Archive for the ‘Disclosure’ Category

Through A Corporate Glass, Darkly

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

Conventional wisdom has it that we live in an age of hyper-transparency. That’s true if you look at what people are willing to reveal about themselves to Facebook, but it’s another story for large corporations and the 1%.

The Republican filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act and Mitt Romney’s reluctance to release more of his income tax returns are strong reminders of how those at the top of the economic pyramid seek to hide the ways they accumulate their wealth and influence public policy.

The current preoccupation with disclosure issues makes this a good time to step back and review the state of corporate transparency. Do we know enough about the workings of the huge private institutions that dominate so much of modern life?

Of course, the answer is no. Yet the quantity and quality of disclosure vary greatly depending on the structure of a given company and the aspect of its operations one chooses to examine. Depending on which piece of the business elephant we touch, corporations may seen somewhat translucent or completely opaque.

It’s also worth remembering that there are two main forms of disclosure: information that companies, especially those whose stock is publicly traded, are compelled to reveal and the data that government agencies collect about firms and release to the public. What corporations release on their own initiative is, given its selective nature, self-serving spin rather than disclosure.

Most of what U.S. companies are required to disclose is contained in the financial filings required by the Securities and Exchange Commission. It’s great that the SEC makes these documents readily available via its EDGAR online system, but the information required from companies is meant to serve the needs of investors rather than those of us concerned with corporate accountability. There is thus an abundance of data on financial results and a meager amount on a company’s social impacts. Here’s a rundown and critique of disclosure practices regarding the latter.

LEGAL PROCEEDINGS. Each company filing a 10-K annual report has to include a section summarizing significant litigation and other legal proceedings in which it is involved. For some companies, these sections can go on for pages, which says a lot about the corporate tendency to run afoul of the law. Even so, these sections are often incomplete, since companies are given discretion in deciding which cases are “material,” meaning that fines and other penalties could have a significant impact on earnings.  To get a fuller picture of corporate legal entanglements, you need to search the dockets on the PACER subscription service, which for large companies will be voluminous, or use the free summaries on the Justia website.

EXECUTIVE COMPENSATION. The annual proxy statements filed by publicly traded companies provide exhaustive details on the salaries, bonuses and other compensation received by top executives (and directors).  Designated in the EDGAR system as Form DEF14A, these documents seem to try to drown the reader in details to downplay the impact of lavish pay packages. Note that what is called the Summary Compensation Table does not include essential information such as the amount (shown elsewhere) that an executive realized from the exercise of stock options.

EMPLOYMENT ISSUES. Companies are required to disclose their total number of employees but do not have to provide a geographical breakdown. Some do so voluntarily, but many others can hide the tendency to create many more jobs in foreign cheap-labor havens than at home. Because the penalties are usually small, companies tend not to disclose violations of federal rules regarding overtime pay, the minimum wage and other Fair Labor Standards Act issues.  Fortunately, the Department of Labor has included wage and hour compliance information in its new enforcement website.

OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH. Companies also rarely mention violations of occupational safety and health, for which penalties are also meager. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to its credit, makes available a database of all workplace inspection results going back to the creation of the agency; the DOL enforcement website provides access to this as well. Unfortunately, there are no summaries of the compliance records of large companies across their various establishments.

LABOR RELATIONS. Companies are required to report on labor relations issues only if there is a likelihood of a work stoppage that could affect corporate profits. With the decline of unions in the U.S. private sector, many companies do not bother to mention labor relations at all. Disputes that result in a formal ruling by the National Labor Relations Board will show up on that agency’s website.

ENVIRONMENTAL COMPLIANCE. Companies frequently discuss environmental regulation in the 10-K filings and will mention major enforcement actions. Yet these accounts are usually incomplete.  The Environmental Protection Agency fills in the gaps with its Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database.

TAXES. Buried in the notes to the company’s financial statements is a section with details on how much it paid (or in many cases did not pay) in the way of taxes. This information is presented with a high degree of obfuscation, so it is fortunate that Citizens for Tax Justice publishes reports that summarize the extent to which large U.S. companies engage in flagrant tax avoidance.

SUBSIDIES. Corporate filings usually say little or nothing about the subsidies received from government, and it is often impossible to learn from other sources what those amounts may be when it comes to subsidies that take the form of federal tax breaks. There is much more company-specific data available on subsidies from state governments. In my capacity as research director of Good Jobs First, I have collected that data and assembled it in the Subsidy Tracker database.

