Livedoor] No. 1 in terms of market capitalization.” Horie apparently has nothing else in mind—no superfluous things such as philosophy or aesthetics. Throughout his writings, he comes off as a man whose priorities are way out of whack. “There’s nothing money can’t buy,” is a phrase he repeats like a mantra.

Before long, the war between Horie and the Squares had become a self-reinforcing cycle. The more Japan’s business lite called him a punk, the more he’d say things such as “All evils come from aged business managers.” The more often his deal-making style was called into question, the more daring his takeover attempts became. In 2004, he tried to buy the Kintetsu Buffaloes, a financially struggling team in Japan’s professional baseball league. The league’s old-boy owners club quickly squashed that move. But Horie shrugged off this setback, saying the attempt had been good for business anyway. He explained: “What I care about most is the publicity the company gets.”

In February 2005, Horie upped the ante again, making a play for Nippon Broadcasting Systems, the radio unit of the venerable Fuji TV conglomerate. The move inspired widespread criticism, not just because of the hubris of his goal, but because of the means he used to achieve it. Exploiting a loophole in Japanese securities law, he acquired a 35% stake in after-hours trading before his target even realized it was under attack. Critics howled, calling him “sneaky” and “un-Japanese,” and regulators closed the loophole. While the bid ultimately failed, Horie remained undaunted and soon moved to his biggest act yet: running for parliament. Handpicked by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Horie signed on to become an “assassin,” one of the loyalists deployed in September’s snap elections to unseat opponents of the administration’s reform agenda. Horie’s target: 68-year-old Shizuka Kamei, whose constituency had returned him to office nine times. Visibly insulted to be running against the political neophyte, Kamei dismissed Horie as a curiosity and a city slicker before beating him handily. But for Livedoor, the p.r. value of his candidacy was incalculable.

Given the divisive cultural icon he had become, perhaps the real surprise is that Horie’s company had not encountered more official scrutiny earlier. But once his luck turned, his vulnerabilities became brutally apparent. Following the raid, his shareholders proved to be fair-weather fans. Since last Monday, Livedoor’s stock has dropped 52%, shedding more than $3 billion in market value. At one point, sell orders outnumbered buys by 1,500 to 1. The Livedoor selloff soon turned into a marketwide panic that sent the Nikkei 225 tumbling 2.8% on Tuesday and another 2.9% on Wednesday. On Thursday, Livedoor announced that its internal investigation had concluded that it had done nothing wrong, though it released few details to back up this claim. Horie, meanwhile, has given numerous press conferences in which he looks tired and stressed but maintains that he’s both cooperating with the investigation and believes he’ll be vindicated.

Livedoor’s public announcements haven’t stemmed the tide of allegations in the Japanese press. The Yomiuri Shimbun, for example, claimed that prosecutors have expanded their investigation to include alleged accounting fraud, examining whether Livedoor falsified its 2004 financial reports to show a profit of $12 million when it had actually suffered a loss. Adding to the intrigue, a brokerage-house executive and former Livedoor employee under investigation over his involvement with the company’s investments was found dead in an Okinawa hotel room last week in an apparent suicide. And a Livedoor director resigned on Thursday with no public explanation.

Despite all the market and media turmoil, most institutional investors and analysts point out that Livedoor isn’t a large company, and emphasize that the wider economic impact of its troubles should prove limited. Peter Morgan, chief economist for HSBC Securities in Tokyo, says the Livedoor case is a symbolic battle, not a significant economic setback: “The economy is better now than it’s been for quite some time. The fundamentals still look pretty good.” As for the volume of orders that prompted the stock exchange’s early closing, Takuji Aida, chief economist at Barclays Capital Japan, blames undisciplined individual investors. “Many Japanese households have started to join in the stock market,” he says, “and a lot of money went into technology-stock shares. They got panicked. This should be a lesson for them.” Indeed, on Thursday, Japan’s market staged its biggest rally in 20 months, and exchange chairman Taizo Nishimuro assured investors that it would double its trading capacity by the end of the year.

Though the market has rebounded, suspicions linger that the allegations against Livedoor might still turn out to be symptomatic of a broader problem with corporate conduct in Japan. HSBC’s Morgan says there is no sign of that so far, “but if Livedoor had that brilliant idea, it’s possible that other companies might have had similar thoughts.” For now, however, most analysts contacted by Time contend that Japan’s stock market, economy and oversight of financial reporting remain basically sound. Peter Tasker, an economist at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein in Tokyo, says the “Livedoor Shock” may even have been beneficial, triggering an overdue correction after speculative excess drove the Japanese market to a 40% rise in barely six months.

Meanwhile, the establishment has hardly been able to contain its glee at Horie’s comeuppance. Every major newspaper has run editorials more or less condemning him as an alchemist, a huckster and a criminal. Hiroshi Okuda, former president of Toyota, said in a speech: “The business model that says you can do anything if you have money should not be respected.” Okuda later said he regretted letting Livedoor join Keidanren, Japan’s most prestigious business association, which he chairs. “I messed up,” said Okuda. “I acted too hastily.”

But true to form for a man who once wrote a book called I Will Not Die, Horie is not yet conceding defeat. Asked at a press conference if he will resign, he derided the question as “irresponsible.” Just under a year ago, at a seminar in Sapporo for budding entrepreneurs, Horie claimed: “Even if you fail, the worst that you can end up with is zero. You can always reset.” Now Japan is waiting to see if that was nothing more than bluster.

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