The Economy

Good Week/Bad Week: Throw Edamame from the Train

Henpecked ''salaryman'' in Japan pays $34 million in taxes; officials, Hello Kitty, stunned. Plus: study shows network saboteurs are the angry type...
John GoffMay 20, 2005

Disclaimer: This column, such as it is, does not, in any way, shape, or form, purport to adhere to traditional journalistic concepts.

It has not been approved by the Gordon Commission, Commissioner Gordon, the IMF (Impossible Missions Force), the Elmira KOC, the Elmira KFC, the Urban League of America, Americans for Liechtenstein, the Rand Corporation, the Hues Corporation, the Geneva Convention, or the Milliners Convention (in Orlando, last February — what a blowout!).

In addition, it does not meet the high artistic or intellectual standards set by Martin Amis, Martin and Lewis, Lewis and Clark, Clark Clifford, Clifford the Big Red Dog, or Deputy Dawg.

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While the items in this column are based on real events, most everything else is made up. Some quotes are real, some came up in our alphabet soup this morning. Please, no lawsuits.


1. Tatsuro Kiyohara, Tower Investment Management

For the first time ever, a non-executive has paid the most personal income tax in one year in Japan. According to published reports, Tatsuro Kiyohara, an employee at Tokyo-based Tower Investment Management, shelled out a whopping $34 million in 2004 to Japan’s National Tax Agency. Reportedly, the 46-year-old Kiyohara made $94 million in salary, commissions, and bonuses in his job as a pension fund manager.

Kiyohara, a so-called “salaryman,” was far and away the biggest single taxpayer in Japan last year. Second place went to Sei Saito, 60, former chairman of a consumer credit company in Utsunomiya, northern Japan. Saito forked over about $11 million in income tax. Third place went to a Pachinko player from Pirikaneppu.

“This guy, Kiyohara, apparently successfully operated his funds,” said Toshihiro Nishibukuro, regional manager of the country’s National Tax Agency and director of the Nippon Bureau for Vast Understatement. In discussing the economic performance of the country in 2004, Nishibukuro went on to note that “based on corporate returns from Nagoya prefecture, Toyota apparently sold a few cars last year.” In addition, he noted that correlations of recent macroeconomic trends in the agro-business and food retailing sectors seemed to indicate that “from time to time, the Japanese people enjoy eating small pieces of uncooked fish.”

Reports from Japan claimed that Kiyohara still buys lunch from an allowance, which is parsed out by his wife. His wife, however, would not let Kiyohara speak to the media, nor let him play poker on Monday night with the guys. But when local reporters began suggesting that Tower Investment may be overpaying its workers, the company issued a press statement claiming that Tower turned a sizable profit in 2004. The press release went on to state: “Our company has a policy to pay high salary to employees who are talented and have made outstanding achievement. Everybody else gets bupkis.”


1. Operators of Corporate Computer Networks

A study released by the U.S. government on Monday found that insiders who sabotage computers are usually motivated by revenge against their bosses. The study, co-sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and the Ponds Institute, found that most attackers are disgruntled IT workers or ex-IT employees. Usually, those workers are upset about lost benefits, lost promotions, or, in some cases, lost pencil protectors. In addition, the report found that a small percentage of tech malcontents — about 3 percent — claim to be “emotionally and spiritually adrift” ever since the 1995 cancellation of “Blossom.”

The research examined cases over six years, including a 14-month period during the French Revolution. Interestingly, the study found that 93 percent of network saboteurs were male technology workers. 90 percent held advanced degrees in computer sciences. Another 45 percent preferred email to the arts. In addition, the study found that most saboteurs generally displayed “early signs of trouble, most notably truancy, tardiness, and a telltale tendency to alliterate.”

In one case highlighted in the study, an unidentified employer said he recognized unusual behavior by one malcontent — who later shut down the company’s communications over a dispute about severance payment — but attributed the behavior to the worker being a “weird tech guy.”

Indeed, one of the authors of the government report conceded that “trying to identify unusual or peculiar behavior in IT workers is like trying to isolate the trans fats in a pallet of Ring Dings.”

Nevertheless, the report did offer a few recommendations to help companies steer clear of trouble. One suggestion: Managers should pay close attention to IT employees facing disciplinary action or those who prefer Gabriella to Xena. Further, the authors of the study advised HR staffers to monitor the activities of any tech employee who shows up at work wearing a Kevlar suit and a tee-shirt that reads “You Want It When?”

2. Riggs Bank

In an unusual move, the CEO of U.S.-based Riggs banks has written a letter of apology to Banco de Chile SA. The mea culpa stems from Riggs’ handling of financial assets held by ousted Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

It seems that in 2002, Riggs closed out two Pinochet accounts due to “regulatory concerns.” Apparently, the money from those accounts — some $6 million — was then wire-transferred into an account in Banco de Chile’s New York branch. Banco de Chile claims the New York account also belonged to Pinochet.

But in his letter to Banco de Chile CEO Pablo Granifo, Riggs chief executive Drew Pfirrman admitted that the bank provided no instruction with the two transfers indicating that the funds belonged to Pinochet. Pfirrman also wrote that Riggs did not disclose that the accounts had been closed out due to regulatory concerns.

