25 February 2012

AIJ Tokyo Asset Management: Billions In Customer Funds Are Missing

This is more Madoff than Corzine, but the song of unforeseen counterparty risk remains the same.

The Japanese regulators have decided to take a closer look to see how many more of the 299 asset management firms have funding problems like this.

Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til its gone?

Wall Street Journal Japan
Missing Funds at AIJ: Watchdogging Japan
By Kana Inagaki and Phred Dvorak
February 24, 2012, 1:53 PM JST

The revelation that billions of dollars may have gone missing from client funds managed by a little-known Tokyo asset management firm highlights a sobering fact about Japanese financial regulation: It’s pretty spotty.

Japan’s financial watchdog Friday said investigators were looking into the alleged disappearance of “most of” the 183 billion yen, or about $2.3 billion, in pension-fund assets managed by AIJ Investment Advisors Co. Details are sketchy: regulators haven’t said exactly how much is supposedly lost, how many clients AIJ had, nor even whether they suspect foul play.

But we do know that if AIJ was doing anything wrong, the chances of its being caught out by Japan’s regulators were pretty slim.

Investment managers like AIJ are required to submit business reports to regulators once a year, Japan’s Financial Services Agency says. If those regulators suspect problems, they can carry out hearings. And some companies actually conduct voluntary audits of their own businesses. (AIJ was not one of them.)

A firm involved in dubious activity would need to be fairly unlucky to find itself caught in the net of one of the Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission’s annual audits. The regulator conducted inspections of 15 investment managers in the year ended March 2011. Since there were 299 such firms in total, the chances of getting audited were about one in 20.

The FSA says it’s now going to do an audit of all 263 firms that have similar investment-management mandates to AIJ’s.

According to Japan’s Nikkei daily, AIJ may have misled clients for years, claiming they had cumulative returns as high as 240%.

It all makes for a fairly bleak spell for Japanese financial regulators. After all, the discovery of pension funds missing at AIJ comes only months after camera-maker Olympus Corp. admitted to it successfully hid more than $1.5 billion in losses for 13 years.

“To the economist embezzlement is the most interesting of crimes. Alone among the various forms of larceny it has a time parameter. Weeks, months or years may elapse between the commission of the crime and its discovery. (This is a period, incidentally, when the embezzler has his gain and the man who has been embezzled, oddly enough, feels no loss. There is a net increase in psychic wealth.) At any given time there exists an inventory of undiscovered embezzlement in – or more precisely not in – the country’s business and banks. This inventory – it should perhaps be called the bezzle – amounts at any moment to many millions of dollars. It also varies in size with the business cycle. In good times people are relaxed, trusting, and money is plentiful. But even though money is plentiful, there are always many people who need more. Under these circumstances the rate of embezzlement grows, the rate of discovery falls off, and the bezzle increases rapidly.”

John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash of 1929