Archive for the ‘capitalism’ Category
Canada’s Competition Bureau has charged several candy companies with price-fixing. Nestle Canada, Mars Canada, and wholesale distributors network ITWAL stand accused of conspiring to manipulate the price of chocolate here in Canada. According to a press release from the Bureau, charges have also been laid against several individuals, including Robert Leonidas, former President of Nestlé Canada; Sandra Martinez, former President of Confectionery for Nestlé Canada; and David Glenn Stevens, President and CEO of ITWAL.
It’s interesting to note that price-fixing is one of the few pricing-related topics that comes up with any frequency in business ethics — one of the few that makes even a token appearance in any business ethics textbook. For the most part, pricing simply isn’t discussed as an ethical issue, probably because most companies are seen as having so little choice to exercise in the matter.
But price-fixing — attempts by erstwhile competitors to arrange not to compete on price — is a serious ethical as well as legal issue. It is also the subject of considerable cynicism. Many people seem to take for granted the idea that certain kinds of companies — gas companies come to mind, for instance — collude in an attempt to squeeze more money from consumers.
Another kind of cynic will see price fixing as not just common, but justified. After all, it’s just business, right? A manager’s job is to make a profit. And so if price-fixing is a route to profit, wouldn’t that just be part of a manager’s job?
But there is of course a good reason why price-fixing cannot be thought of as just part of doing business. And you don’t need to have a particularly warm-and-fuzzy view of business in order to see it.
But first it’s important to see that the reason why price-fixing is wrong is not just the bare fact that it hurts consumers. In market economies, there is no general prohibition against doing things that hurt other market participants. Markets are supposed to be win-win, but only in the big picture. There’s nothing unethical, for example, about developing a new and better product, one so good that it drives competitors out of business and hence leaves some people unemployed. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with raising your prices in response to rising costs of production, even if that leaves some people unable to afford your product.
So the reason why price-fixing is illegal, and also unethical, is not that it hurts consumers. The key reason is that it violates one of the basic requirements for markets to work efficiently. In order for markets to function with anything approaching efficiency — never mind fairness — several conditions must obtain: for starters, there must be sufficient information in the hands of both buyer and seller, and the costs of transactions must be borne by the participants, rather than spilling over onto bystanders. But most important for the present case, markets can only be efficient if buyers have real options — that is, if no seller has the power to bully the market. Behaviour aimed at letting one seller, or a group of sellers, bully the market is contrary to the requirements of efficient markets.
And when markets don’t operate efficiently, they lose much of their fundamental ethical justification. So when companies engage in price-fixing, then, they’re not just acting unethically. They’re acting as bad capitalists.
This past Tuesday I had the honour of being invited to testify before the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs of Canada’s House of Commons. The hearing was part of a “study on corporate practices by companies supplying and manufacturing products in developing countries for Canadian consumers.” The discussion wasn’t specifically about the factory that collapsed in Bangladesh last month, but that sad event was certainly on everyone’s mind.
Other witnesses included representatives from the Retail Council of Canada (RCC), from Loblaw, from the Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE), and from Gildan Activewear Inc.
Not surprisingly, a range of views were presented to the Committee. Strong government intervention? Solo efforts by individual companies? Collective action through groups like the RCC? Opinions differed on just how to proceed.
Equally unsurprising was that the witnesses were unified in their expression of deep sympathy for the people of Bangladesh. Everyone, as far as I could tell, was also in favour of improving working conditions in places like Bangladesh. Shareholders, for example, according to SHARE’s Peter Chapman, are and ought to be concerned about the “ESG” (ethics, social, & governance) obligations of the companies they invest in. Robert Chant — a senior VP at Loblaw, a company that commissioned clothing from one of the companies that worked out of the factory that collapsed in Bangladesh — said that while his company has always been concerned to monitor working conditions, they simply hadn’t thought to have their subcontractors’ buildings inspected. It wasn’t on their radar. And so the collapse in Bangladesh, said Chant, who showed genuine emotion during his testimony, “Shook us to the core,” and spurred his company to commit to doing better.
