Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Japan's most famous entrepreneur crashes and burns

For a while there, Japanese entrepreneur Takafumi Horie was the brightest rising star of Japanese industry—a true rags-to-riches youngster who parlayed his Yahoo-like portal, called livedoor (with a lowercase "l"), into a huge empire.

Until mid-January, the public loved the 33-year-old college dropout, for he represented the dawn of a new economic era in the Japan. Not only was the recession finally over, but seemingly limitless opportunities were now available in a business environment that was more transparant and less clubbish, where the average Taro or Hanako could take an American-style startup from humble suburb to a prestigious Roppongi Hills address.

Horie even launched Japan's first-ever hostile takeover attempt. Although this attempt, like other subsequent and equally prominent attempted takeovers, ended in failure, it helped craft an image of him as a plucky, go-getting upstart.

How quickly a man's fortunes can change.

Today he sits in a jail in Tokyo somewhere, held incognito by authorities still trying to sort the whole mess out.

Horie's party came to an abrupt halt when audits revealed that his core portal business was a money-losing house of cards. Livedoor's stock price collapsed—and nearly took the entire Tokyo Stock Exchange with it. An article in the recent edition of the Economist sums up the story nicely.

Mr Horie is . . . the opposite of what his detractors claim: not an innovative American-style capitalist but rather a traditional Japanese book-cooker.

This excerpt from the same article puts the whole incident in context:

Mr Horie's sole true innovation lay in his use of publicity. Out of the failure of his bids for a baseball team and then a television company he built notoriety, a big rise in visits to his internet portal, and a general sense that although his underlying business remained a mystery he might be on to something so his shares were worth a punt. If that underlying business was a chimera—it still isn't clear—then his crime was to blend the ancient capitalist art of confidence-trickery, seen in pyramid schemes and South Sea Bubbles since the beginning of time, with the sadly traditional Japanese art of obscure accounting and market manipulation. Virtually every Tokyo financial scandal of the past 20 years has featured those arts.

—Mellow Monk

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