You are here

Future gazing

Mitsubishi UFJ chief executive Nobuyuki Hirano, who has lived through Japan's boom years and its Lost Decade, is looking ahead with renewed hope as Japan attempts economic revitalisation through Abenomics amid challenges of an ageing society and shifting consumer trends.


NOBUYUKI Hirano has tried to glimpse the future many times in his life, and knows well the different forms that it can take.

There is the future of growth and global ambition that he saw as a young banker when Japan was still Asia's crown-jewel economy. There is the future of despair and uncertainty that he experienced during Japan's Lost Decade under the cloud of deflation. Then there is the grey future that he must address as he contemplates his country's demographic outlook.

More recently, there is the future of renewed hope as Japan pursues the economic restructuring plan known as Abenomics.

Out of the future's many manifestations, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is the progressive one that Mr Hirano is courting. Faced with the demands of an ageing society, the challenges of shifting consumer trends and the ambitions of a growing global bank, the chief executive of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG) is embracing the promise of technology while calling for a more inclusive society.

Market voices on:

Ambitious future

Mr Hirano is a career banker who has been with MUFG and its predecessors since 1974. Back then, Japan's economy was still growing at a very respectable rate of about 8 per cent, and the young Mr Hirano had his eyes set on conquering the world.

"I clearly recall what I responded to my interviewer's question at my entrance interview . . . The question was quite difficult: Why would you like to join us?" Mr Hirano says.

"My point was, well, I like to do the business which really pushes the Japanese economy globally, and I said this country's future will not be so rosy if we stay within our borders. So we need to desperately seek the opportunity to expand the business, as corporate Japan towards the world."

Mr Hirano pauses for a moment, then laughs.

"I don't know why I commented that way. Probably someone recommended that I respond in that way. To get the ticket! But that's how I started my very first contact with the bank."

He asked for the world, and got something quite a bit more local.

"The reality was a little different," Mr Hirano says. "I was placed in a couple of domestic retail branch offices for seven years, almost, where I was assigned to do the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) whose annual sales were less than US$10 million. And I was given the bicycle rather than the car to drive."

The first branch that Mr Hirano worked at was on the southern edge of metropolitan Tokyo, facing a river. The riverbank was dotted with small factories, and the neighbourhood was the consummate manufacturing hub.

"That town was very well known among Japanese broadcasters, because every time the Japanese yen increased in value, that hurts exporters, so the Japanese broadcasters immediately took their cameras to that place to ask, so how does this affect you?" Mr Hirano shares.

That town may not have been quite the scale that Mr Hirano had imagined when he interviewed for his job, but that intimacy with the heart of Japan's post-war enterprise engine was an experience that he cherishes to this day.

"I learned a lot because the majority of my 100 accounts were the companies which started their business after World War II," Mr Hirano says. "So they started their business from scratch. From the ashes, so to speak - everything was destroyed. So they told me how they started their businesses and what was the success factor and what was the failure factor. They told me how the human relationship and the trust between the bank and the company is important. I was so lucky to be able to attend to those clients. Some of them grew to be large scale companies, and some, of course, failed. But I learned a lot of the histories of those companies and the wisdom about the business."

Mr Hirano eventually got the chance to see the rest of the world when the bank sent him to the United States to learn the ropes.

"I started to go back to my original hope and wish to be engaged in the more global business. I raised my hand," Mr Hirano says. "And then I was involved in the early stage of global finance, selling risk finance and multinational organisation finance. The liberalisation of the yen was going on at that point in time, so I was involved in those quite early-stage global financial activities. I had a chance to go to Morgan Stanley."

He spent about a year in New York as a corporate banker, a stint that is about as eye-opening an experience as they come.

"The life there was totally different from the life of mine in the SME industry," Mr Hirano recalls. "Those clients were really the blue chip companies, and what we advised them to do was in capital market transactions, big scale mergers and acquisitions or spin-offs, risk hedging and so on. And they worked very hard, 24 hours, 364 and a half days.

"What is the half day? Christmas Eve."

Perhaps there was no better sign of the different rules that ran New York than a brown-bag meeting.

"They have a quite strange breakfast that's a Monday morning meeting," Mr Hirano says. "All the young people together with the senior management. They will ask what's the client's strategy, new products, and what you want to focus on - everything. So, a strategic meeting, and they bring in the brown paper bags. I was wondering what's in those bags.

