The Coming Week In Asia: Sony Plans Corporate Stocking Stuffer -- an Internet Bank

The company's plans to build an Internet bank by 2001 sent its stock up 3.7% Friday.
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TOKYO -- Holiday plans are starting to cram the diaries of Japan. Online retailers, grabbing a toehold as the Internet booms here, are fretting about whether they will be able to keep up with orders. And computer technicians, many of whom will spend New Year's at work monitoring Y2K, are scheming to see how many bottles of champagne they can sneak into the office.

It's not just the year end that's sparking the celebrations. While most Japanese consider themselves Buddhist or Shinto, the native animist religion of the archipelago, the country has also embraced Christmas. Decorative lighting festoons office buildings and hotels; Santas populate display windows. While Americans savor turkey and ham, a parallel tradition of holiday

KFC

fried-chicken meals has emerged.

Sony

(SNE) - Get Report

, the world's second-largest consumer electronics company, has geared up to play Santa's helper and is cranking out PlayStations for the good little boys and girls of the world. And in keeping with the spirit of the season, the conglomerate is looking to give itself a corporate stocking stuffer, too. By 2001, the company says, it wants to build an Internet bank. The easiest way, of course, would be for the Walkman maker to buy a failed bank or buy into one of the many teetering institutions that populate Japan's financial landscape. Or it may just apply for a banking license and build one itself. Sony hopes to tap 1 trillion yen ($9.8 billion) in deposits from individuals looking to bank online.

Sony is the third nonfinancial company to announce such plans. Internet giant

Softbank

is bidding to purchase failed

Nippon Credit Bank

, and supermarket operator

Ito-Yokado

is creating its own retail bank.

Stock traders, perhaps hoping Sony will offer free CD players to entice customers to set up accounts, sent the company's shares 3.7% higher on Friday. The year-end cheeriness spread to the telecommunications sector, where investors in overseas phone service provider

KDD

and long-distance carrier

DDI

said they were mulling a three-way merger with mobile-phone operator

IDO

, which is affiliated with

Toyota Motor

. KDD shares jumped 9.8%, while DDI rose 2.1%.

With the

Nasdaq

on a tear (see

TheStreet.com

's continuing

coverage), Japanese tech, telecom and Internet shares have rocketed higher, pulling the whole index with them. The

Nikkei

, long the New Jersey of investment destinations, is up 32% this year. Many expect that the rage for information-technology stocks will boost the Nikkei through the 20,000 mark -- the index closed at 18,271.85 on Friday -- early next year as everything heats up.

On Monday, the

Bank of Japan

will release its quarterly

tankan

survey of corporate sentiment. It's expected to be a mixed blessing. Although sentiment for major manufacturers and nonmanufacturers may improve in the October-December quarter, it won't be by as much as the companies had expected three months ago. Economists like taking a close look at the tankan, because it helps determine if and when companies will increase spending. That, of course, spills over into the larger economy.

With Japan seemingly crawling out of an economic black hole, bond market players are worried about a possible rise in interest rates. Comments Friday from Bank of Japan policy board member Kazuo Ueda did little to help ease these fears. His ambiguous comments (as though a central banker could make any other kind) were interpreted as suggesting that the central bank may preemptively hike rates before a sustainable economic recovery is seen.

Central bankers meet again Friday to discuss policy. Perhaps Ueda will bring the KFC.