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Asian Cities Keen to Tower over Global Finance
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Move over Frankfurt. Forget Paris, Los Angeles and Toronto, too.

Asian cities are rapidly surpassing each of these metropolises as centers for global business.

Tokyo, for example, took the No. 3 spot behind London and New York, according to MasterCard Worldwide's Centers of Commerce Index.

More importantly, Asia had four cities in the top 10, the best showing of any region. Europe and the United States each had three.

Ten years after the Asian crisis, booming markets are attracting capital back to the region. Along with strengthening financial systems, efforts to build modern roads, airports, power networks and skyscrapers are paying off.

Actually, make that record-breaking skyscrapers. While cities such as Shanghai, Taipei and Seoul vie to have the world's tallest tower, others like Tokyo are experiencing building booms like few in modern history. Never mind the risk of earthquakes; a new skyscraper seems to open each week in Japan.

Some caution is in order. Swanky cities alone won't ensure a pivotal role in the global economy. It's equally important for market, legal and political frameworks to keep pace with the construction projects sprucing up wannabe financial capitals.

Tokyo is a case in point. While it's well ahead of Asia's other major financial centers - Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul - Tokyo is bumping up against a glass ceiling of sorts: poor corporate governance.

"Japan is a world-class country with the second-biggest economy, and it should have a world-class financial system and corporate governance system as well," Warren Lichtenstein, who controls Steel Partners Japan Strategic Fund (Offshore) LP, said in Tokyo on June 12.

Until it does, he said, "there is no way" Tokyo will become a peer of London or New York.     

The "Big Bang" of the late 1990s didn't deregulate Japan as hoped. These days, the financial pages are filled with stories of companies concocting "poison pills" to fight off mergers, confusion about the environment in which banks and brokerages operate and poor transparency in the executive suite.

While things are changing, Taku Yamamoto personifies the growing sense of impatience hanging over Tokyo. Yamamoto heads the investment department at Japan's Pension Fund Association, which oversees US$107 billion of stocks and bonds. The pension manager plans to use annual shareholder meetings to pressure companies.

"We're after the executives who've mismanaged their financial affairs," he told Bloomberg News on June 7.

That is, of course, good news. Japan needs more such shareholder activism.

A cautionary tale

Japan's preference for a weak yen is another reason the country is less than inviting as an investment destination.

These should be heady days in Tokyo. One reminder of that came in a recent survey by the Economist Group, which declared Japan the world's most innovative nation.

The rankings were calculated by comparing the number of patents per million of population for 82 nations. Japan was a clear standout.

Yet China is getting most of the attention in Asia, followed closely by India. Japan needs to work harder to remind investors it's recovering, something to which Asia's traditional growth engine isn't accustomed.

Tokyo is a cautionary tale. It boasts some of the best infrastructure anywhere, globally dominant companies, a highly educated labor force and prints Asia's only truly international currency.

Yet Japan's failure to internationalize its markets means its appeal trails that of Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul.

There's little doubt Asia, seeking to draw more attention to it economies, is reaching for the sky - literally.    

In 2003, Taipei opened the world's tallest building; prior to Taipei, Kuala Lumpur was home to the tallest. Soon, Shanghai, Seoul or Dubai may grab the title.

Asian cities hope such projects will boost their efforts to become financial hubs. It sure helped Malaysia, where the twin Petronas Towers brought prestige to an economy that drew little notice from foreign investors.

When CNN needs an Asian backdrop for a news segment, Kuala Lumpur's towers often are it. They're among Asia's few globally recognizable buildings.

Leaders may see gleaming skyscrapers and fancy infrastructure as vital forms of advertising that say, "Hey investors, check us out!"

That's all well and good, so long as improvements to Asia's financial systems and investment climates keep pace with construction crews.

(Shanghai Daily June 25, 2007)

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