GOVERNMENT CONTRACTS. Companies will report on government contracts only if they make up a substantial portion of their total revenue. Thanks to the work of OMB Watch in creating the FedSpending database, which the federal government adapted for its USASpending tool, it is possible to learn a great deal about how much business a given firm is doing with Uncle Sam. Data on contracts with state governments can often, though not always, be found via state procurement websites.

LOBBYING AND POLITICAL SPENDING. Corporations are not eager to disclose their efforts to shape public policy, and the SEC does not require them to do so. The Center for Political Accountability, on the other hand, was created to put pressure on companies to be more open about their political spending. The group has succeeded in getting about 100 corporations to adopt political disclosure. The inadequate information that gets disclosed at the behest of the Federal Election Commission can be found on websites such as Open Secrets, while state-level electoral data is summarized on the Follow the Money site. Both also provide access to the available data on lobbying.

Inadequate political disclosure by corporations is not limited to the United States. A recent study by Transparency International on 105 of the world’s large companies found that only 26 engaged in satisfactory reporting of political contributions. That was just one component of an analysis that looks at a variety of transparency measures that relate broadly to anti-corruption initiatives. Some of the worst results concern the simple matter of whether firms provide full country-by-country data on their operations and financial results.

The latter shows how disclosure issues of concern to investors and financial analysts can intersect with those relating to corporate accountability. When a company is allowed to use excessive forms of aggregation in its reporting, it may be hiding either poor management or corporate misconduct or both.

Note: The information sources discussed above as well as many others are discussed in my guide to online corporate research.

Con JOBS

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

Bipartisanship in Washington is back from the dead, at least for the moment, but its reappearance illustrates what happens when the two major parties find common ground: Corporate skullduggery gets a boost under the guise of helping workers.

That’s the story of the bill with the deliberately misleading acronym — the JOBS Act — which emerged from the cauldrons of the financial deregulation crowd and has now been embraced not only by Republicans but also by the Obama Administration and many Congressional Democrats. An effort by Senate Democrats to mitigate the riskiest features of the bill has failed, and now the legislation seems headed for final passage.

More formally known as the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, the bill is based on the dubious premise that newer companies are having difficulty raising capital and that weakening Securities and Exchange Commission rules—including those contained in the Sarbanes-Oxley law enacted in the wake of the Enron and other accounting scandals of the early 2000s—would allow more start-ups to go public, expand their business and create jobs. The outbreaks of financial fraud in recent years have apparently done nothing to shake the belief that less regulated markets can work miracles.

For many, that notion may be more of a fig leaf than an article of faith. One clear sign that the JOBS Act is trying to pull a fast one is that the “emerging growth companies” targeted for regulatory relief are defined in the bill as those with up to $1 billion in annual revenue. This is just the latest example of an effort purportedly designed to help small business that really serves much larger corporate entities. (What proponents on the JOBS Act don’t mention is that the SEC already has exemptions from some of its rules for companies that can somewhat more legitimately be called small—those with less than $75 million in sales.)

Critics ranging from the AARP to state securities regulators have focused on provisions of the JOBS bill that would allow start-up companies to solicit investors on the web, warning that this will pave the way for more scams.

I want to zero in on another issue, which is central to the mission of the Dirt Diggers Digest: disclosure. In the name of streamlining the rules for the so-called emerging growth companies, the JOBS Act would erode some of the key transparency provisions of the securities laws.

This is fitting, given that the original sponsor of the bill, Rep. Stephen Fincher of Tennessee (photo), has been embroiled in scandals involving gaps in his personal financial disclosure and last year was named  one of the “most corrupt” members of Congress by the watchdog group CREW.

The first problem with the JOBS bill is that it would allow firms planning initial stock offerings to issue informal marketing documents and distribute potentially biased analyst reports well before they have to issue formal prospectuses with thorough and candid descriptions of their financial and operating condition. In other words, the bill would postpone real disclosure until after the company has used a bogus form of disclosure to generate a quite possibly misleading image of itself.

When the company does have to file with the SEC, it would have to provide only two years of audited financial statements rather than three and would be exempt from reporting requirements such as the disclosure of data on the ratio of CEO compensation to worker compensation mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act. It would also be exempt from having to give shareholders an opportunity to vote on executive pay practices.

What’s worse, the JOBS bill also seems to opening the door to a broader erosion of disclosure provisions for all publicly traded companies. The bill would order the SEC to conduct a review of the Commission’s Regulation S-K to determine how it might be streamlined for “emerging growth” companies.