In my own testimony, I made 3 key points and 3 recommendations:
First, I noted that Canadian companies do indeed have ethical obligations that go beyond the legal minimum required by the governments of the countries in which they operate. Adherence to the law is seldom enough to guarantee that a company or individual has satisfied all relevant ethical obligations. This is of special significance in developing countries with underdeveloped legal and regulatory systems.
Second, I noted that we cannot expect companies operating in places like Bangladesh or China to adhere to Canadian labour standards. And perhaps no one expects that. Canadians generally enjoy high pay and high labour standards because we can afford to. Other countries, unfortunately, are not there yet.
Third, I asked what is the best way for Canadians to contribute to the well-being of those who work in factories in places like Bangladesh. I suggested three answers to this question. First, Canadians can continue buying things made in places like Bangladesh, because that is what gives a high proportion of Bangladeshis jobs. The second way to help is through charitable donations, both to humanitarian groups as well as to groups that are focused on issues like good governance and fighting corruption.
The third thing Canadians can do is to continue paying attention to this issue, and to continue encouraging Canadian institutions — businesses, governments, and NGOs — to keep working towards making things better. All have a role to play in encouraging and offering guidance on the pursuit of incremental improvements in working conditions in developing nations.
Loblaw Companies Limited, the company that owns the Joe Fresh retail clothing line, has announced that it will pay compensation to the families of victims of last week’s factory collapse in Bangladesh. Details are sparse at this point, but it’s an interesting development.
The move will of course garner the company plenty of praise. Some of that praise will be offered only grudgingly, by those who will see it as the least that can be done by a money-hungry corporation in the habit of squeezing profits out of the labour of Bangladeshis with few other options. But still, there will be praise. For it is easy to see the good in a transfer of wealth from a multibillion dollar Western corporation to several hundred exceedingly poor families. Any plausible amount of compensation will be trivial to the company, but an enormous boon the those in Bangladesh who were affected.
But I for one still have questions, in particular questions about what is motivating the move. As I’ve said, the move will do a lot of good, but there are many different principles that might underlie any given action that does good. And we typically care not just about outcomes, but about principles too. Upon what principle is Loblaw compensating the victims in Bangladesh?
Cynics are already assuming that the move is pure PR, aimed at deflecting criticism (however unfair) and dissociating the Joe Fresh brand from the grimy reality of developing-country sweatshops. That’s one possibility.
It might also be that the company sees such payment as a form of charity. The building collapse last week resulted in horrible human suffering. Most big companies donate to charitable and humanitarian causes. And even if Loblaw doesn’t see itself as responsible for the collapse, it must see a connection, emotionally at least, and so the families of the dead are an especially apt target for the company’s charity.
But for me, the word “compensate” raises questions. That word can mean many things. But in contexts like this, it is perhaps most naturally read as referring to payments aimed at offsetting a loss, payments from someone who is either responsible for that loss or who at least for some reason owes such a payment. “Compensation” is not quite the same as “restitution,” of course. The latter word clearly implies culpability. But still, the word “compensation” seems to imply a level of regret, if not guilt. Is that what the company is implying? After all, Loblaw could have opted simply to say “We’re going to help those affected,” or even more neutrally, “We’re going to send money.” But “compensation” is the word the company itself is using. Is that really what they mean? And if so, why specifically do they think they owe compensation? What level of responsibility do they take — do they plan on taking — for the actions of subcontractors on the other side of the planet?
This is more than mere semantics; it’s about the principles underlying corporate behaviour. If, as seems inevitable, we are to regard corporations as entities capable of taking action, and of meriting praise or blame, then we need to be able to talk about what motivates them, and to ask them about the principles upon which they act. In a way, to seek a principled explanation in a situation like this is even more demanding than simply to ask that the company pay up. As I’ve already noted, the money in this case is a drop in the bucket. Giving voice to a set of values and principles upon which corporate behaviour is based is a lot harder than writing a cheque.