"Doughnuts! I was told and educated by my mother not to eat any sweets for your breakfast. So that went against my culture. It's a shock. But including all those culture gaps, the different working styles, I really enjoyed life with them. So that shaped my views from working with the SMEs and blue chips and global companies. And then I really started my global career, spending almost five years in Europe, and seven and a half years in New York."

Uncertain future

The bursting of the Japanese bubble economy in the early 1990s shattered the optimism that Mr Hirano had known for the early parts of his working life.

A growing crisis in the property market sent the Japanese stock markets diving in 1990, triggering the start of what would eventually be known as the Lost Decade of stagnancy in the Japanese economy.

"That's a really difficult time. Deflation is probably hard for you to measure," Mr Hirano says. "What it means is, the best thing you can do is stay on where you are. The best performing financial assets in the past 15 years in the Lost Decade were deposits, which was in a sense, zero-interest bearing. Why? The price declines, so zero interest means positive real interest. If you invested your money into emerging markets, currencies . . . real estate investment trusts (Reits), real estate or whatever, you lost against depositors."

A one-year recession is tough enough to swallow. Living in a sideways economy for the better part of 20 years is difficult to fathom for people living in today's developed world, because few other advanced countries have gone through Japan's plight in the 1990s and 2000s in recent times. It was particularly exasperating for a banker in Japan.

"That quite-passive and conservative mindset became more persistent, across individuals, consumers as well as business people," Mr Hirano says. "So there was little room for banks to help."

The Lost Decade has also hit the psyche of the Japanese, especially the younger members of society, who have never enjoyed sustained periods of robust growth.

"The brighter future, tomorrow's life is better than today; that's the kind of psychological scene that I had or my generation had when we were 20 years old," Mr Hirano explains. "The younger generation right now, they are very good at technology but on the other hand, their positive attitude about the future, or their aggressiveness, is somewhat missing."

Grey future

What should an economy do to break free of deflation's stifling grasp?

Mr Hirano is supportive of Abenomics, the economic revitalisation plan by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Mr Abe's plan has three "arrows" - the first to be fired at monetary policy by devaluing the yen to make Japanese exports more competitive and by carrying out quantitative easing. The second arrow was aimed at fiscal policy, with the Japanese government committing to aggressive stimulus spending. The third arrow was aimed at economic restructuring, a trickier shot that has to hit a number of tough targets to work.

Mr Hirano reckons that the first two arrows flew true and hit their marks, with business earnings, stock prices and employment all responding in the desired fashion. It is the third arrow that is still in the air.

"Consumption is not as well recovered as was initially expected. Why?" Mr Hirano muses. "In my view, there are two things. One, long-term deflationary environment gives the sort of very sticky, negative mindset or psychological attitude among Japanese consumers. So it takes some time to get out of those muddy situations of passive or negative mindset among consumers. They'd rather save more than they spend. Two, I think the demographic issue is there. So, in order to create a society with future potential, you need to create the people who will develop the future of the country, but there is a missing piece at this time. The birth rate in Japan is 1.4 times, while Singapore is I think 1.3 times. It needs to be addressed."

Japan's greying population is a major priority for Mr Hirano. Interest rates could be perfectly set, business confidence could be booming and markets could be rallying, but none of that will deliver sustainable growth if Japan cannot solve its demographic issues.

"In Japan, demographic change means ageing population as well as declining population," Mr Hirano says. "It may create a divide between two different generations, millennials and senior people. It may end up with the sort of undermining and dismantling of middle-class people, which has been a kind of solid basis for Japan's economy and society."

Mr Hirano sees a number of possible solutions.

The first, and a major social and political issue confronting Japan, is to make up the numbers through immigration. Japan has not exactly been the most open of societies to newcomers, although that should change, Mr Hirano says.

"We have a sort of very conservative policy towards immigration," Mr Hirano says, "because we are a country surrounded by sea and we have a single race and homogenous society for over 100 years or a 1,000 years".

A double take.