Yet it also calls for the SEC to “comprehensively analyze the current registration requirements” of the regulation, which could mean a weakening of the rules for all companies, no matter what their size. Regulation S-K is the broad set of rules determining what public companies have to include in their public filings on issues ranging from financial results to executive compensation and legal proceedings.

It is bad enough that the JOBS bill exploits the country’s desperate need for relief from unemployment to push changes that might mainly benefit stock scam artists. The idea that it could also allow unscrupulous corporations to conceal their misdeeds is truly infuriating. We just finished celebrating Sunshine Week; now Congress is hard at work promoting darkness.

Subsidies and Sunshine

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

This being Sunshine Week, there’s a lot of discussion going on about open government. One of the things government should be open about is the dubious practice of giving subsidies to companies in the name of economic development.

Each year, state and local governments in the United States award tens of billions of dollars in tax breaks, cash grants and other financial assistance to business, with the lion’s share going to large corporations ranging from Google and Facebook to Wal-Mart and Boeing. Much of the money goes to companies that don’t need it and often provide little return to taxpayers in terms of creating quality jobs.

The good news is that it is easier than ever to discover which companies are getting the giveaways. A decade ago, only a handful of states disclosed the names of subsidy recipients. That number is now up to 43 states and the District of Columbia. Data from those 44 jurisdictions—along with previously unpublished data from five other states—can be found on Subsidy Tracker, the database created by my colleagues and me at Good Jobs First. The only states with no data currently available are Mississippi and Nevada, but we’re seeking unpublished info from them as well.

A glance at the inventory of data sources that have been fed into Subsidy Tracker makes it clear that there is a great deal of variation in the depth of available information from state to state. We have entries for two dozen programs in Washington and Wisconsin, yet only one each for Alabama, California, Idaho, Massachusetts and Tennessee.

There are also significant differences in the types of subsidies for which recipient information is available. A major dividing line is between those states that have disclosure relating to corporate tax credits (or other business tax breaks) and those that keep that information secret even while revealing data on other categories such as grants. According to our latest tally, 31 states plus DC provide online disclosure of corporate tax break recipients. The ones with the most extensive tax subsidy reporting include Missouri, North Carolina and Rhode Island.

Among the states that are aggressive promoters of corporate tax breaks but which decline to reveal which companies are benefiting from that largesse are Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, New Mexico and Tennessee. A few states—including Maryland and South Carolina—disclose the names of companies but not the value of the credits they are receiving.

Subsidy disclosure is an issue addressed in Following the Money 2012, a new report by USPIRG, the third in its series of report-card studies on state spending transparency. USPIRG provides a thorough assessment of the Google-government portals that have proliferated in recent years. The report does a good job when it comes to general state spending, but we at Good Jobs First have a friendly disagreement about its treatment of subsidies. (I am graciously cited in the acknowledgements for having reviewed drafts of the report, but the disagreements I expressed to USPIRG are not mentioned).

Despite the fact that company-specific reporting on subsidies is missing from the core content of nearly all state transparency portals, USPIRG gives many of those portals high grades for subsidy transparency. Quite a few of the sites have links to other webpages with the subsidy data, and we have no objection if USPIRG wants to awards points for that practice.

The problem is that USPIRG’s scoring category on subsidies also covers grants, some of which are economic development subsidies but many of which are not. The distinction is not made clear, and in numerous cases it appears that the data treated by USPIRG as subsidy disclosure is actually information relating to other kinds of grants to non-governmental entities. For example, the Massachusetts transparency portal (which is given 8 of 10 points in the subsidy category) lists grants to non-profit organizations for providing social services, but it does not cover the state’s job creation programs. The latter include tax credits that will soon be disclosed, thanks to the efforts of groups such as PIRG’s Massachusetts affiliate.

It is understandable that USPIRG, in its effort to promote the march of government openness, would want to take a flexible position about what constitutes transparency. But the fact of the matter is that most online subsidy disclosure is still fragmented, occurring through far-flung webpages and obscure PDF reports. That’s precisely why we at Good Jobs First created Subsidy Tracker, which brings all those disparate sources (plus unpublished data) together in one national search engine.

Centralized state transparency portals are certainly a welcome development, and we salute USPIRG for promoting them, but they are not yet an effective means of educating the public on big giveaways of tax dollars.

A Not-So-Slow Boat to China

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

While U.S. political figures are wringing their hands about lackluster job creation, transnational corporations are desperately trying to hide their dirty secret: they are expanding their payrolls — just not in the United States.

