The Permanent Corporate Crime Wave

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.

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