After shares in BYD, a Chinese car company backed by his Berkshire Hathaway, crashed without explanation earlier this month, Warren Buffett had reason to recall his famous adage about swimming naked when the tide rolls out. If it’s any consolation, the “Sage of Omaha” had plenty of company in Asia in 2014. As the year draws to a close, it’s time to name and shame the companies, politicians and corporate emperors caught out looking distinctly undressed. Herewith, my second-annual Naked Awards:
Leung Chun-ying: Hong Kong’s chief executive may have won points with authorities in Beijing for staring down the months-long Occupy Central protests. But among his own people, Leung’s credibility is in tatters. The wildly unpopular and tin-eared leader wasn’t helped by his daughter’s juvenile Facebook posts poking fun at the city’s poor. But his own comments about the dangers of allowing less well-off Hong Kongers to choose their own leader will rankle far longer.
Sony: Already adrift, the Japanese corporate icon ignominiously caved in to Kim Jong Un in history’s most bizarre hacking scandal. Imagine if the next world war was fought over Seth Rogen and James Franco! Three years after PlayStation accounts were hacked, Sony’s cyber-defenses look about as resilient as the company’s pipeline of innovative products.
Thailand’s junta: A lesson generals never seem to learn: when you topple a government, it’s best to have a plan. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha seems to be making things up as he goes along, spending more energy on suppressing protests – including the three-fingered salute from “The Hunger Games” – than on laying the groundwork for new elections. The junta claims it wants to bring happiness back to the Thai people. They should start with a credible plan to revive the stagnating economy.
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ): The DPJ was roundly criticised for complaining it wasn’t ready when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called a snap election this month. With approval ratings for Abe’s cabinet plummeting, the opposition party should have cleaned up at the polls; instead even DPJ President Banri Kaieda lost his parliament seat. A question for the next DPJ leader: Why are you here?
Uber: Two weeks after an alleged rape prompted India’s home ministry to advise a ban on the chauffeured-car service, it’s fighting to stay on the road in Taiwan. CEO Travis Kalanick had a rough year in Asia, where regulators in Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam are probing Uber’s legality. What’s more, Japan’s Softbank this month invested $ 250 million in Southeast Asia rival GrabTaxi. The road ahead in the world’s biggest growth market is not going to be smooth.
OPEC: In the space of 12 months, the oil producers’ club went from world-feared cartel to a ragtag collection of squabbling also-rans. Expect more infighting as Chinese demand for fossil fuels continues to wane, and America continues to wean itself off dependence on foreign oil by exploiting its shale-gas reserves.
Malaysian Air: One can have nothing but sympathy for the carrier after it tragically lost a plane in July to a missile attack over Ukraine. But its earlier misplacing of a Boeing 777 raised legitimate questions about the state-owned airline’s crisis management capabilities. The disappearance of Flight 370 in March with 239 people on board didn’t just serve up the biggest aviation mystery since Amelia Earhart; it exposed an insular, one-party government as unready for global prime time.
Australia’s economy: Prime Minister Tony Abbott made this list last year for his ill-timed fiscal austerity push. In 2014, his resource-addicted economy paid the price as the long-feared Chinese slowdown began to bite. Australia has had to trim its 2015 iron ore price estimate by 33 per cent (on top of this year’s 49 per cent plunge). Australians are feeling awfully exposed to a sputtering mainland economy, which is doing its own share of skinny-dipping.
Indeed, leaders of Asia’s three biggest economies are all at least flirting with inclusion on this list as well. Japan’s Abe, Xi Jinping in China and India’s Narendra Modi still have a chance next year to show that their pledges of shock therapy can put their nations on a path to stable and sustainable growth. But it’s time to put some clothes on.
The writer is a Bloomberg View columnist