The Washington Post recently published a front-page story about the fact that fewer and fewer companies are providing a geographic breakdown of their workforce in their annual financial statements, making it more difficult to track their hiring patterns.

They can get away with this because the Securities and Exchange Commission does not require this key bit of information in the mountain of data that publicly traded companies must include in filings such as their 10-K annual reports. Many companies that had chosen to report the breakdown voluntarily in the past are now deciding that the numbers are too sensitive to publish.

As the Post points out, quite a few of the non-reporters are companies that have been lobbying heavily for a special tax break on profits that they have been holding abroad for tax dodging purposes. A corporate front group called WinAmerica is arguing that a repatriation tax holiday would lead to an employment boon in the United States, even though a similar move in 2005 had no such effect.

What the Post article did not mention is that, while companies don’t have to disclose how many of their workers are based overseas, they do have to report how much of their non-financial “long-lived” assets are located abroad. This requirement stems from segment reporting rules established by the Financial Accounting Standards Board. The information is usually buried in the notes to the company’s financial statement.

Assets are a reasonable proxy for headcount in assessing the extent to which large U.S. corporations are placing more of their bets on foreign countries such as China and India rather than the US of A.

For a quick case study of asset exporting, I took a look at the financial statements of the publicly traded companies included on the list of supporters on the WinAmerica website. I examined the domestic/foreign split for assets in 2010 and compared it to that of a decade earlier.

Take the five big tech companies on the list: Apple, Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Oracle. From 2005 to 2010 their combined foreign assets grew by 329 percent, a rate more than one-fifth faster than the increase in their domestic assets. The most remarkable increase in foreign assets occurred at Google—a more than tenfold jump to $2.3 billion. Apple’s overseas properties increased fourfold to $710 million.

At some companies the portion of total long-lived assets held abroad is soaring. At Oracle, for instance, the figure last year reached 39 percent, up from 21 percent five years earlier.

High foreign assets levels are not limited to this group of tech giants. Pfizer has 43 percent of its assets outside the United States, Hewlett-Packard 45 percent and IBM has just over half. Even more remarkable is the case of General Electric: its foreign assets total $48.6 billion — nearly three times the $17.6 billion held at home.

GE is one of the dwindling numbers of large companies that provide a geographic breakdown of their workforce. Last year 54 percent of the company’s headcount was foreign-based — up from 42 percent a decade ago. During the ten-year period, GE added 62,000 employees abroad and only 2,000 at home.

Both in terms of their investment practices and their hiring patterns, companies such as GE have to a great extent given up on the United States even as they continue to cook up new schemes for tax breaks that will supposedly spur domestic hiring.

The trend has been long in the making. As early as the 1980s, GE made it clear it viewed itself as a global company not tethered to the U.S. In fact, the CEO at the time, Jack Welch, liked to say that, ideally, factories would be built on barges that could easily be moved from one country to another in quest of the lowest wages and weakest regulation. These days companies like GE don’t even consider docking their barges in the United States.

 

Nuclear Deception

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

After hearing the term “meltdown” used so often as a metaphor for the financial crisis, it is shocking to confront the prospect of a literal meltdown at some of Japan’s nuclear reactors in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami. There is something the two situations have in common: corporate misconduct.

The company that operates the heavily damaged reactors, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), is one of the most unethical large corporations that I have ever examined. It has an astounding history of deceptions and cover-ups made all the more egregious by the grave risks inherent in the business of generating nuclear power in a country prone to earthquakes.

TEPCO’s transgressions first came to light in 2002, after Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency belatedly began to investigate whistleblower allegations that the company had regularly falsified repair reports and inspection data concerning its nukes. The agency found evidence that the company had engaged in the deception for some 15 years, in some cases concealing the existence of cracks in the steel plates surrounding reactor cores as well as other defects.

The uproar over the revelations forced TEPCO’s president and chairman to resign. This was not just a matter of higher-ups taking responsibility for the misdeeds of underlings. There were reports that the top executives were aware of what was going on. The scope of the subterfuge also continued to grow, prompting some observers to liken the situation to the big U.S. corporate scandals involving companies such as Enron and WorldCom. TEPCO, which was forced to shut down its reactors for extended periods, later admitted that the data falsifications went back as far as the late 1970s.

In 2007 the company admitted that it had concealed incidents involving the emergency shutdowns of its Fukushima reactors—those involved in the current crisis—back in the mid-1980s. A few months after the admission, TEPCO had to apologize for delays and errors in announcing the extent of the damage at its nuclear plant in Kashiwazaki following an earthquake in the northwestern part of the country. When the whole story became known, local officials ordered TEPCO to shut down the plant.

