Nissan investigated by SEC after Carlos Ghosn charges in Japan

Nissan has confirmed it is being investigated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), undermining its efforts to move on from the arrest of former chairman Carlos Ghosn.

Ghosn was arrested in November by Japanese authorities after Nissan reported him for allegedly under-declaring his income by more than £60m.

Nissan quickly removed him from his position as board chairman following the arrest but insisted any wrongdoing was limited to Ghosn and another executive. Ghosn, who has denied the allegations, remains in detention in Tokyo.

Nissan said in a statement it “can confirm that we have received an inquiry from the SEC and are cooperating fully. We cannot provide further details.”

The US financial markets watchdog is in the early stages of an investigation and has requested documents from Nissan and Ghosn, the Wall Street Journal reported (£). While Nissan’s shares are listed in Tokyo, some financial instruments are traded on US exchanges.

The SEC investigation comes after Ghosn’s final resignation last week from Renault, the French carmaker of which he was chairman and chief executive alongside his roles at Nissan and Mistubishi. Ghosn, one of the best-known executives in the car industry, was seen as the architect of the alliance between the three carmakers.

Ghosn was charged earlier this month with breach of trust and for understating his pay by 4.3bn yen (£30m) for three years through March 2018. He had already been charged for underreporting his earnings by about 5bn yen between 2010 and 2015.

Nissan and Mitsubishi have also accused Ghosn of receiving €7.8m (£6.9m) in “improper payments” from a joint venture between the Japanese carmakers without consulting other board members.

However, Renault initially refused to remove Ghosn as chairman, saying it had found no evidence of wrongdoing in its own investigation or in evidence shared by Nissan.

Renault eventually appointed Thierry Bolloré as chief executive to replace Ghosn on operational matters after the latter resigned last week. Outgoing Michelin boss Jean-Dominique Senard was made chairman, with a brief to manage the alliance relationship with Nissan.

Executives at Nissan and Renault have expressed their desire to remain part of the alliance, although the Nissan chief executive, Hiroto Saikawa, has suggested that the balance of power could shift.

Under the alliance’s unusual cross-shareholding structure, Renault is the dominant partner despite Nissan contributing more profits. Renault owns 43.5% of Nissan, while Nissan owns 15% of Renault and 34% of Mitsubishi.

Motoki Yanase, a senior credit officer at Moody’s Japan, the influential credit ratings agency, last week warned that the dissolution of the alliance would be harmful to Nissan and Renault, given the scale of current integration. However, he said that maintaining the alliance was “the most likely outcome”, alongside a possible equalisation of the cross-shareholdings between Nissan and Renault.

The outcome of any leadership struggle is politically sensitive in both companies’ home countries. Japan’s trade minister last week said the alliance between Nissan and Renault must continue. The French government, which holds a 15% stake in Renault, reportedly played a key part in pushing for Ghosn to resign after the refusal of Japanese prosecutors to grant bail raised the prospect that the French-Brazilian-Lebanese businessman would remain in detention for months.

French support for Ghosn may also have weakened amid press reports of a lavish lifestyle, including an expensive yacht club membership and a luxurious house in Beirut.

Nissan is planning an extraordinary general meeting of shareholders in April to discuss the appointment of a new director on its board nominated by Renault, the final step in replacing Ghosn.

The Guardian | January 28, 2019

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