Archive for the ‘profits’ Category

Curbing Illicit Flows of Money

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:

Will Facebook’s IPO Bring New Public Responsibilities?

Today, with the advent of its much-anticipated IPO, Facebook, Inc. will be “going public.” From a legal and regulatory point of view, that’s a significant change, bringing for example new requirements for financial transparency. But what does it imply from an ethical point of view? The phrase “going public” here is somewhat misleading. The event doesn’t do anything as dramatic as changing Facebook from a private to a public entity. It simply means that shares in the company will now be available to members of the public, and traded on the publicly-accessible stock markets.

Regardless, many people already do think of Facebook as a “public” institution in some sense. They think of corporations in general as public institutions, with public responsibilities beyond just keeping their noses clean. The very act of incorporation, after all, requires a framework of public laws to enable it, as do key aspects of modern incorporation such as limited liability. The view here is that if the public allows, and indeed enables, incorporation, it has the right to expect something in return.

Many people also point to history: once upon a time, corporations were chartered by the government as instruments of the public good — to sail in search of treasure, to build bridges, and so on. Of course, the way things used to be is typically a pretty poor argument for how they ought to be today. It is, in general, a good thing that corporations are not now thought of as creatures of the state. If you’re an entrepreneur with a good idea, you don’t need to bow to a prince or bureaucrat to be allowed the privilege of incorporating. That is a good thing. We allow incorporation, and the limited shareholder liability that goes with it, because of the socially-useful stuff this allows corporations to do en route to building wealth for their shareholders.

So I think it is generally misguided to think of corporations as public entities, at least as this applies to corporations in general. Corporations are private entities, ones that play a role in an overall system — namely, the Market — which arguably exists to promote the public good in some sense. But to infer, from the notion that the Market has a role in promoting the public good, the notion that each corporation exists for that purpose, amounts to committing the ‘Fallacy of Division,’ the fallacy of assuming that the parts of a system necessarily share the characteristics of the system as a whole.

So Facebook isn’t, just by being a corporation, an instrument of the public good in any grand sense, and it won’t become one when it “goes public.”

But Facebook is not, in my view, a corporation just like any other. As I’ve argued before, there’s reason to think that a company like Facebook — public or not — has special obligations due to its role as a piece of communications infrastructure. It is such an integral part of so many people’s social lives and patterns of communication, and it has so few real competitors, that I think it is in some ways more like a public utility than like a private company.

From that point of view, the idea of Facebook going public is slightly more interesting. Because this quasi-utility is about to face a new set of pressures. Its managers (including especially CEO Mark Zuckerberg) will now be beholden to a greatly expanded constituency of shareholders. Of course, Facebook has long had shareholders, but they were far fewer in number. And those early shareholders were also different in terms of expectations and levels of patience. People who get in on the ground floor of a tech company like Facebook are speculating in a very significant way. They may have big dreams for their stake in the company, but they are less likely to demand growth on a quarterly basis the way shareholders in a widely-held company are likely to do.

The new wave of shareholders are likely to insist on ever-growing profits — this at a time when many people are expressing doubts about the company’s room for growth. How well the company will treat its customers in the face of such pressures is yet to be seen. For example, there are surely lots of ways for the company to make money by selling the right bits of the vast trove of information it currently has about its roughly 900 million users. Will the company sacrifice your privacy in pursuit of profits?

For better or for worse, the company may well be able to resist such temptations, because of the way control of the company is structured. As has been widely noted, Zuckerberg will still exercise nearly unfettered control. He will retain over 50% of voting stock, making him the controlling shareholder in addition to being both CEO and Chair of the Board. Whether that’s good or bad depends on how he exercises that power, and the goals he chooses to aim for. He has, for instance, has publicly disavowed profit as a primary motive. He’s been quoted as saying that, at Facebook, “we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.” This implies, for instance, that Zuckerberg wouldn’t sell your private information just to make a buck. But — who knows? — he might conceivably do it for other reasons. But if all goes well, Zuckerberg’s profits-be-damned approach will act as a check on what might be seen as the baser impulses of the investing public. And if his own ambitions stray too much from the public good, then hopefully the ‘discipline of the market’ will act as a check on the tech visionary himself.

Tourism as Foreign Aid

A couple of weeks ago, I spent 5 days contributing to the economic wellbeing of a developing nation. To be more specific, I spent 5 days in Mexico, at an all-inclusive resort on the Mayan Riviera. I’m a lucky, lucky man, no doubt. So in what sense does my vacation count as “contributing to the economic wellbeing of a developing nation”?

