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Senior Correspondent

Livedoor Horie’s house begins to fall

Jan 24, 20064 mins
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If last week was a bad one for Livedoor Co. Ltd., the Japanese Internet portal company raided by prosecutors on Jan. 16 for suspected securities law violations, then the last 24 hours may have been even worse.

If last week was a bad one for Livedoor, the Japanese Internet portal company raided by prosecutors on Jan. 16 for suspected securities law violations, then the last 24 hours may have been even worse.

In less than a day since the arrest of Takafumi Horie, the charismatic, young, and now ex-CEO of the company, Livedoor has seen business deals start to unravel, its stock pushed towards delisting, and one-time friends move to distance themselves from the scandal surrounding the company.

Horie, together with CFO Ryoji Miyauchi and Director Fumito Okamoto, were arrested late Monday. Soon after, the Tokyo Stock Exchange moved to shift trading of Livedoor stock and Livedoor Marketing to its supervision post – a step that makes delisting faster should the exchange decide to do that.

Livedoor stock dropped by its maximum daily limit on Tuesday to close at ¥176 ($1.53), down ¥80 on the day. A week ago, just prior to the raids, it was at ¥696. After the market’s close Tuesday, the exchange said trading in Livedoor stock would be offered for only 1 1/2 hours each day moving forward.

Soon after trading ended, the company announced that Horie will step down as CEO and that Kozo Hiramatsu, Livedoor senior vice president, would replace him. Hiramatsu came to the company from Yayoi, a Livedoor group company selling accounting software. (Hiramatsu was president of IDG Communications Japan, an IDG News Service affiliate, from 1992 to 1998.)

At about the same time, Livedoor removed a prominent link to Horie’s blog from its site. The blog, which the CEO had used to record his daily schedule and discuss new gadgets he had tried, was still online shortly after the announcement of his resignation. His last post, made Sunday afternoon, attracted almost 7,000 comments – including many words of encouragement.

The plunge in Livedoor stock has left Fuji Television Network, one of Japan’s biggest broadcasters, with large unrealized losses on the roughly 13% stake it took in Livedoor when the companies formed a partnership last year. The partnership, which came after Livedoor called a halt to a hostile takeover attempt of a major Fuji TV shareholder, was supposed to bring Livedoor’s Web portal and broadband wireless network together with Fuji TV’s broadcasting services, but it had yet to get moving.

Now it might never start. Fuji TV said late Tuesday that the events of the last week meant a lock-up period on stock sales was effectively ended and it is now free to sell its Livedoor stock.

A tie-up with Saikyo Bank, a regional Japanese bank, to start an Internet bank could also be in jeopardy after Saikyo said it was considering scrapping the plan, according to local media reports.

Livedoor group companies are also moving to distance themselves from the troubles. Turbolinux, in which Livedoor owns a majority stake, said it had already started to remind customers overseas that its business operations were different from those of Livedoor, a company spokeswoman said. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported that Livedoor Auto is planning to change its name by March.

Horie’s friends in politics began distancing themselves from him last week. He ran as a candidate for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in last September’s national elections and received endorsements from several politicians, including Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Those same politicians are now choosing their words carefully when asked about Horie.

“It’s difficult to screen an individual,” Koizumi told reporters when quizzed shortly after last week’s raids.

The events continue to dominate Japanese domestic news. Horie’s arrest on Monday night saw major newspapers publish special editions, and it remains the top news story of each day.