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Japan: Banking system or welfare state?

For foreigners, Japan is a topsy-turvy land where economic theory stands on its head. Nowhere more so than in the banking sector, a gravity-defying edifice which appears to be propping up the entire economy. If you were to rebuild it, you wouldn't start from here. But it has a terrifying logic, eloquently defended by Japan's elite. And remember, they wouldn't be in this mess if the Basle committee had been tougher 10 years ago. Steven Irvine reports.

A dose of Merrill doctrine

"In Japan, I feel the fashion is to bash bankers. This is not a sound move in a modern society. It is a little bit hysterical," ponders Shin Nakahara, the corporate planning boss of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi.

Contemplating the sheer scale of the bank rescue ahead of them - estimated needs $500 billion - Japanese bankers might feel like turning round and bashing the Basle Committee on Banking Supervision.

In Basle 10 years ago the British and Americans capitulated to the Japanese ministry of finance (MoF) on the issue of tier-two capital. The concession allowed banks to count, as tier-two capital reserves, up to 45% of their hidden assets - that is to say, unrealized gains on their equity portfolios.

This defeated the whole effort of the Basle Committee to harmonize banks' capital adequacy ratios (BIS ratios) in the Group of 10 industrial countries. The British and American regulators had gone to Basle intent on forcing Japanese banks to boost their equity capital from 4% of all assets to 8%. The concession won by the MoF meant a tier-one ratio of 4% could be balanced by unrealized stock market gains of 4%.

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