In my last blog entry, I began a discussion of the question of the extent to which the right “tone at top” contributes to a company’s success. I began by exploring just what we mean by ‘tone” in this context, and what kinds of activities and behaviours by leaders should be seen as constituting setting the right tone.
Next, what does it mean to focus on tone specifically at the top?
The “top” can’t be thought to mean the CEO, or even the entire executive team. “Top” should be interpreted as meaning whomever is at the top, for you, ethically: whomever you regard as a moral leader. Because leadership isn’t a job title. Anyone who embodies the key leadership values of trustworthiness, insight, humility and enthusiasm is likely to be seen as a leader, regardless of job title.
So let’s talk for a moment about not just the tone at the literal “top”, but also the tone at the middle. Average tenure of a CEO these days is, what, 4 or 5 years? This means that the tone at the literal top of the organization is likewise liable to change every 4 to 5 years. But lower down, every organization has a larger class of middle managers who come and go much less frequently.
And from the point of view of ethics, that has to be important. Don’t forget, in most large organizations, most people never get to meet the CEO, or for that matter any C-suite executive. For them, someone in middle management is effectively “the top” – the top of the relevant chain of command. So the right tone has to be set at many managerial levels.
Finally, we need to ask what “success” is. When we assert that positive tone at the top “ensures success,” what do we mean?
“Success” here has to be taken to mean “ethical success,” because “ethical success” means doing justice to the full range of ethical obligations that obtain within an organization. That means doing your best to earn a decent return for investors, while at the same time treating people with respect and playing by the rules. Success in this regard means achieving a reasonable level of compliance with not just the letter but also with the spirit of the law, and with the unwritten rules of the game, and with reasonable social expectations.
Now, no one can ever reasonably expect to turn a tough, competitive business environment into a love-in, or expect that any organization with hundreds or thousands of employees will be able to guarantee that no one ever breaks a rule. But if an organization is going to come even close to meeting reasonable expectations, meeting the capitalist ideal of playing fair while trying to earn a decent living by selling a decent product, it is going to have to do that in large part through the force of effective leadership.
A positive tone at the top is the closest thing there is to a guarantee of success, as long as you think critically about what those words must mean for a complex organization in a competitive environment.
Product labels are important, both practically and ethically. Reading the label is a key way to make sure the thing you’re buying meets your needs. Labels on products can help inform consumers about what they’re buying, reducing what economists call information asymmetries between buyer and seller. Where substantial information asymmetries exist, voluntary exchanges can fail to live up to the promise of mutual benefit, and society as a whole suffers from the resulting reduction in market efficiency.
Of course, not everything that could be said about a product could possibly be crammed onto a product’s label, so generally the information provided consists of what the maker of the product really wants to brag about, what consumers insist on knowing, and anything beyond that that regulators have seen fit to insist upon.
So precisely what gets labeled, and what form the labelling takes, matters a lot. Now while the moral significance of labels in general is not disputed, just what should be included on labels is hotly debated.
Take, for instance, the question of whether a food product has been genetically modified (GM). Or, more precisely, whether the ancestor of the organism from which a food product was derived was genetically modified by means of a particular set of laboratory procedures. It’s important to be precise, here, because there is virtually nothing that we eat today that hasn’t been ‘genetically modified’ by humans in some loose sense.
If you thought the question of GM labelling had gone away with the demise of California’s Proposition 37 this past November, think again. Washington State is apparently about to hold a vote on the issue, and there are reports that the anti-GM faction has been energized by the battle in California, and perhaps even galvanized by the massive sums of money that ‘big food’ and ‘big ag’ apparently spent to help defeat Prop 37. But as I’ve argued before, the demand for mandatory labelling of GM foods is misguided: the broad scientific consensus is that there’s no reason to worry about GM foods. Making such labelling mandatory, just because some people want to know if their food’s genes have been tweaked in certain ways, would be unjust.
