2017-06-26 12:13:02
Takata, Unable to Overcome Airbag Crisis, Files for Bankruptcy Protection

TOKYO — Takata, the Japanese auto parts maker crippled by vast airbag recalls, filed for bankruptcy protection in the United States and Japan and said it would sell its surviving operations to a Chinese-owned American rival, Key Safety Systems.

The deal, which was announced on Sunday evening in the United States — Monday morning in Japan — seals the fate of the company at the center of the farthest-reaching auto safety crisis in history. Exploding Takata airbags have been linked to at least 14 deaths. Carmakers have recalled nearly 70 million of the company’s airbags in the United States, in 42 million vehicles, as well as millions overseas.

Key Safety Systems, which makes airbags, seatbelts and other auto safety equipment, said it would buy Takata’s factories for about $1.6 billion. Key Safety Systems is based in Michigan but is owned by a company in China, Ningbo Joyson Electronic Corporation.

The deal effectively means the end of Takata, which was established in 1933 and is still controlled by its founding family.

Shigehisa Takada, the chief executive, said the Takada family would cease to be involved in the business once the sale was completed. It was unclear when exactly that would be, however. Antitrust regulators in multiple markets must approve the deal, which would give Key Safety Systems about a quarter of the global airbag market, making it the second-largest supplier in an industry dominated by just a handful of companies.

“We needed to consider the impact on the global car industry, not just in Japan but also in the United States and Europe,” Mr. Takada said of the decision to seek bankruptcy protection.

Placing a legal firewall between Takata and its creditors, he said, would safeguard supplies of airbags and airbag components, including millions of replacement inflaters that still needed to be installed in cars that have been subject to recalls.

Takata’s bankruptcy is thought to be the largest ever by a Japanese manufacturing company. The cost of the recalls continues to mount, and Takata said it could not yet estimate the scale of the claims it would ultimately face. Tokyo Shoko Research, a credit-rating agency, estimated the company’s current liabilities at 1.7 trillion yen, or roughly $15 billion.

A new corporate entity established by Key Safety Systems will take over most of Takata’s production operations, which encompass seatbelts and other equipment as well as airbags.

Takata will continue to exist on paper, at least for a while. It will continue to supply replacement airbag inflaters — an arrangement that will insulate Key Safety Systems from the messy recall process — but much of its work will be to pay off debts.

Takata owes billions of dollars to banks and automakers, which have been paying to replace tens of millions of potentially dangerous Takata airbag inflaters. Bankruptcy will leave at least some of Takata’s creditors out in the cold. Even after selling its assets, the company will not have enough money to pay everyone it owes.

Among the biggest unsecured creditors of Takata’s American operation, according to a court filing, are virtually all of the major automakers, led by Honda, Toyota and Fiat Chrysler. Honda, Takata’s biggest customer, said in a statement on Monday that the bankruptcy meant recovering money from Takata would be “difficult.”

Takata has also promised the United States government that it will pay $125 million in compensation to victims. A Takata spokesman said that the company still intended to pay the full amount, but that formal decisions about all its liabilities would be made in the coming months. Lawsuits could add to the burden.

Takata agreed in January to plead guilty in the United States to wire fraud for providing false data to safety regulators. The recalled Takata airbag inflaters can explode with too much force in a collision, sending shrapnel flying through a vehicle’s cabin.

Once the last of Takata’s obligations are settled and all of its potentially dangerous airbag inflaters are replaced — a process Takata says could take until 2020 — the company is expected to shut down.

Takata initially said it hoped to find a buyer for all or part of its business last year. But the question of who would be stuck with its liabilities has been a stumbling block in the complex negotiations over its fate.

The controlling Takada family initially appeared to be holding out hope that it could find a white knight investor to save the company — perhaps by buying a minority stake — leaving Takata intact and out of bankruptcy. But no buyer wanted to share responsibility for the still unknown final cost of resolving the recalls and their aftermath.

The sale to an American-Chinese buyer is notable in Japan. Japanese politicians and government officials have often cajoled domestic businesses to save competitors rather than let them fail or be swooped up by foreigners.

The Japanese news media had speculated that a “Rising Sun alliance” of Japanese carmakers — led by Honda, Takata’s largest customer — might bail out Takata. But carmakers pushed back against the idea, fearing ballooning liabilities and anger from their shareholders.