Now, to be clear, this is a personal example, and so there’s reason for me to worry about the clarity of my own thinking (even now that the margaritas have long-since worn off.) Am I just congratulating myself in order to get past the uncomfortable feeling that many people from affluent nations feel at enjoying luxury while visiting a nation rife with poverty? After all, the tourism industry is often portrayed as one that helps mostly-white Northerners visit places where they pay mostly-brown inhabitants of southern climes to call them “sir” or “ma’am” — with the profits going largely to the mostly-wealthy shareholders of the cruise-line or resort chain.

But is that portrayal of the industry accurate? Let’s take a very rough look at the economics, here.

Let’s say a vacation package — flight plus accommodations at an all-inclusive resort — costs something like $1500 per person, just to pick a round number. Where does the money actually go? Who does it help? By vacationing in Mexico, am I helping Mexicans, or just the shareholders of some American or Canadian corporation?

A big chunk of that $1500, maybe a little less than half, goes to the airline. Aha! Profits for the airlines!

But wait a minute. Profit margins in that industry are razor-thin — in some years, negative! So most of the airline’s half of that $1500 isn’t actually going to shareholders in the form of profits, but is instead going to cover the airline’s costs, including fuel, salaries, etc.

The other half ($750) of the total price goes to the resort. How much of that is profit? One source (a few years old) puts profit margins in the resort industry at about 8%. Let’s be generous and round up to 10%. That means $75 profit, which leaves $675 for various costs — including the cost of food, labour, alcohol, maintenance of buildings, and so on. And it’s a truism of economics that $675 in costs for them is $675 in income for someone else.

And so, overall, only a tiny sliver of the money paid for such a vacation goes to the shareholders of the airline and of the company that owns the resort. Most goes to employees, and suppliers, and employees of suppliers, and so on. About half of that stays in Canada (home of the airline) and almost half stays in Mexico (where the employees and key suppliers of the resort are). By my very rough math, I contributed nearly $700 to the Mexican economy, and more specifically to the income of low-wage Mexicans. And it’s a kind of help I’m very happy to give.

So the questions for discussion: “Is my math at least roughly right?” and “Is this the sort of math those of us who aspire to ethical tourism ought to be doing?” Of course, I’m setting aside for now the environmental impact of such a trip. I’ll leave that for a future blog entry. But at very least, it seems to me that a rough assessment of the economic impact of a vacation is a pretty good starting point.

Did GE Really Pay No Taxes in 2010?

A few months back, the NY Times shocked a lot of people by reporting that General Electric — an enormous, multi-billion-dollar company — had paid zero taxes to the US government in 2010, despite the fact that more than a third of the $14.1 billion that company earned that year had come from its US operations. The reason? GE has a truly enormous tax department that works non-stop to look for deductions and loopholes.

Scandalous, right?

Not so quick. As I’ve argued before, what we commonly call “loopholes” are in most cases the result of some decision by government to encourage or discourage a particular behaviour. That is, most of the things GE (or any other company) does in order to avoid taxes are thing the government is trying, however ham-fistedly, to encourage companies to do. Still, we might reasonably look askance at a company that works so assiduously to squeeze every last dollar out of the tax system. The millions spent to save millions in taxes could in principle be spent to develop products that would boost the overal value proposition of the company.

But the situation with regard to GE is even more complex than that. To get a taste, check out the comments section under the discussion of this story on the always-useful economics blog, Marginal Revolution. There, it is pointed out that the $14.1 billion in profits attributed to GE by the NYT was calculated according to GAAP, which is entirely different from how the IRS calculates taxable income. In other words, we’re looking at apples and oranges here. The entire discussion thread at MR is worth reading. But if you’re not well-versed in the niceties of tax rules, or corporate finance more generally, you’ll quickly find yourself in over your head.

But that in itself raises an important issue. As the sophistication of the debate in the MR comments section demonstrates, the fairness of GE’s tax burden (or lack thereof!) is something that most of us simply are not qualified to comment upon. And that’s a worry. It’s hard for companies to be held accountable if the general public doesn’t understand the factual basis for evaluating them. It seems to me that this is an additional reason for tax reform: the subtlety of the various policy objectives being sought through taxation of corporations needs to be balanced against the need for the concerned public to be able understand it.

Greed, Capitalism, and the Occupy Movement

What’s wrong with greed, anyway? No, don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those ill-conceived “greed is what makes capitalism work” diatribes. After all — with apologies to Gordon Gekko — that’s nonsense. Greed isn’t what makes capitalism work. Self-interest and ambition, maybe. But not greed.

Greed, after all, is the unseemly and excessive love of money, a desire for more than your share. And that is neither necessary nor sufficient for the operation of our economic system. None the less, there are many who believe that greed is not just an enemy, but the enemy.

Canadian pundit Rex Murphy recently argued that if greed is the enemy, then the Occupy movement should forget Wall Street, and instead Occupy Hollywood. After all, he argued, if you’re looking for greed, the best examples aren’t bankers, but rather the actors and producers and miscellaneous talentless celebrities who gleefully rake in millions in La La Land for doing next to nothing.

