Kobe Steel says its data about iron ore powder may have been faked
Tokyo — The scandal engulfing Kobe Steel deepened on Wednesday as the steel maker said it may have falsified data about two more products, triggering a further collapse in its shares and intensifying concern that compromised material found its way into cars, trains and aircraft.
After admitting Sunday that it provided false information about the strength and durability of some aluminium and copper, Japan’s third-largest steel producer said data about iron ore powder and another product may also have been faked. Shares plunged 18% in Tokyo, with $1.6bn wiped off the company’s market value since the revelations were made.
As the affair reverberates across markets, it’s a further blow to the integrity of Japanese manufacturers after a string of industrial scandals that’s destroyed shareholder value, enraged consumers and incurred the wrath of regulators. Kobe Steel customers from Toyota to Subaru are scrambling to determine if they used the suspect materials and whether safety has been compromised.
If you look at previous instances with "companies initially saying it is a single, one-off, it has always expanded to more and more parts of the business", said Alexander Robert Medd, MD at Bucephalus Research Partnership. "One usually finds out that it is reasonably systematic."
Kobe Steel’s research institute found data that may have been falsified for an iron powder product and another that’s not aluminium or copper, spokesperson Tatsuro Kano said by phone on Wednesday, declining to identify the latter because investigations are ongoing. The Yomiuri newspaper earlier reported iron ore powder was compromised, while a Nikkei newspaper report said the institute faked testing data on semiconductor material.
A company spokesperson earlier said the iron ore powder in question had been delivered to one customer and Kobe Steel did not see a problem with the safety of the product.
As the scandal mushrooms, Japan’s government has weighed in. Deputy chief cabinet secretary Kotaro Nogami said the faked data undermined the basis of fair trade, calling it "inappropriate". Kobe Steel CEO Hiroya Kawasaki didn’t respond to requests for comment.
One estimate from JPMorgan Securities Japan put the potential cost of replacing the copper and aluminium parts at about ¥15bn, but the damage to the company that is more than a century old — both in reputational harm or possible legal challenges — may be much greater.
The market impact has already been savage as investors take fright at the possible consequences. While at Friday’s close Kobe Steel had a market value of ¥498bn, by Tuesday that was down to ¥389bn, and it fell further to about ¥319bn on Wednesday.
Investors have also rushed to unload Kobe Steel’s bonds, causing the extra yield demanded to hold the securities over Japanese government notes to jump. The premium on the company’s securities maturing in November 2021 rose 148 basis points to about 202.5 on Tuesday, the highest since the firm issued them in late 2011, according to Bloomberg-compiled data. The cost to insure Kobe Steel’s notes against nonpayment has surged.
Iron ore powder is mainly used in making vehicle components, according to Kobe Steel. Powders can be hardened to produce sintered parts, which are used in everything from the engine to the steering mechanism as well as the brakes and transmission, according to JFE Steel, another Japanese producer.