The national flag of Japan, left, and national flag of France, centre, fly beside a Nissan Motor branded flag outside the vehiclemaker's headquarters in Yokohama, Japan, November 20 2018. Picture: BLOOMBERG/AKIO KON
The national flag of Japan, left, and national flag of France, centre, fly beside a Nissan Motor branded flag outside the vehiclemaker's headquarters in Yokohama, Japan, November 20 2018. Picture: BLOOMBERG/AKIO KON

Tokyo — Nissan's investigation into alleged misconduct by chairman Carlos Ghosn was expanding to include Renault-Nissan finances, sources told Reuters in a further sign that Nissan may seek to loosen its French parent's hold on their global car-making alliance.

According to three informed sources, Nissan told Renault's board on Monday it had evidence of potential wrongdoing at Renault-Nissan, the Dutch venture overseeing alliance operations under Renault's ultimate control.

The private communication from Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa came as the Japanese carmaker, 43.4% owned by Renault, announced that an investigation had uncovered misconduct involving Ghosn including underreporting of his compensation and personal use of company assets.

Renault and Nissan both declined to comment.

Saikawa, once Ghosn's protégé, also disclosed plans to strip Ghosn of his chairmanship, after the 64-year-old industry veteran was arrested in Tokyo along with fellow director Greg Kelly.

Neither of the detained men has had the opportunity to comment publicly on the allegations against them.

The 19-year history of the Renault-Nissan alliance, enlarged in 2016 year to include Mitsubishi Motors, has been marked by tension among the carmakers and the French government, Renault's main shareholder with a 15% stake.

Under government pressure, Ghosn, who is also Renault chairman and CEO, had agreed this year to explore a closer tie-up that would tap deeper synergies, safeguard French industrial interests and make the alliance "irreversible".

The plan raised hackles in Tokyo. Nissan, almost 60% bigger than Renault by sales, remains the junior partner in their shareholding hierarchy with a smaller reciprocal 15% nonvoting stake in Renault.

At a news conference in Japan late on Monday, Saikawa outlined three broad categories of accusation against Ghosn: underreporting of compensation; misrepresenting company investments; and making personal use of company assets. He gave no examples, citing the secrecy of a police investigation.

The Nissan CEO took aim at a Renault-led alliance setup that "concentrates power in one individual", and said a new board committee would examine its role in the scandal.

"In terms of structural issues, 43% is held by Renault and the head of Renault is currently serving as (chairman) of Nissan," Saikawa said.

"Of course this isn't the only cause, but it's one of the factors or drivers. So the committee ... will have a deep dive on this issue as well."

French officials have mobilised to defend the alliance since Ghosn's surprise arrest in Japan,  which came as both countries stage events to mark 160 years of diplomatic relations.

President Emmanuel Macron said France would "remain extremely vigilant regarding the stability of the alliance", the world's largest automotive grouping by sales.

Finance Minister Bruno le Maire, who said the future of the industrial pairing was top priority, also pressed Renault's board to appoint interim leadership, saying Ghosn was "no longer in a position where he is capable of leading Renault".

Several insiders said the board, meeting later on Tuesday, would probably agree that director Philippe Lagayette should fill in as chairman. That might  also bolster COO Thierry Bollore's powers.

Reuters