The incident also prompted criticism of TEPCO for building the plant on top of an active seismic fault. It was unclear whether the company had been unaware of the fault or had ignored its presence; in either case, TEPCO looked highly irresponsible. It was later reported that the company had understated the intensity of the earthquake. The Kashiwazaki plant remained offline for more than two years.

TEPCO’s dishonesty is not limited to its nuclear operations. In 2007 it was one of ten utility companies cited by the Japanese government for falsifying data on the large quantities amounts of river water they used for power generation. TEPCO was found to have submitted bogus information on one of its hydroelectric plants for 13 years.

The mendacity of TEPCO is not just a matter of concern for the Japanese. In May 2010 the company announced it would purchase a 10 percent interest in the South Texas nuclear project, one of a slew of proposed new nukes that hope to receive a share of the billions of dollars in federal assistance promised by the Obama Administration to encourage a nuclear renaissance in the United States, where a new nuclear plant hasn’t opened in decades.

Japan’s disaster is already casting a very dark cloud over the prospects for that renaissance.  Debate over new U.S. nukes should not be limited to the technical safety issues. The example of TEPCO raises the question of whether a corporation can be trusted with a technology that has the potential to do such massive harm.

IKEA Knocks Down Labor Rights

Friday, December 17th, 2010

When my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First introduced the Subsidy Tracker database recently, our hope was that the information would be helpful to a wide range of campaigns for economic and social justice. I can now offer one particular use.

By plugging the name Swedwood into the search engine, one finds that the company received a $1 million cash grant under the Virginia Investment Partnership program in connection with its vow to invest $281 million and create 740 jobs. Actually, this grant was just part of a series of subsidies worth a total of $12 million that Swedwood received from the state (the data in Subsidy Tracker are not yet comprehensive).

Swedwood is significant because the company, a unit of the retail giant IKEA, is at the center of a controversy over its labor practices at a furniture plant in Danville, Virginia for which it received the $1 million subsidy. Employees of the facility, fed up with dangerous working conditions and discriminatory employment practices, have been trying to organize with the help of the Machinists union, which produced a report concluding that the Danville operation may be the most hazardous furniture plant in the country. Swedwood and its parent have responded to the organizing drive by harassing union organizers and firing union supporters.

The Machinists and the Building and Wood Workers International labor federation have launched a campaign to pressure IKEA and Swedwood to respect the rights of the Danville workers. Among other things, the campaign is asking supporters to send a holiday card to IKEA Chief Executive Mikael Ohlsson with instructions on how to build a fair collective bargaining relationship with the workers (allen wrench not included).

The unions might also want to make an issue of the fact that a company that was generously subsidized with taxpayer funds is now flouting labor laws.

The financial assistance IKEA got in Virginia is not the only time it has played the subsidy game. In places such as Tempe, Arizona and Frisco and Round Rock in Texas, the retailer has received millions of dollars in sales tax rebates and infrastructure assistance to help finance new stores. It is expected to receive up to $18 million in subsidies for the store it is building in Centennial, Colorado.

In fact, tax avoidance is at the center of IKEA’s entire corporate structure, a complex arrangement that puts nominal control in the hands of a Dutch private foundation but allows founder Ingvar Kamprad and his family to dominate the company and grow wealthier from it (according to Forbes, Kamprad is the 11th richest person in the world, with a net worth of $23 billion).

IKEA is a prime example of how companies that have reputations for being socially responsible somehow get away with exploiting the system of economic development subsidies and with being hostile to unions in the United States – while cooperating with them in countries (such as IKEA’s native Sweden) where they are well established and protected. In the past, IKEA has relied on paternalism – including better than average employee benefits – to discourage unionization at its U.S. operations. The events in Danville suggest a troubling turn toward heavy-handed union busting.

Perhaps this will begin to change the view of corporate social responsibility arbiters such as Ethisphere magazine, which lists IKEA as “one of the world’s most ethical companies.” While the idea of corporate ethics is an oxymoron, companies should not be singled out for praise of any kind if they deny the rights of their workers to organize.

Note: The Dirt Diggers Digest index of information sources featured or utilized in the blog has finally been brought up to date.

Introducing Subsidy Tracker

Friday, December 10th, 2010

Over the past decade, the National Institute on Money in State Politics has built its Follow the Money database into an impressive resource for showing the influence of large corporations on state electoral campaigns. I have long wanted to create a comparable tool to track the flow of money in roughly the opposite direction: economic development subsidy awards from states to big business.