It’s hard to know what to make of Murphy’s argument. The simplest interpretation is that it’s a grenade lobbed over the wall of the culture war. Stop bothering the hard-working bankers, you Occupiers! Go pester the makers of low-brow entertainment.

More likely is that Murphy is doing something one step cleverer than that. By taking aim at celebrities, he’s telling “the 99%” to rue the wealth of the monsters they themselves have created. Kim Kardashian, after all, is astonishingly wealthy only because an astonishing number of people have paid to see her hijinks. But — and this, I think, must be Murphy’s unstated punchline — the same generally goes for the wealthy on Wall Street. They got wealthy because a whole lot of people each found a little bit of use for their services. And a whole lot, multiplied by a little bit, can be billions of dollars. True, some on Wall Street have multiplied their earnings through corrupt means. But the basic mechanism of wealth aggregation is the same, whether on Wall Street or in the Hollywood Hills.

OK, back to greed. Where Murphy goes astray is in his focus on that particular vice. Vast wealth is a feature of the stories of both Hollywood and Wall Street, but the role of greed in generating such wealth is very much in question. After all, being handed a million dollars doesn’t make you greedy. Even asking for a million dollars doesn’t make you greedy, when the pile on the table is much larger than that and when everyone in a similar situation is asking for a similar amount.

No, greed isn’t the problem. Greed isn’t what makes capitalism work, but nor is it typically the culprit when capitalism goes astray. The real problem isn’t greed, but rather institutional structures that reward antisocial behaviour. Which structures? Well, that depends on which particular antisocial behaviour you’re talking about. And that’s precisely where the Occupy movement faces its greatest challenge. You can’t plausibly take aim at a hundred different social ills and presume to find the cause of them all in the single word “greed.”

Charity: Does Apple Do its Share?

Forget what your accountant tells you is tax-deductible. What counts as a charitable donation, ethically?

There have been a few rumbles around the internet recently about the lack of corporate philanthropy at Apple Computers, and about now-retired CEO Steve Jobs’ own lack of philanthropic donations. See for instance by John Cary and Courtney E. Martin, on CNN: Apple’s philanthropy needs a reboot

Apple’s…charitable identity — or egregious lack thereof — disappoints us. It’s time for Apple to start innovating in philanthropy with the same ingenuity, rigor and public bravado that it has brought to its every other venture….

Cary and Martin acknowledge Apple’s participation in the Product Red program (which has raised tens of millions for relief of AIDS in Africa, and for which Bono recently praised Jobs). But Apple made $14 billion in profits last year, and Cary and Martin think it’s pretty clear that Apple is obligated to give some of that away. They’re not so clear on where that obligation comes from, except to point to precedent within the computer industry. Both Google and Microsoft have well-established philanthropy programs — both of which, as Cary and Martin note, have drawn fire. Hmmm.

The interesting thing here is that Cary and Martin’s criticism implicitly raises interesting questions about what counts as philanthropy.

Take, for example, Apple’s sizeable donation to the fight against Proposition 8, California’s anti-marriage-equality effort. Was that a charitable donation, or a piece of political activism? Is there a difference?

Apple has also been known to donate computers to schools, and regularly gives students (and, ahem, professors like me) a discount on computer purchases. Of course, critics will propose that those are really marketing gimmicks. But then, no sane person thinks that corporate philanthropy stops being ethical when it’s a win-win proposition.

But then, back to the issue of why. Why are corporations obligated to give to charity? One group of critics is fond of pointing out that profits belong to shareholders, and so when corporate execs donate corporate funds to charity, they’re giving away other people’s money. And even within the modern Corporate Social Responsibility movement, the saner folks are at pains to emphasize that CSR isn’t about charity. It’s about making some sort of social contribution, preferably one that makes use of a company’s special capacities and core competencies.

And as a recent piece in The Economist pointed out that, if you’re talking about doing good in the world, you really must look at what Apple has done to put beautiful, highly-functional, productivity-enhancing devices in the hands of millions of consumers. That’s not exactly the same as feeding the world’s starving masses, but then neither is a corporate donation to build an opera house, or to get your company’s name on a plaque in the lobby of the local business school. The questions we ought to be concerned with are questions about a corporation’s net impact on the world, and the methods it uses along the way. A focus on corporate philanthropy risks obscuring both of those questions.

Post-Hurricane-Irene Business Ethics Roundup

Natural disasters put all kinds of pressures on the behaviour of otherwise-civilized people, and they almost always raise business ethics issues. Here are a few little issues that popped up over the weekend, while hurricane Irene was wreaking havoc on the east coast of North America.

First, a bit of price gouging: Brooklyn’s posh Hotel Le Bleu squeezed Irene shelter seekers for $999 per room

A trendy Brooklyn hotel generated a flood of cash from Irene, jacking up the price of a room to $999 a night on Saturday as the powerful storm zeroed in on New York, employees said….