Contrast this with the stunning report recently released by the ocean conservation group, Oceana. Nevermind subtle genetic modifications. Oceana found that a very high proportion of the fish sold in American retail outlets isn’t even from the species indicated on the label. So consumers are buying “snapper” that isn’t really snapper, and “tuna” that isn’t really tuna. Here, consumers are being lied to. Information isn’t just being omitted; the information being given is actually a lie, and so consumers are being cheated.
If the food companies of the world are going to expend money and effort to provide consumers with information, it’s pretty clear which kind of issue they should expend it on.
Once again, the pharmaceutical industry is under attack, and once again it is for all the wrong reasons.
The problem this time is this: many of the new generation of blockbuster drugs are jaw-droppingly expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars per patient per year or even per treatment. Part of the reason is that many of them are from a category of drugs known as “biologics.” Such drugs aren’t made with old-fashioned chemistry, but are instead produced inside living cells, typically genetically modified ones, inside giant vats known as bio-reactors. It’s an expensive new technology. And the big biotech firms that make these drugs are not fond of competition.
According to the New York Times, “Two companies, Amgen and Genentech, are proposing bills that would restrict the ability of pharmacists to substitute generic versions of biological drugs for brand name products.”
The companies claim they’re just trying to protect consumers. The generic versions, they argue, are typically similar, but not identical, to the originals. These aren’t simple drugs like Aspirin or the blood thinner, Coumadin. These are highly complex molecules, and the worry is that even slight differences in the manufacturing process could lead to problematic differences in form and function.
The makers of generics, for their part, acknowledge that worry, and say they’re fine with pharmacists limiting substitution to cases in which the Food and Drug Administration has declared two drugs to be interchangeable. But they oppose any further restrictions, including ones that might be imposed at the state level and for which the name-brand manufacturers are lobbying mightily.
What are we to say, ethically, about efforts by name-brand manufacturers to limit competition and thereby keep prices and profits high? Is it wrong of them to do this in a context in which health spending is out of control, and in which patients can die from being unable to afford a life-saving drug?
But as strange as this may seem, there is arguably nothing wrong with pharma behaviour that harms patients and strains private and public healthcare budgets. They aren’t responsible for the fact that people get sick, and they’re not (usually!) responsible for the decisions made by governments or by insurance companies. A lot of the behaviour on the part of pharma that people complain about is no more wrongful than the behaviour of the woman who invents a better mousetrap, thereby putting employees of the less-good mousetrap maker out of business. Innovative, competitive behaviour is good in the long run, but net social benefit is consistent with less-good outcomes for some.
The real sin, here, isn’t against consumers or governments, but against the market itself.
Markets, and the businesses that populate them, can only promise to be socially beneficial when there is competition. When governments move to foster competition, businesses that profess to believe in free markets cannot rightly cajole governments to do otherwise. The same goes for using lobbyists to encourage government to make a market less competitive. After all, playing by the rules of the game is the fundamental obligation of business. But when it comes to changing the rules of the game, we have to look to the limits implied by the spirit of the game. That’s where pharma is going astray here. Using government to limit competition isn’t just bad ethics; it’s bad capitalism.
Two stories surfaced this week about companies faced with handing out prizes to businesses whose interests were contrary to their own.
One company graciously gave credit where credit was due. The other declined to do so. Is it ethical to decline to feed the hand that bites you?
The company that declined to recognize another’s achievements was CBS, which forced subsidiary CNET to alter the results of the ‘Best of CES‘ award it gives out after the annual consumer electronics show. CNET’s editors had intended to give top honours to the Dish Network’s “Hopper”, a set-top box that allows viewers to skip commercials. As reported here, CBS has been in a legal battle with the Dish Network over the Hopper, which CBS sees as threatening its stream of ad revenue. The CBS v. Dish lawsuit was cited by CBS as the reason for withdrawing the Hopper from consideration for the CNET award.
