Archive for July, 2012

How to Succeed in Business

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

It’s only a few months to the presidential election, and the economy is still a mess, yet the candidates have been arguing over the secret of success in business.

This is an old and tired debate, and neither side is saying anything novel. Romney is reciting the chamber of commerce fairy tale that business achievement is the result purely of hard work and risk-taking on the part of lone entrepreneurs. Obama mostly accepts that narrative but meekly points out that business owners also depend on government-provided infrastructure and thus should pay a slightly larger share of the taxes needed to fund those roads, bridges and the like.

Both men talk as if we were still in an early 19th Century economy of small enterprises that live or die based on individual effort and minimal government activity—rather than the century-old reality that megacorporations are what dominate American commerce.

When the candidates do acknowledge the existence of big business, it is mainly to offer competing proposals on how to serve its needs. For the Republicans, this means further weakening of regulation and the dismantling of the corporate income tax. While the Democrats make some noise about controlling business excesses, nothing much comes of this, and their main goal seems to be that of bribing large corporations with incentives so they don’t abandon the U.S. economy entirely.

What both sides forget is that corporations exist at the behest of government—in nearly all cases state governments, which authorize their creation. The original ones were established to enlist private participation in government initiatives such as building canals. Before the Civil War, corporations were allowed to engage only in designated activities and could not grow beyond a certain size. It was to get around these limitations that robber barons such as Rockefeller created the trusts that came to control so much of American industry, prompting the passage of the Sherman Act and other antitrust efforts.

Whatever progress started to be made in thwarting the hyper-concentration of business was undermined when New Jersey and then Delaware rewrote their corporation laws to allow companies to do pretty much whatever they pleased and to become as big as they  wished in the process. Eventually, other states followed suit. The corporate form, once a privilege granted for special purposes, became an entitlement for any pool of money seeking to make a profit behind the shield of limited liability.

What presidential candidates should be debating is whether the time has come to tighten state corporation laws or replace them entirely with a federal system of chartering, as Ralph Nader and his colleagues argued in the 1970s.

Nader’s effort was prompted by a wave of revelations about corporate misconduct that came out of the Watergate investigations. Today we have our own corporate crime wave: recent cases of foreign bribery (Wal-Mart), illegal marketing of prescription drugs (GlaxoSmithKline and others), manipulation of interest rates (Barclays) and pipeline negligence (Enbridge Energy) come on the heels of the Wall Street mortgage securities fiasco, the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Massey Energy coal mining disaster.

If we have to talk about success in business, the question we should be considering is whether any large company succeeds without engaging in illegal, or at least unethical and exploitative, behavior. In spite of all the talk about corporate social responsibility, it is difficult to find a major firm that does not cross the line in one way or another.

Take the most successful company of recent years: Apple. Thanks to a series of investigative reports, we now know that Apple’s business achievements are based on a foundation of underpaid workers, both in its foreign factories and its domestic retail stores. On top of that, the company engages in flagrant tax avoidance, and despite its gargantuan profits, it forces state governments to hand over big subsidies when it builds data centers.

Sure, Apple made use of the type of public infrastructure President Obama likes to talk about. Yet the biggest benefit it and other large companies receive from government is the unwillingness to engage in serious regulation and to prosecute corporate crime to the fullest, which would mean an end to the current practice of deferred prosecutions and other forms of wrist-slapping.

Forget about roads and bridges: the real secret of business success is government tolerance of corporate misconduct.

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.

The Permanent Corporate Crime Wave

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

For an issue that concerns a technical feature of global finance, the LIBOR scandal has had a surprisingly strong impact. There is speculation that banks could face tens of billions of dollars of damages in lawsuits that have been filed over their apparent manipulation of the interest rate index.

What makes the situation even more unusual is that the efforts by bankers to depress LIBOR not only worked to their benefit but also inadvertently helped millions of consumers by lowering rates on financial products such as adjustable-rate mortgages. Some individuals experienced lower returns from certain investments, but the big victims were municipal governments that were prevented from taking full advantage of the interest rate swaps many had purchased at the urging of Wall Street.

Apart from the direct financial impacts, the scandal has triggered a new crisis of confidence in major corporations and financial institutions. The New York Times just ran an article headlined The SPREADING SCOURGE OF CORPORATE CORRUPTION that poses the question: “Have corporations lost whatever ethical compass they once had?”

Citing academic research, the piece considers whether corporate wrongdoing may be cyclical or may be growing as a side effect of globalization. The article ends by bemoaning the damage to “Americans’ trust in the institutions that underpin the nation’s liberal market democracy.”

There is good reason for that trust to be eroding. The LIBOR controversy comes on the heels of a series of discomfiting revelations about the behavior not only of financial institutions but also that of other sectors of big business. For instance, GlaxoSmithKline recently had to pay a record $3 billion to settle charges of illegal marketing of prescription drugs. The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration just issued a scathing report on Enbridge Energy’s handling of a pipeline accident that spilled more than 800,000 gallons of oil in Michigan two years ago.

As troubling as this spate of cases may be, is it really anything new?

While the current scandals have been erupting, I’ve been reading a six-decade-old book that turns out to be surprisingly relevant. Edwin Sutherland’s White Collar Crime, published in 1949, was the first systematic assessment of the degree to which large corporations and those who work for them are inclined to break the law.

