A Limited Corporate Crackdown

May 23rd, 2019 by Phil Mattera

The Trump Administration has, for the most part, allowed large corporations to get away with all kinds of misconduct. It has weakened enforcement, limited the use of heavy penalties and searched for ways to dismantle regulations.

Yet there is one corporation that Trump has been attacking recently with special fervor: the Chinese telecommunications equipment giant Huawei.  A Washington Post front-page story article in mid-May was headlined: U.S. Hits Huawei with ‘death penalty,’ a reference to its placement (now delayed) on a list of companies that U.S. firms cannot do business with.

As with many of Trump’s hardball actions, the penalties against Huawei are actually collateral damage resulting from a different skirmish. The president is less concerned with the company’s practices than he is with putting pressure on China to make concessions in a trade dispute that is turning out to be a lot more difficult for the United States to win than Trump had promised.

The pretext for the actions against Huawei is that the company is a national security threat, which is the same general allegation that the U.S. had made against another Chinese telecommunications corporation, ZTE. That company was able to escape the blacklist last year after it paid a $1 billion fine, replaced its management and made other internal changes.

However the Huawei confrontation turns out, it is fascinating to see the harm that the federal government can inflict on a corporation, especially a large one, when it wants to get tough.

The use of the Entity List, compiled by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, is a particular threat for a company like Huawei, which is heavily dependent on both hardware (chips from companies such as Qualcomm) and software (Google’s Android operating system) from the United States. The pressure on Huawei intensified when two British firms announced that they will abide by the U.S. restrictions. There are bound to be more international ramifications that threaten Huawei’s survival.

Imagine if the United States had applied similarly draconian measures against other foreign corporations accused of misconduct. More than half of the entries on the Violation Tracker list of the companies with the highest cumulative penalties are foreign-based. These include five banks along with BP and Volkswagen.

The U.S. Justice Department and other federal agencies have been willing to levy substantial fines against these companies, yet all of them are still doing business in the United States. These include some that have faced allegations similar to those made against Huawei. For example, the French bank BNP Paribas was accused of violating international sanctions and penalized nearly $9 billion but was not put on the Entity List.

Volkswagen may not have been involved in sanctions and national security controversies, but its environmental conduct has been quite egregious. If the federal government were serious about punishing foreign corporate bad actors, it should bring to their cases the same zeal being shown with regard to Huawei.

For that matter, a more aggressive approach toward rogue domestic companies would also be in order.

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