And on the other hand: the company that went ahead and gave an award to a competitor was USA Today. The newspaper, you see, had run a contest to reward excellence in print advertising. And the winner, ironically, was Google — the search giant that is cited as one of the key reasons why print advertising is on the decline.
Because both US Today and CNET are media outlets, the most obvious question here has to do with editorial independence. Media companies are in a special situation, ethically. Most of them need to earn a living, but most of them also proclaim a public-service mission, and along with that mission goes a commitment to journalistic independence. Of course, giving out awards is closer to a news outlet’s editorial function, and editorial content has never been as cleanly divorced from commercial concerns as pure news is supposed to be. But if awards handed out by media outlets are to mean anything, they need to remain pretty independent, and meddling by a parent company is bound to cast doubt on editorial independence pretty generally. CBS’s meddling in the CNET’s award has already led one reporter, Greg Sandoval, to resign.
Setting aside the media ethics angle, we might appeal to basic principles of fairness. If you hold a contest, then all eligible contestants deserve a fair shake. If you don’t want to allow your enemies to compete, it’s probably fair if you state that transparently up front. But, other things being equal, everyone deserves an equitable opportunity to compete and win. That’s basic ethics.
Then again, it’s worth reminding ourselves that business is fundamentally adversarial, and the rules that apply in adversarial domains just aren’t going to be the same as those that apply in cozier sorts of interaction. So, in the present case, we might say that the need to observe basic fairness in the treatment of contestants is legitimately overridden by the right not to harm your own interests by advertising a competitor’s product.
But the right to protect your company’s interests needs to be balanced against the kind of signal you send when you take a stand or announce a policy in this regard. What has CBS told us about itself as a company? What kind of outfit has USA Today shown itself to be? This isn’t just a matter of PR; it’s a matter of who CBS and USA Today are as companies. In many respects, you are what you are perceived to be, and what you are perceived to be reflects the actions you take in public.
When the rich and powerful butt heads, are they obligated to look out for the little guy?
The NHL lockout may be over, but its impact is far from forgotten. Or even clear. And the impact goes far beyond the loss of income to the NHL, its member teams and its players.
The end of the dispute may mean little to the economy as a whole, but to one portion of the economy — the portion that depends for its livelihood on the actual playing of hockey games — it means everything. The economic loss to Canada as a whole as a result of the loss of half a season of hockey may amount to less than 0.05 per cent of GDP, but the impact was felt disproportionately by the thousands of businesses and individuals that depend for their livelihood on the NHL and its players. For every Sidney Crosby or Daniel Alfredsson making millions on the ice, there is an entire ecosystem of managers, announcers, hotdog vendors, and Zamboni drivers who only have jobs because hockey is being played.
The lockout resulted, in other words, in a lot of so-called ‘collateral damage.’ Some teams had to lay off staff (in some cases, that meant hundreds of employees per team) and many businesses — from sports bars to the guy selling hotdogs outside the arena — saw business dip or even bottom out entirely.
Of course, this is true in almost any labour dispute. When auto assembly-line workers go on strike, workers at companies that manufacture parts for those assembly lines may see hard times as a result. But as many have pointed out, the dispute between the NHLPA and the NHL was a dispute between millionaires and billionaires, which gives the whole thing a distinctly different feel.
Whether the 113-day dispute was worthwhile to either the players or the league — whether either side gained more than it lost — is for them to decide. The relevant ethics question, here, is what part the financial fate of these innocent bystanders should have played in the decision making of the two parties to this dispute, namely the NHL and the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA). Should the league and players have felt any obligation to end the dispute early, in order to limit financial collateral damage?
It is tempting to cast this question as a matter of what economists call ‘externalities.’ Externalities are the effects that an economic transaction has on non-consenting bystanders. Pollution and noise are standard examples. And both economic theory and ethical theory agree that externalities are a bad thing. It is typically both inefficient and unfair if significant costs are foisted on innocent bystanders.