I am happy to announce that my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have just introduced such a resource. Subsidy Tracker is the first national search engine for determining where a company has gotten economic development subsidies around the country. The database stitches together information from scores of different disclosure sources, many of them obscure reports and webpages. The subsidy programs covered include corporate income tax credits, property tax abatements, enterprise zone tax breaks, cash grants, reimbursement of worker training costs, and others.

In its initial form, the database contains information on more than 43,000 subsidy awards from 124 subsidy programs in 27 states; the number will soon jump to more than 64,000 in 34 states and will continue growing.

Here are some ways Subsidy Tracker can be used:

  • To find companies that have received subsidies in many places. Currently, for instance, Wal-Mart shows up 69 times, trailed by Target at 45.
  • To find companies that have gotten some very large individual subsidies. General Electric received a tax credit worth up to $115 million in Ohio in 2009.
  • To find bad actors that have received subsidies. Super-polluter and climate denier Exxon shows up 23 times in Louisiana alone. The anti-union T-Mobile shows up eight times so far. Wall Street villain Goldman Sachs has received more than $124 million in tax credits and grants in Utah and New Jersey.
  • To find good actors that have received subsidies. Flambeau River Papers, included on the American Rights at Work 2010 list of employers that “practice labor-management cooperation while creating pioneering solutions to the environmental challenges of the 21st century” shows up in Subsidy Tracker as having received a grant of $249,000 from Wisconsin in 2008.
  • To find companies that have received subsidies in states where they have made substantial campaign contributions. Agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, which according to Follow the Money made more than $546,000 in campaign contributions in Illinois since 2003 (including those of its executives and employees), has received more than $87 million in enterprise zone tax credits in the state during the same period.
  • To find companies that profess extreme laissez-faire views and then take subsidies. Koch Industries, whose owners bankroll the Tea Party movement, received two tax credits worth a total of more than $10 million from Oklahoma in the past year.

I’m sure researchers, journalists and others will think of many more ways to use the database. Each entry in Subsidy Tracker contains a link back to the original online source (except a limited number of cases in which the data we obtained is not posted on the web). Search results can be downloaded to a spreadsheet. For more on the data and how the site works, see the User Guide.

Good Jobs First introduced Subsidy Tracker along with two other resources: a report called Show Us the Subsidies, which evaluates the subsidy disclosure practices of the 50 states and the District of Columbia; and Accountable USA, a set of pages that review each state’s subsidy policies, describe large and controversial subsidy deals and provide other provocative information.

We hope all these tools help shine a light on the many excessive and ineffective subsidies that are going to large companies at a time when states and localities can ill afford the loss of what is estimated at $60 billion a year in public revenue.

Subsidy Tracker is a work in progress. In this first phase, we have focused on data sources that we discovered in preparing Show Us the Subsidies and Accountable USA. In the months ahead, we plan to go deeper by using freedom of information requests to obtain data not currently disclosed in any form.

I hope that Dirt Diggers Digest readers will find Subsidy Tracker to be a useful tool in your research. I look forward to your comments and suggestions.

Resources

Subsidy Tracker main page

Subsidy Tracker User Guide

Inventory of data sources currently in Subsidy Tracker

Table of online disclosure links for major subsidy programs (not all data yet in Subsidy Tracker)

Accountable USA main page

Index of companies whose subsidy deals are profiled in Accountable USA

Show Us the Subsidies report and state appendices

Good Jobs First case studies of companies and industries that are major subsidy recipients

Full Graphic Disclosure

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Forget Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man. Federal regulators want people to think of disease, birth defects and death when they pick up a package of cigarettes. The Food and Drug Administration, implementing legislation passed by Congress last year, has just released three dozen proposed enhanced warning labels that manufacturers would have to print on each pack of cancer sticks.

In the place of the plain text warnings that have appeared on tobacco packaging for years, these labels would be much larger and much more visually striking. The proposals include, for example, photos of a smoker in an open coffin, a mother blowing cigarette smoke at her infant child, and a sickly cancer victim.

The main objective of the warnings is to encourage existing smokers to quit and the dissuade children from picking up the dangerous habit. But apart from consumer behavior modification, the labels can be seen as a form of disclosure—disclosure of the harmful effects of a product.

