Archive for May, 2016

Monsanto’s German Suitor Has Its Own Tainted Record

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Monsanto, one of the most controversial corporations in the United States, now finds itself the target of a takeover campaign by German pharmaceutical and chemical giant Bayer. Would a change in ownership improve the behavior of the biotechnology company dubbed “Mutanto” by its critics?

Answering that question requires a look at Bayer’s own track record, which is far from unblemished. Most Americans associate Bayer with aspirin. The company created the analgesic in 1899, but during World War I the U.S. government seized Bayer’s American assets and allowed other firms to sell aspirin under the Bayer name until the German company bought back the rights in 1994.

In the 1920s Bayer was absorbed into the massive IG Farben cartel, which used slave labor and supported the Nazi regime. After the Second World War it re-emerged as one of the companies created through the break-up of IG Farben. During the 1950s it began to return to the U.S. market through efforts such as a joint venture with Monsanto (in its pre-agribusiness era) called Mobay Chemical.

As Bayer has stepped up its U.S. involvement over the past two decades it has gotten embroiled in one scandal after another. In 1997 one of its subsidiaries based in New Jersey pled guilty to criminal price-fixing and had to pay a $50 million fine. In 2000 Bayer had to pay $14 million to the federal government and the states to settle allegations that it inflated prices on drugs sold to the Medicaid program. In 2001 it was accused of price-gouging on the antibiotic Cipro, which was then in high demand because of the anthrax scare. It later had to pay $257 million to settle a federal lawsuit on Cipro overcharging.

In 2003 documents emerged suggesting that Bayer was aware of serious safety problems with its cholesterol drug Baycol long before the medication was withdrawn from the market. In 2004 Bayer had to pay a $66 million fine in another criminal price-fixing case. A 2008 explosion at a Bayer pesticide plant in West Virginia that killed two workers led to regulatory penalties including a $5.6 million settlement with the EPA. A report found that management deficiencies played a significant role in creating the conditions that caused the explosion.

That’s just the quick version of Bayer’s controversies. For more see the website of the Coalition against BAYER-dangers, a German watchdog group that has been monitoring the company for more than 30 years.

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that Bayer has already been active in the businesses in which Monsanto has gained its checkered reputation: agricultural chemicals and genetically modified seeds. Before the Monsanto bid, Bayer was in the news most often because of concerns that its pesticides were responsible for sharp drops in bee populations.

The chances that a Bayer takeover of Monsanto will get the U.S. company to clean up its act seem slim indeed. In fact, the combined company will probably be an even bigger threat.

President or Pitchman?

Thursday, May 19th, 2016

In submitting his new financial disclosure form to the Federal Election Commission, Donald Trump described it as “the largest in the history of the FEC.” Aside from being another example of his compulsive need to boast, the statement seems to demonstrate an astounding ignorance of what the disclosure process is all about.

It also raises questions as to what Trump’s entire candidacy is all about. Since announcing his bid for the Republican nomination last June, Trump has made countless statements about his supposed business prowess and the success of his various enterprises. He even insisted that multiple corporate bankruptcies were indications of shrewdness rather than failure, and he downplayed the long series of controversies and scandals that have marked his business career.

Trump is not the first candidate to try to use a business track record as the springboard to the presidency. Mitt Romney did essentially the same thing, though in his case he had already distanced himself from Bain Capital and had transitioned to the public sector by serving as the governor of Massachusetts.

Yet in Trump’s case, the objective seems to be more than simply asserting his qualifications based on past business activities. To a great extent, he has used his candidacy to promote his current endeavors. He uses every opportunity to tout his portfolio of businesses, and in March he literally put his wares on display by holding a news conference surrounded by piles of Trump Steaks, Trump Wine and other branded products.

He has also employed the campaign to promote the size of his personal fortune, demonstrating a preoccupation with asserting a net worth of $10 billion in the face of substantially smaller estimates by the likes of Forbes ($4.5 billion) and Bloomberg ($2.9 billion). A decade ago, Trump brought an unsuccessful $5 billion defamation lawsuit against an author who claimed that he was actually worth less than a billion.

Initially, it appeared that Trump’s unrestrained comments about Mexicans would harm his business interests as companies such as NBC Universal, Univision, Macy’s and Serta cut ties with him. Yet the newly released disclosure form suggests something different. The Washington Post concludes that “business has boomed in Donald Trump’s financial empire during the time he has run for president.”

This raises the question: Is Trump primarily interested in serving the country or serving his business interests? The candidate seems to have done little to separate himself from those interests during the campaign. In 1992 Ross Perot resigned as CEO of his computer services company while running for the presidency. Trump has made no secret of the fact that he continues to be involved in commercial endeavors.

Trump has not committed to selling off his interests should he reach the White House. He has suggested that his adult children would get more involved in managing those operations, but it is difficult to believe that he would recuse himself to any great extent. Moreover, Trump’s businesses are so bound up with him personally — his name, his image, etc. — that it is difficult to see how he could separate himself even if he wanted to.

This brings us back to the financial disclosure form. Trump apparently views it as an opportunity to “document” his net worth, but the real purpose, of course, is to identify possible conflicts of interest. In Trump’s case, with hundreds of companies under his control and licensing deals with many others, those potential conflicts are endless.

Trump appears to be oblivious to the issue. If his goal was actually to make the Trump Organization, his holding company, great again, he may very well have succeeded. It remains to be seen how the rest of the country fares.

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Note: Subsidy Tracker, the corporate welfare database I produce with my colleagues at Good Jobs First, has reached two milestones: 500,000 entries and $250 billion in taxpayer-funded giveaways.