But economic theory, at least, doesn’t typically count the income effects of competitive behaviour as “real” externalities. If I outbid you in an auction, your interests have been harmed but not in a way that results in either economic inefficiency or real injustice. If I invent a better mousetrap and put makers of lesser products out of business, the result is ‘frictional’ unemployment but also long-term social gain. And during a labour dispute, money not being spent on hockey-arena hotdogs or Zamboni-driver wages are surely being spent on something else: one man’s loss is another’s gain.
But while not technically unfair, the outcome for bystanders is certainly unfortunate, a bad thing by almost any measure even if not the result of wrongful behaviour. And when the dispute at hand is between millionaires and billionaires, it’s worth asking at least whether the rich don’t have some duty, some social obligation, to take better care of those less fortunate.
Once upon a time, the rich and powerful cleaved to the notion of ‘noblesse oblige,’ the idea that with wealth and power come responsibility. Of course, even if the team owners and the players took such social obligations seriously, that doesn’t necessarily mean the dispute would have ended earlier. An obligation to look out for the little guy doesn’t mean an obligation to throw in the towel. But the notion of social responsibility, not to say humility, might well have done something to reduce the length, and impact, of what many regard to have been a pointless conflict in the first place.
The development goals of many underdeveloped nations are seriously hampered by illicit flows of money. The money sent into those countries in the form of aid and foreign direct investment is, in many cases, dwarfed by the money that flows out as a result of money laundering, bribery, and dodgy transfer pricing. Some estimates put that outflow as high as a trillion dollars. And a lot of that money flows through, between, or within corporations.
I recently took part in a panel discussion on this topic, part of a larger event put on by a group called Academics Standing Against Poverty (ASAP).
Here are a few of what I take to be the key points, not necessarily in order of presentation, from my discussion of the topic:
Corporations have two different categories of responsibilities when it comes to curbing illicit financial flows. First, they are of course responsible for their own behaviour. Under this heading, corporations have three key obligations. First is not to game the system to avoid taxes. Minimizing taxes — even going to significant lengths to avoid taxes — may seem to be part and parcel of a manager’s obligation to maximize profits. But there is no general obligation to maximize profits, and certainly no such obligation to do so ‘at all costs.’ Even the weaker duty to ‘put shareholders first’ is a vague enough concept to be consistent with a principled stance against aggressive tax avoidance, even where taxes can be avoided legally.
A second direct obligation has to do with transparency about transfer pricing. When goods or services are being sold between branches of a multinational, the prices charged should be fair and should be rooted in a clear methodology. And total taxes paid internationally should be reported in a company’s audited annual reports. Even when gaming the system is legal, it is dishonourable.
Third, companies should have zero tolerance for bribery. Besides being corrosive to local economies, bribery is often just a lousy competitive strategy: it involves payments that cannot be guaranteed to work, and when they don’t work there is of course no recourse to the courts. Businesses generally know this, but sometimes see bribery as a necessary evil; they need to work to make it less necessary.
In addition to these direct obligations regarding their own behaviour, big companies arguably have some responsibility for the indirect effects of their operations. Major corporations support entire ecosystems of smaller businesses — suppliers, subcontractors, agents, and so on. And activities within that ecosystem can be a major source of illicit transfers. Corporations should assume some responsibility for illegal and unethical activities in their shadow. This should at least mean setting clear standards for the behaviour of the companies with which they interact, and sharing best practices. Companies are starting to do this with regard to bribery, but they should consider extending that to other areas.
Next, a point with regard to how businesses interact with governments. The least controversial, over-arching norm for business is to play by the rules of the game. Normally, governments set rules and as long as businesses play within those rules, they are at least coming close to meeting their obligations. But not all governments are equally capable of setting and enforcing the requisite rules. And the absence of clear rules doesn’t imply an absence of obligations. So, for example, the fact that the government of a small developing nation hasn’t passed regulations (as Canada and the US have done) that set standards for fairness in transfer pricing doesn’t mean that a company can be complacent.