The need for bold messages about deleterious aspects of the things we buy is not limited to cigarettes. It might make sense to apply the FDA’s approach to a whole range of goods and services. For example:

  • SUV models shown to be prone to rollovers should come not just with a plain-text sticker showing miles per gallon, but also full-color photos of mangled vehicles with bleeding drivers and passengers.
  • Electric bills sent by utilities relying on coal-fired power plants should be required to include photographs of floods, droughts and other effects of catastrophic climate change.
  • The pumps at gas stations should be adorned with photographs of oil spills and refinery disasters.
  • A variety of products sold by Wal-Mart should have packaging containing images of the oppressive Chinese sweatshops in which they were produced.
  • Stores selling gold jewelry should display photographs showing the despoiled land around the cyanide-leaching facilities in which the precious metal is mined.
  • Producers of dangerous pharmaceuticals should be required not just to mention possible injurious side effects, which most people have tuned out, but to show images of actual victims.
  • Health insurance providers should have to send out pictures of policyholders who died because an expensive treatment was rejected by the company.
  • Perhaps manufacturers of the worst junk food should be required to air commercials with actors who are morbidly obese.
  • And, of course, gun sellers should have to hand out gory photos of victims of accidental discharges.

Given the exalted status of commercial free speech in this country, these ideas could never come to pass. Yet there is still a serious issue to address: How do we turn dry data about corporate harms into messages people pay attention to?

The objective, however, is not just to change consumer behavior but also that of producers. All disclosure is meant to highlight an activity that is subject to abuse and hopefully curb those abuses. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory is designed to get manufacturers to clean up their production processes – and has had a positive impact. Campaign contribution disclosure is meant discourage the big-money takeover of elections (there’s obviously been a lot less progress on that front, especially now that much corporate electoral spending can take place anonymously). Disclosure of executive compensation is supposed to check the relentless march toward lavish CEO salaries, bonuses and stock options (another less than rousing success).

The fact that disclosure does not immediately cure the problem it is meant to highlight does not undermine the case for transparency. It may simply mean that the form of the disclosure is not compelling enough. That’s the beauty of the FDA approach to cigarettes.

In replacing the misleading feel-good images that marketers have long sought to associate with even the most noxious products, the aggressive warning labels begin to force corporations to be honest about what they sell and consumers to come to grips with the true nature of much of what they consume. This form of anti-advertising may begin to liberate us from the illusions of our manufactured desires.

Stealth Disclosure

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

The Congressional practice of quietly attaching an unrelated provision to a larger piece of legislation at the last minute has all too often been used to benefit powerful corporate interests. In two recent cases, however, the stealth amendment process has resulted in changes that will make it easier to monitor questionable business practices by energy companies and federal contractors.

Extractive industries are complaining about language (Section 1504) slipped into the new financial reform bill that will require them to report on royalties and other payments to governments. The aim is to make it harder for those corporations to conceal bribes and other illegal transfers used to obtain petroleum or mining concessions and that often prop up corrupt regimes such as the one in Equatorial Guinea. The provision, based on a bill that had been introduced by Senators Benjamin Cardin of Maryland and Richard Lugar of Indiana, applies to publicly traded oil, gas and mining companies whose shares trade in the United States.

The law is a victory for groups such as Publish What You Pay, which has long campaigned to increase the transparency of energy corporation dealings with governments around the world. The campaign has already succeeded in getting some firms to disclose the information voluntarily, but it will be much better to have it mandated and overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which will write rules covering the inclusion of the information in financial statements.

That’s why trade associations such as the American Petroleum Institute and companies such as Exxon Mobil are grousing about the law. An API spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that Russian and Chinese oil companies not subject to the requirement “could use the data to outfox U.S. companies in deals.”

Dubious complaints are also being heard from Beltway Bandit mouthpieces in response to a swift move by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to insert a provision in the recently passed supplemental appropriations bill giving the public access to a database about contractor performance – which in many cases means contractor misconduct.

The database is the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS), which was mandated as a result of 2008 legislation enacted thanks to the efforts of groups such as the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), which has its own Federal Contractor Misconduct Database covering the 100 companies doing the most business with Uncle Sam. FAPIIS is supposed to make it easier for federal agencies to review the track record of a much wider range of companies bidding on new contracts worth $500,000 or more. In addition to contract performance information collected from various federal sources, FASPIIS includes data submitted by companies with more than $10 million in contracts or grants on any criminal, civil or administrative proceedings brought against them during the previous three years.

FAPIIS was an important step forward, but it was able to get through Congress only after its sponsors agreed to restrict access to the database. POGO tested the provision by filing a FOIA request with the Pentagon for its FAPIIS information but was shot down.

