Japan is expected to unveil a scheme on Thursday that includes a $62 billion fund injection to help Tokyo Electric Power <9501.T> compensate victims of the crisis at its tsunami-crippled nuclear plant and save Asia's largest utility from financial ruin.
The scheme, likely to be approved by Prime Minister Naoto Kan's cabinet later in the day, is designed to protect bondholders and will keep Tokyo Electric (Tepco) shares listed, although the utility will have to forgo dividend payments for several years, ruling party lawmakers briefed on the plan said.
Cabinet ministers are to meet on matters relating to economic damage from the nuclear accident followed by a news conference by Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda from 6:15 p.m. (0915 GMT), the trade ministry said in a statement.
Tokyo Electric is struggling to get reactors at its Fukushima Daiichi plant, damaged by the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami, under control two months after the disaster.
The plan is expected to relieve the worst fears of financial markets but could come under fire from Kan's critics as a politically driven bailout of the utility.
Tokyo Electric and creditor banks have pushed for hefty state aid, warning that problems at Japan's largest corporate bond issuer -- accounting for 8 percent of the 70 trillion yen corporate bond market -- could destabilize financial markets.
Many politicians and bureaucrats, however, have pressed to make shareholders and management accountable for the crisis.
I think this might be criticized ... from both the left and the right, said professor Koichi Nakano of Tokyo's Sophia University.
People who are more sympathetic to Tepco and the banks, and worry about the economic repercussions of overburdening Tepco, will be critical of the government for being populist with harsh conditions.
On the other hand, there are those who are critical of Tepco and the way the government is perceived as being too lenient on the company and shareholders. It's a controversial issue, he said, but added that the legislation needed for the scheme was likely to be passed by parliament.
BONDHOLDERS BREATHE EASIER
The government does not plan to put a limit on Tokyo Electric's liabilities, but it will ask other nuclear plant operators to help fund the scheme with premiums that could also serve as insurance for future nuclear accidents.
Under the scheme, Tokyo Electric will be placed under close government management oversight for more than a decade to ensure it has sufficient finances to maintain stable power supplies while meeting compensation claims, Kyodo news reported on Thursday.
Previously, the government wouldn't get involved in similar such schemes, so obviously this is going to have a heavy impact on (Japan's) citizens who will ultimately have to shoulder the burden, said Hiroyuki Fukunaga, chief executive of Investrust, adding that other utilities could also suffer financially, causing problems in energy supply.
Looking more broadly, this may also lead to further difficulties for Japanese public finances.
Japan already has a public debt equal to about twice its $5 trillion economy.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano sought to allay such concerns, saying the scheme did not imply higher electricity rates and that the government would not automatically keep supporting Tepco.
We plan to make various decisions during the process if such things as cooperation with financial institutions do not progress steadily, Edano said.
Tepco's main creditor bank Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp and other lenders provided 1.9 trillion yen in emergency loans in the immediate aftermath of the disasters, but have said there is little more they can do.
The government is expected to inject 5 trillion yen worth of special-purpose bonds into the compensation fund.
The bonds can be turned into cash to handle the initial burst of payouts to residents who evacuated the plant's vicinity and others who are due compensation, allowing Tokyo Electric and other utilities to spread their burden over several years.
The special-purpose bonds do not count as issuance to the market and so are unlikely to have much impact on debt prices.
In one government simulation, if compensation totals 5 trillion yen, Tokyo Electric would be asked to pay back 200 billion yen to the fund annually over 13 years, with the rest to be shouldered by the other utilities.
While stock and bond holders are in principle to be protected under the scheme, one lawmaker with knowledge of the plan said on Wednesday that it would be a decade before the utility, known for its healthy dividends, paid out again.
Kyodo news agency said the government would ask Tokyo Electric to secure 1 trillion yen in funds through asset sales and streamlining in the first year of the scheme.
Tokyo Electric likely made a net loss of more than 1 trillion yen in the year that ended on March 31, the biggest ever for a non-financial Japanese firm, after booking costs to scrap its four damaged nuclear reactors and writing off tax assets, the Nikkei newspaper reported on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Chikafumi Hodo, Antoni Slodkowski and Yoko Kubota; Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Joseph Radford and Edmund Klamann)