Finally — and this bit of advice is aimed at development advocates — it is important to avoid thinking of transnational corporations as the enemy. My sense is that a significant subset of folks who are concerned with development are focused on the negative side-effects of corporate involvement in developing nations. What we need to do, though, is to harness the power of corporations rather than regretting it. Business corporations, in addition to being potent organizations, have a vested interest in reducing poverty worldwide. Anyone living on $1.25 a day makes a lousy customer and a lousy employee. Of course, corporations face a collective action problem when considering how to reduce poverty. No one corporation can do much on its own, and it’s a challenge to find ways to get long-term interests in poverty reduction to override short-term interests in profits. But still, the development community needs to see corporations as important partners. We can’t let a culture war over capitalism get in the way of helping the world’s poor.
The video of our panel discussion is now available, here:
Business is, in many ways, all about risk. It’s about investing in R&D and in productive processes that may or may not result in products that customers want to buy. It’s about hiring people and then putting your company’s reputation into their hands. It’s about trying and doing new things, always aware of the chance of failure. Society flourishes because businesses are willing to take risks. Of course, some risks should not be taken, and others should be taken only subject to suitable safeguards. Risk, in other words, needs to be managed.
Modern risk management, as that term is used in corporate contexts, has its roots in finance and refers primarily to the management of financial risks. It relies heavily on mathematical models used for asset pricing and portfolio assessment. Banks use risk management techniques to determine how many loans and mortgages of what kinds to hand out, and on what terms, and to figure out (within regulated limits) how much capital they need to keep on hand in case depositors come calling to reclaim their deposits. This all requires careful calculations. Take too little risk, and you’ve got money sitting idle. Take too many risks and, well, you end up with what we saw back in 2008.
Last week I had the pleasure of hosting Professor John Boatright, as part of the Business Ethics Speakers Series that I run at the Ted Rogers School of Management. John is the guy who literally wrote the book on ethics in finance. He’s author of Ethics in Finance and editor of Finance Ethics: Critical Issues in Theory and Practice. There simply is no one better on issues of ethics in finance. And his topic last week was an important one: “The Ethics of Risk Management: A Post-Crisis Perspective.”
As John’s talk pointed out, the advent of modern risk management strategies is, somewhat ironically, implicated in the financial crisis of ’08-’09, from which we are still recovering. The mathematical models risk managers use made possible the popularization of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps (CDSs). And the fact that there were actual hard-core equations behind these instruments — which Warren Buffett “financial weapons of mass destruction” — made them seem far safer than they were. This illusion of safety encouraged very high levels of leveraging, with what we now know to be disastrous consequences.
One of the other things that John’s talk clarified for me was that there’s a kind of ambiguity in the very term “risk management.” To the public, the idea of “managing” risks sounds very much like the idea of “reducing” risks. And that, of course, sounds like a very good thing. But risk management absolutely is not the same as risk reduction. Indeed, it can be quite the opposite. Risk management is the art of finding the right level and mix of risks, the right ‘risk profile.’ What matters ethically, as John pointed out is which risks are managed, by whom, by what means, for whose benefit.
The other point from John’s talk that I want to highlight here has to do with the ‘corporatization’ of risk management. As John pointed out, business firms both encounter and create risk, and risks are encountered by both firms and by individuals in society. If, as seems to be the case, risks to individuals are increasingly being managed by corporations, we as a society need to be acutely aware of the way corporations think about risk. John quoted author Michael Power as saying that “Risk is the basis for corporations to process morality.” In other words, risk is the lens through which corporations consider and act upon their obligations.
The problem here is clear: risk is an inherently outcomes-based construct, and not everything we care about ethically is a matter of outcomes. We also care about rights and duties, and about justice in the way good and bad outcomes are distributed. If risk becomes the lens through which obligations are examined, something important is being left out. Corporate risk management, in other words, is itself a mechanism that brings risks that need to be managed.