A short time later, however, it came to light that the Sanders amendment survived in the supplemental spending bill President Obama signed on July 29. The provision will give the public access to FAPIIS information about contractor track records, but unfortunately it excludes past contract performance reviews by federal agencies.

Already, the Professional Services Council, the leading trade association of federal contractors, is warning that making parts of FAPIIS public “could create a politically motivated blacklist of vendors.” The PSC seems to believe that the public should not have the ability to pressure the federal government to stop doing business with crooked companies.

Speaking of blacklists, the FAPIIS change comes on the heels of an announcement by the Obama Administration that it is creating a master Do Not Pay database covering individuals and businesses that should not be receiving payments from federal agencies. At a time of growing hysteria about the federal deficit, it is good to see that attention is being paid to ways of cutting costs that are truly wasteful.

Shaming the Corporate Cheapskates

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Buried among the many features of the financial reform bill passed by Congress is a provision that could get you a raise. For this to happen, however, you have to work for a large company that is uncomfortable with having it made public how little it pays its workers.

Section 953 of the Dodd-Frank bill deals with disclosures relating to executive compensation, not only at banks but at all publicly traded companies. One of the ways it seeks to rein in out-of-control CEO pay is by requiring firms to reveal how the amount paid to the head of the company compares to that received by the typical employee. The theory is that having this information made public would give pause to grasping CEOs and soft-touch board compensation committees.

The total compensation of chief executives (along with that of the four other highest paid executives) is already disclosed through the annual proxy statements companies have to file with the Securities and Exchange Commission (which makes them public through the EDGAR online system, where the documents are designated as DEF 14A). Yet there have been no requirements relating to the disclosure of how much is paid to the CEO’s underlings.

Section 953 fills this gap by instructing companies to include in their future proxies the median of the annual total compensation paid to all employees apart from the CEO. They also have to calculate the ratio of that median to the CEO’s total bounty.

Those ratios will be fascinating to see, but just as interesting will be the figures on non-CEO pay themselves. For the first time, we will be able to make direct comparisons of the broad compensation practices of different companies within given industries or across sectors. Getting official data from the companies themselves will be an improvement on the selective information that now gets posted on websites such as Glass Door.

There will be limitations, of course. Congress should have required the disclosure of data specifically on hourly workers rather than lumping them in with higher-paid professionals and executives. It would also be preferable to have separate numbers on domestic and foreign employees. And it is likely that companies will exclude low-paid temps and (often misclassified) independent contractors in making their calculations.

Yet this information could still be put to good use. Having clear, company-specific data could help stimulate a much-needed movement to address the problem of wage stagnation in the United States. The reality of that stagnation is quite evident from overall labor market data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but it would be much more effective to point the finger at individual companies with low medians and seek to shame them for failing to provide adequate compensation to their workers.

The ability of employers to keep wages low stems from two classic sources: low unionization and high unemployment. We know all too well the story of how anti-union animus on the part of employers has pushed the percentage of private sector workers with collective bargaining protections to historic postwar lows. To the extent they are able, unions target individual companies such as Wal-Mart, T-Mobile and (until it was finally organized) Smithfield Foods for denying their workers the right to representation.

Unions and other advocacy groups also criticize specific companies that engage in mass layoffs, especially when they seem to be undertaken mainly to impress Wall Street.

Yet we rarely hear criticisms of particular companies for failing to hire new workers when conditions seem to warrant it. The “economy” is assumed to be to blame for the high levels of joblessness afflicting us, not deliberate decisions by corporations to keep their payrolls artificially lean. Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce made the absurd argument that overregulation is responsible for the anemic hiring situation. The Obama Administration responded by saying that weak consumer demand is the cause. Absent is the idea that corporations are failing in their responsibilities.

The unwillingness to chastise corporations is all the more bewildering in the face of growing evidence that business is hoarding cash instead of investing in job-creating ways. A front-page story in the Washington Post headlined COMPANIES PILE UP CASH BUT REMAIN HESITANT TO ADD JOBS notes that U.S. nonfinancial companies, buoyed by rising profits, are now sitting on $1.8 trillion in liquid reserves.

Why is there not more of an outcry about this behavior? Here’s an idea: pick companies with the most egregious combinations of rising profits and falling payrolls and press them to justify their boycott of U.S. workers. Once the new disclosure requirement kicks in, they could also be pushed to explain their low compensation levels. Business needs a strong reminder that it also exists to provide opportunities for people to earn a living.