Ministry Of Finance -- Or Failure?

Dec. 21, 2004

Everyone likes a good expos . . . everyone, that is, except for the individuals or institutions being exposed. For Japans Ministry of Finance, the publication of Peter Hartchers The Ministry: How Japans Most Powerful Institution Endangers World Markets must be the source of considerable discomfort. The first book in the English language to focus on the clandestine bureaucracy known as the Okurasho (literally, "great storehouse ministry"), The Ministry reveals the 1,300-year-old institution to be the real bureaucratic power in Japans economy. Hartcher shows how the Okurasho controls Japans interest rates, banking system, strategic financing institutions, and the national budget. Its influence pervades the countrys financial and political institutions because of the practice of amakudari ("the descent from heaven"), under which the Okurasho fills top-level jobs throughout the public and private sectors with its executives when they leave the ministry. Hartchers book couldnt be timelier, as Japans financial bureaucracy comes under increasing scrutiny for its role in the failure of some of the countrys largest financial institutions and for threatening international efforts to restore economic stability to the rest of Asia. The book cites "the growing body of evidence that the Okurasho frequently acts not out of national interest but out of unenlightened self-interest." Some reforms have begun: A program of financial deregulation will reduce the formal extent of the ministrys meddling in markets and companies, and a policy of sending all career-stream recruits abroad to study should accelerate trends toward market-based policies. But, argues Hartcher, "There is a good case for further reform of the Okurasho. . . . Without further change to the ministry, Japans economic cycle will continue to be influenced by fiscal intrigue at the Okurasho, rather than guided by the pursuit of optimum, sustainable economic growth." The power and influence of Japans Ministry of Finance flies in the face of the worldwide trend toward market economies described in The Commanding Heights: The Battle Between Government and the Marketplace That Is Remaking the Modern World by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw. "All around the globe, socialists are embracing capitalism, governments are selling off companies they had previously nationalized, and countries are seeking to entice back multinational corporations that they had expelled just two decades earlier," the authors observe. Yet while governments are rejecting control of "the commanding heights" -- a term used by Lenin in the 1920s to describe the most important elements of the economy -- Yergin and Stanislaw say there are pressures that could reverse the trend. The success of free markets and privatization, they believe, hinges on the ability of such a system to deliver growth and higher standards of living, to avoid excessive concentration of wealth, to secure the environment, and to support an aging population. The greatest threat to the new market consensus, however, could arise "from massive disruption of the international financial system." The emergence of market economies, the authors say, "represents a great reconnecting -- a conjoining of the beginning and the end of the 20th century." While the century began with "markets ascendant and an expanding global economy," the ensuing wars, crises, and human suffering propelled an expansion of the states role. Yergin and Stanislaw question whether such a cycle will be repeated. Despite recent setbacks, the Asia-Pacific region will provide the most profitable prospects for multinational companies during the next several decades, contends George S. Yip in Asian Advantage: Key Strategies for Winning in the Asia-Pacific Region. A book that provides in-depth country and comparative analyses as well as data on business, economic, cultural, and political conditions in the region bounded by Japan, India, and New Zealand, Asian Advantage has valuable insights and information for executives planning forays into these markets.

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