In the letter, Pfirrman wrote: “I am writing on behalf of Riggs…to express its sincere regret for the difficulties experienced by Banco de Chile as a result of the manner in which Riggs…transferred certain funds belonging to Augusto Pinochet to Banco de Chile in 2002.” In addition to the letter, Pfirrman also sent Granifo a friendship ring and a tin of butter brickle.

In February, the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency issued cease-and-desist orders against Banco de Chile for alleged non-compliance with the Bank Secrecy Act (that act, among other things, forbids any U.S. banker from revealing where they get all the free pens). The OCC also cited Banco de Chile for “serious and worrisome deviations from standard Western banking practices, including providing immediate availability of all funds deposited, free check-bouncing coverage, and a steadfast refusal to apply surcharges on ATM transactions conducted by non-bank customers.” The OCC added that, left unchecked, “such policies pose a serious threat to the stability of U.S. financial institutions, and by extension, our entire capitalist, money-grubbing system. “

Despite the controversy over the closed Pinochet accounts, Banco de Chile’s Granifo wrote a gracious letter in response to the Riggs apology. “Mistakes do happen,” he told Pfirrman in one paragraph of the note. “Surely this is the gods’ way of punishing us for our excessive pride, to say nothing of CPO Sharkey.” Granifo then went on to note that, as a young banker, he helped arrange the financing for several big construction projects in Pittsburgh in the ’70s. “Even to this day,” he conceded to Pfirrman, “I feel a deep, abiding, almost womanly shame about Three Rivers Stadium.”

This Date (More or Less) in History

On this date (actually, May 16), 1891, George A. Hormel founded a slaughterhouse and meatpacking business in Austin, Minnesota. Geo. A Hormel & Co. did just fine in its first 30 years of operation, turning out fresh pork products for a hungry nation. By 1924, the company was processing more than one million hogs annually at its Austin plant Workers at the plant did less well: Ammonia fumes from refrigeration units were at best, noxious, and at worst, lethal.

It wasn’t until George’s son Jay took over in 1927, however, that things really started to pick up at Hormel. According to the official corporate history, “Jay’s innovative thinking brought about a host of exciting new products, including DINTY MOORE Beef Stew and HORMEL Chili in 1935.” Part of the young Hormel’s innovative thinking involved capitalizing the names of all the company’s products, a tack that has been the bane of copy editors ever since. Another part of Jay’s innovative thinking: paying puny wages to employees. In 1933, meatpackers got so fed up with the working conditions at Hormel plants — and their measly salaries — they staged the first sitdown strike in American history. For some reason or another, Hormel’s corporate history does not discuss the episode. Maybe they devoted too much space to microwave bacon.

Then, in 1937, Hormel introduced a product that would dramatically advance the fortunes of the company and, and at the same time, set the culinary arts back several centuries: That year, the company introduced the first canned meat product that didn’t require refrigeration. Described as “a distinctive chopped pork shoulder and ham mixture,” the concoction was sold as “Hormel Spiced Ham.” When the spiced hams didn’t go flying off the shelves, the company started a name-that-product contest. The winning name: SPAM Luncheon Meat (a shortening of “spiced ham.”). Hormel went on to sell over 6 billion cans of SPAM, and along the way, raked in billions in sales. The winner of the contest got $100.

World War II proved to be a big boon for Hormel. Since SPAM wasn’t beef, it wasn’t rationed by the U.S. government. As part of the Lend Lease policy, the United States began shipping SPAM to the United Kingdom and Russia. Years later, Nikita Khrushchev claimed SPAM saved the Russian army from starvation. The company did not turn the testimonial into an ad campaign, however. You can’t blame them. It’s hard to sell product when your advertisement proudly proclaims: “SPAM — It’s Better than Starvation.”

In recent years, Hormel has introduced different types of SPAM, including SPAM Hot & Spicy and SPAM Lite. SPAM Lite contains more cholesterol than old-fashioned SPAM, and about as much saturated fat as vanilla ice cream. Still, it’s lighter than some things (Cheetos, mayonnaise, pork rinds).

These days, Hormel (now Hormel Foods Corp.) continues to thrive. In the mid-’80s, the profitable company cut the wages and benefits of its workers. Angry employees called a strike, which lasted nearly 25 weeks. During the shutdown, the Minnesota National Guard was called in to maintain order. Hormel eventually broke the strike by hiring replacement workers, or SCABS. Less than two years later, Forbes named Hormel the “most innovative business of the year.” They didn’t mention the scabs.

A final footnote: Recently, the term “spam” has come to denote unwanted electronic mail. Hormel management did not initially react to this development, although in 1996, the company did sue Jim Henson for introducing a new Muppet called “Spa’am” (the high priest of a tribe of wild boars that worshipped Miss Piggy). In 2002, though, Hormel sued a software vendor marketing a product called Spambuster. A high court in the United Kingdom ruled against Hormel. The U.K. patent registrar who oversaw the initial filing seemed to think that no human with working synapses would confuse meat (SPAM) with unwanted email (spam). Wrote the official: “The proposition that someone who encounters computer programming services under the mark Spambuster would think any less of the applicants’ luncheon meat product or be discouraged from purchasing that product is more than a little fanciful.”

He could have mentioned the capital-letter thing, too.