Manufacturing McJobs at Nissan and Elsewhere

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

Bring back manufacturing jobs: For years this has been put forth as the silver bullet that would reverse the decline in U.S. living standards and put the economy back on a fast track. The only problem is that today’s production positions are not our grandparents’ factory jobs. In fact, they are often as substandard as the much reviled McJobs of the service sector.

The latest evidence of this comes in a report by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, which has issued a series of studies on how the growth of poorly paid jobs in retailing and fast food have burdened government with ever-rising social safety net costs. Now the Center shows how the same problem arises from the deterioration of job quality in manufacturing.  The study estimates that one-third of the families of frontline production workers have to resort to one or more safety net program and that the federal government and the states have been spending about $10 billion a year on their benefits.

What makes these hidden taxpayer costs all the more galling is that manufacturing companies enjoy special benefits in the federal tax code and receive lavish state and local economic development subsidies, the rationale for which is that the financial assistance supposedly helps create high-quality jobs.

The Center’s analysis deals in aggregates and thus does not single out individual companies, but it is not difficult to think of specific firms that contribute to the vicious cycle. A suitable poster child, it seems to me, is Nissan. It is one of those foreign carmakers credited with investing in U.S. manufacturing, though like the other transplants it did so in a pernicious way.

First, it tried to avoid being unionized by locating its facilities in states such as Mississippi and Tennessee that are known to be unfriendly to organized labor. After the United Auto Workers nonetheless launched an organizing drive, the company has done everything possible to thwart the union.

Second, while boasting that its hourly wage rates for permanent, full-time workers are close to those of the Big Three domestic automakers, Nissan has denied those pay levels to large chunks of its workforce. Roughly half of those working at the company’s plant in Canton, Mississippi are temps or leased workers with much lower pay and little in the way of benefits.

It is significant that in the Center’s report, Mississippi — which has also attracted manufacturing investments from other foreign firms such as Toyota and Yokohama Rubber — has the highest rate of participation (59 percent) in safety net programs by families of production workers. The Magnolia State may have experienced a manufacturing revival, but many of those new jobs are so poorly paid that they are creating a burden for taxpayers.

At the same time, Mississippi is among the more generous states in dishing out the subsidies to those foreign investors. My colleague Kasia Tarczynska and I discovered that the value of the incentive package given to Nissan in 2000 will turn out to cost $1.3 billion — far more than was originally reported. Toyota got a $354 million deal in 2007, and Yokohama Rubber got a $130 million one in 2013.

There’s a lot of talk these days about bad trade deals and resulting job losses. We also need to worry about what happens when we gain employment from international investment but the jobs turn out to be lousy ones.

Johnson & Johnson’s Self-Inflicted Wounds

Thursday, May 5th, 2016

Baby powder, the product along with Band-Aids that for decades gave Johnson & Johnson a benign image, is now the latest symbol of its deterioration into one of the most unreliable of large corporations. Juries have recently awarded a total of $127 million to women with ovarian cancer who charge that their disease was caused by the talc in the company’s powder.

J&J, which disputes the allegations and is appealing the verdicts, faces some 1,400 additional similar lawsuits brought by plaintiffs’ lawyers armed with company documents they say show that J&J was concerned about a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer as early as the 1970s. It is unclear what will happen with the litigation, but the lawsuits are part of a long string of scandals that have plagued the giant medical products firm during the past decade and forced it to pay out vast sums in civil settlements and criminal fines.

The most serious of those cases involved allegations that several of its subsidiaries marketed prescription drugs for purposes not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration, thus creating potentially life-threatening risks for patients.

In 2010 J&J subsidiaries Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical and Ortho-McNeil-Janssen had to pay $81 million to settle charges that they promoted their epilepsy drug Topamax for uses not approved as safe. The following year, J&J subsidiary Scios Inc. had to pay $85 million to settle similar charges relating to its heart failure drug Natrecor.

In 2013 the Justice Department announced that J&J and several of its subsidiaries would pay more than $2.2 billion in criminal fines and civil settlements to resolve allegations that the company had marketed it anti-psychotic medication Risperdal and other drugs for unapproved uses as well as allegations that they had paid kickbacks to physicians and pharmacists to encourage off-label usage. The amount included $485 million in criminal fines and forfeiture and $1.72 billion in civil settlements with both the federal government and 45 states that had also sued the company.

At a press conference announcing the resolution of the case, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the company’s practices ”recklessly put at risk the health of some of the most vulnerable members of our society — including young children, the elderly and the disabled.”

Other J&J problems resulted from faulty production practices. During 2009 and 2010 the company had to announce around a dozen recalls of medications, contact lenses and hip implants. The most serious of these was the massive recall of liquid Tylenol and Motrin for infants and children after batches of the medication were found to be contaminated with metal particles.

The company’s handling of the matter was so poor that J&J subsidiary McNeil-PPC became the subject of a criminal investigation and later entered a guilty plea and paid a criminal fine of $20 million and forfeited $5 million.

J&J also faced criminal charges in an investigation of questionable foreign transactions. In 2011 it agreed to pay a $21.4 million criminal penalty as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department resolving allegations of improper payments by J&J subsidiaries to government officials in Greece, Poland and Romania in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The settlement also covered kickbacks paid to the former government of Iraq under the United Nations Oil for Food Program.

All of this has been a humiliating comedown for a company that was once regarded as a model of corporate social responsibility and which set the standard for crisis management in its handling of the 1980s episode in which a madman laced packages of Tylenol with cyanide. While the company was then being victimized, the more recent crises have been largely of its own making.

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Note: This piece is drawn from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Johnson & Johnson, which can be found here.