"Although! Before that, the majority of the Japanese came from China, came from Korea, came from Taiwan, came from the Philippines, possibly. So we were a kind of mixture of races, but once we created a sort of Japanese way of living or Japanese culture or Japanese race, then it had not changed a lot, for possibly over a 1,000 years. So it's not easy to dramatically change our immigration policy, but I strongly believe we have to open our doors in a well-sorted out manner. The easy thing I can do is say the highly-skilled talent, not only in infocomm technology, but also any biochemical or other types, green energies or whatever. We need to have talent . . . Different background people, races, the cultures need to be mixed up at the higher level so I'm encouraging our people within our house as well as the government to lay out a comprehensive package of immigration for high-skilled people."

Beyond bringing in immigrants, Japan can also look within itself and simply try to do more with the people it has, by raising the participation of women and seniors in the workplace.

That is a philosophy that MUFG recently put into practice.

"We debated on who should be the major players of SME business, and one of us recommended, well, let's hire the new graduates and train them and have them interact with the SMEs," Mr Hirano says.

"In Japan, the SME business is not profitable because of the quite-low interest rate environment and credit spreads are very compressed. Therefore, in order to make the low-cost operation possible, someone recommended, use younger people with a lower wage level. But I said, no. Because SMEs really need the wisdom of the business, wisdom of life. Succession . . . new business development. That's how senior people, senior professionals can come in.

"I established a specialised company, which pools our senior bankers who have long exposed themselves to SME business and have them serve the clients. It's a sort of after-retirement job. So they are happy with the lower income because they've already got a comfortable amount of money, but rather, they find their identity, of life, of giving advice to the SMEs. So that is the human touch."

Futuristic future

Mr Hirano is also a strong proponent of using technology to keep up with the changing times, be it a migration of consumption trends or a greying population.

Beyond the usual online banking solutions, MUFG has gone as far as experimenting with front-line customer-service robots. Introduced this year, MUFG's Nao robot can operate in as many as 19 languages, is connected to the cloud and greets customers at a few branches. In talking about the robot, Mr Hirano uses the very human female pronoun of "she".

"The more she talks with the clients, the more she learns, and her level of intelligence as well as the depth of understanding about the conversation is enhanced," Mr Hirano says. "So she's on a very steep learning curve right now. And she can even speak the dialect from Western Japan, so she can speak two Japanese languages. At this point of time, we use her as a guide to let the clients know the procedures or where are the windows and so on, very elementary level of conversation in addition to the chat about the weather or whatever, but probably she will grow very fast to the level to replace the tellers in several years' time."

As much of an advocate as Mr Hirano is for technology, however, he is realistic about its limitations.

While machines can perform basic tasks adequately and excel at analytical tasks, they are still far from being able to replace humans at functions that require higher cognitive skills such as generating new ideas, he says.

Technology used in the wrong way can also create new problems.

Introduction of infocomm technology, for example, "will create a sort of divide of rich and poor", Mr Hirano says.

"Because the jobs which currently are assigned to younger generation or low-income people will be replaced by the machine. And higher-educated people will continue to be offered the nice opportunities for work, jobs and so on. Those structures . . . social change may take place in the coming years."

The issues that Japan has faced over the past two decades and the challenges it faces today are not unique, and Japan's experiences may yet educate others in the world, Mr Hirano notes. How to get out of a deep recession is a problem that policymakers in the United States and Europe have been grappling with since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. And many countries in Asia such as Singapore, China and South Korea are trying to arrest falling birth rates.

For MUFG, the way forward lies as much in understanding the similarities between one scenario and the next as it does in recognising the differences.

"The world is getting much smaller and closer," Mr Hirano says. "We can apply the same type of, for example, technology, infocomm technology, mobile technologies, to everywhere in the world. I believe there are increasing spaces of commonality while we still need to be conscious and mindful about cultural differences to run the business smoothly."



President & Group CEO, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc (MUFG)

President & CEO, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ (BTMU)

1951: Born in Gifu, Japan

1974: Graduated from Kyoto University

1974: Joined The Mitsubishi Bank Ltd

Next 3 decades: Held appointments in domestic branches, and various corporate banking and global strategy planning posts in Europe and New York, before returning to Japan to senior roles

2006: Appointed as Managing Director, BTMU

2008: Appointed as Senior MD, BTMU

2009: Became Director at Morgan Stanley

2009: Appointed as Deputy President, BTMU; assumed facilitating role for MUFG's strategic alliance with Morgan Stanley

2012: Appointed as President & CEO, BTMU

2013: Appointed as President & CEO, MUFG (renamed President & Group CEO in 2015)

2015 : Reappointed as Director at Morgan Stanley