Defying the prevailing principles of criminology, which held that lawbreaking was a reflection of the personal and social pathologies of the lower classes, Sutherland marshaled a mountain of evidence to show that respected business executives regularly and unhesitatingly violated a wide range of civil and criminal statutes. His book focuses first on a sample of 70 large manufacturers and retailers and then on 15 major utility companies.

In his original manuscript, Sutherland identified companies in discussing their transgressions, but under pressure from a publisher worried about libel suits he removed the names. It was not until 1983 that an unexpurgated version of the book was issued.

Sutherland and his publisher had good reason to worry about corporate legal harassment. The book concludes that every one of the 85 companies was crooked one way or another. Using an expansive definition of criminality, Sutherland looks at both outright fraud and price-fixing as well as offenses such as securities violations, false advertising, food and drug adulteration, patent infringement, unfair labor practices and infringement of wartime price regulations.

The 70 manufacturers and retailers were found to have had a total of 980 offenses, or an average of 14 per company. The companies with the most were meatpackers Armour and Swift, with 50 each. As striking as all these numbers are, Sutherland argues that they probably do not reflect the full extent of misconduct, given the limitations of the information sources that were available to him and his researchers.

He concludes that the business world has a serious problem with recidivism: “None of the official procedures used on businessmen for violations of law have been very effective in rehabilitating them or in deterring other businessmen from similar behavior.” Sutherland also finds that many of the types of violations he examined were pervasive in various industries, and given that they often involved collaboration of people from different companies, they were the equivalent of organized crime.

Sutherland anticipates many of today’s discussions about corporate capture of regulatory agencies and the role of the revolving door between the public and private sectors in weakening government oversight of business. As is also the case today, he shows that “businessmen customarily feel and express contempt for law, for government, and for government personnel.” Whereas this view is now taken for granted, Sutherland regarded it as anti-social, saying it showed that in this respect corporate executives are “are similar to professional thieves, who feel contempt for law, policemen, prosecutors and judges.”

As new business scandals continue to surface, it’s important to retain a sense of outrage while also remembering that widespread corporate wrongdoing is nothing new and will not disappear anytime soon.

Liar’s LIBOR

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Mainstream economics would have us believe that interest rates are determined by the “invisible hand” of the market, except on those occasions when the Federal Reserve or other central banks intervene to modulate borrowing costs. One of the benefits of the current scandal embroiling the British bank Barclays is that it reveals the flimsy and fishy nature of one of the key rate-setting mechanisms of the global financial system.

That mechanism is the British Bankers’ Association’s London Interbank Offered Rate, an interest rate index that has been around since the 1980s. While LIBOR’s primary function is to represent what it costs big banks to borrow from one another over the short term, it has become the linchpin of hundreds of trillions of dollars of financial transactions ranging from complex interest-rate swaps to adjustable-rate home mortgages.

One would think that something so crucial to the efficient functioning of capitalism would be determined in a rigorous way. LIBOR rates, it turns out, are assembled in a remarkably arbitrary manner. They are based on figures submitted each day by major banks on what they think they would have to pay at that time to borrow in ten different currencies for 15 different periods of time. The upper and lower ends of the range are removed before the actual index is calculated by Thomson Reuters on behalf of the bankers’ association, but the figures are still based on what the banks decide to report as their perceptions.

While there has been debate since the beginning about the use of perceptions rather than actual transactions, serious questions about the integrity of LIBOR date back to the early stages of the financial meltdown in 2008. In April of that year the Wall Street Journal noted growing concerns that banks, whose individual LIBOR figures are made public, were adjusting those submissions downward to disguise the fact that their increasingly shaky condition was forcing them to pay higher rates for short-term loans.

The Journal then published its own analysis concluding that banks such as Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase, to avoid looking desperate for cash, had been reporting significantly lower borrowing costs to LIBOR than what other indicators suggested should have been the case.

By 2011, LIBOR discrepancies had moved from the realm of financial analysis to that of government oversight. The Swiss bank UBS disclosed that its LIBOR submissions were being reviewed by U.S. and Japanese regulators, and there were reports that other institutions were involved in the probes. It soon emerged that a group of megabanks were being investigated in various countries for colluding to manipulate the LIBOR rate. This, in turn, prompted a wave of lawsuits filed by institutional investors as well as by municipal governments whose interest rate swaps became less beneficial because of artificially low LIBOR rates.

Barclays is the first bank to be penalized for LIBOR shenanigans. The $453 million it is paying to U.S. and U.K. regulators to settle the case is more an embarrassment than a serious financial burden. Moreover, no executives or traders were charged, despite the smoking-gun emails quoted in the UK Financial Services Authority’s summary of the case. And, in an arrangement that is standard operating procedure for corporate miscreants these days, Barclays negotiated a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that allows it to avoid a criminal conviction.

It was satisfying to see the bank’s CEO Robert Diamond (phot0) forced to resign after the revelation of evidence suggesting that senior executives knew very well what was going on with the LIBOR manipulation. (Diamond, an American, also had to step down as a co-host of a fundraising event in London for Mitt Romney.) Yet we then had to put up with the ridiculous spectacle of Diamond testifying to a parliamentary committee that regulators were partly to blame.

The highlight of the hearing was when Labour MP John Mann told Diamond: “Either you were complicit, grossly negligent or incompetent.” After a pause, Diamond asked. “Is there a question?”

There is no question that the big banks are corrupt and that an interest-rate-setting system that depends on honest reporting by representatives of those institutions has no legitimacy.