As I’ve written before, raising prices during a disaster isn’t always unethical — sometimes higher prices provide an incentive for others to rush to send resources to disaster-stricken areas, and sometimes higher prices give citizens an incentive to avoid overusing scarce resources. I’m pretty sure neither of those rationales applies here. [Update: see the hotel’s reaction, in the Comments section below.]

The flip-side of the price-gouging story is this one: “Generators, batteries big sellers ahead of Irene”. You can learn a lot about the ethics of pricing by contemplating why hardwares stores generally didn’t jack up their prices. (Yeah, there are anti-price-gouging laws in many jurisdictions, but that’s likely not enough to explain why prices stay stable.) Note that this story mentions that “…an Ace Hardware in Nags Head, N.C., the store sold out of portable generators.” The fact that the store sold out pretty certainly means that some customers went away disappointed. And it’s entirely possible that some of the disappointed needed the generators a lot more than the people who actually got them. Should Ace have found some way of asking customers how badly they needed a generator, or should they have raised the price a bit to make sure that people who bought one really needed one?

Next, from Katy Burne, blogging for the WSJ (just before the storm), “Hurricane Irene Whips Up Trading In ‘Catastrophe Bonds’”. Here’s the technical bit:

Catastrophe bonds, known in the insurance industry as “cat” bonds, are structured securities that allow reinsurers to transfer their own risks to capital-market investors. Investors in cat bonds earn regular payments in exchange for providing coverage on a predetermined range of natural disasters for a set period of time.

Note the similarity here to the controversial practice of short-selling stocks. In shorting stocks in a particular company, a trader is betting that the value of that stock is going to go down — that is, betting that the company will do poorly. Many people find that distasteful. Some have even called it unpatriotic. In buying (or in shorting) ‘cat bonds,’ an investor is wagering on human misery. But note that that’s what insurance companies do, too, and none of us wants to be without those.

Next, there have been a few stories about companies helping out by either donating goods or by fundraising for disaster relief (see here and here, for small examples). Many more such stories have no doubt gone unreported. It’s also been noted that some companies are going to benefit from the storm, especially if (like Home Depot) they sell goods that will be needed for reconstruction. Is there anything wrong with that? (See here for a previous blog entry on profiting from disaster relief.)

Finally, the key business-ethics stories to watch, over the next few days, are about insurance claims. Insurance firms are happy that losses look to be lower than expected. But stories will inevitably pop up about consumers having difficulty getting insurers to pay up. This will, again inevitably, be portrayed as heartless. And in some cases it may well be heartless. In other cases, we’ll simply see that people generally fail to understand the economics — and the ethics — of insurance.

Profiting from Customers’ False Beliefs

Is it ethical for a business to profit from its customers’ false beliefs? Or, more to the point, is it ethical to profit from your customers’ beliefs when you think those beliefs are false? What if you encourage those beliefs?

Case in point: a number of businesses have sprung up to take advantage of the fact that a number of fundamentalist Christians believe that May 21, 2011 (i.e., tomorrow) is the day on which “The Rapture” will happen, which will involve the return to earth of Jesus Christ, the rescue of believers, and the start of a process culminating in the destruction of the world in October. Enter the profit-seeking atheists. Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, for example, will guarantee (for just $135) to come to a believer’s house, post-rapture, to rescue their pets. Salvation, after all, is for human believers only, so the faithful “know” that atheists and animals will be left behind. (For more details, and more examples, see this item from ABC News: May 21, 2011: Profiting on Doomsday?)

Profiting from this particular set of false (i.e., unsupported) beliefs seems, frankly, pretty innocuous. Those who hold such beliefs are few, and are liable to be mocked by the vast majority of Christians, who scoff at the idea that the exact date of the Rapture can be determined so precisely. When the Rapture ends up not happening (and I realize I’m going out on a limb, there) those who ponied up for the “service” offered by Eternal Earth-Bound Pets will be out $135, but other than that they’ll be no worse for wear. But what about other examples?

Let’s start with a fictional example to test our intuitions. What if I find out that you believe, for whatever reason, and despite the fact that you live far from any indigenous populations of elephants, that your rose garden is in imminent danger of being trampled by elephants. And let’s say you also believe (for whatever reason) that elephants are deterred by he sound of the revving of a Porsche engine. Am I justified in selling you a Porsche that you do not otherwise need, and that perhaps you cannot truly afford? Would that be predatory? Your belief, here, is clearly a crazy belief, and my profiting from your delusion seems not-quite-right. But then, as far as you’re concerned, I’m genuinely helping you. On the other hand, what if the reason you have that delusional belief in the first place is that I’ve convinced you of it?

Next, let’s get back to real-life examples. But let’s look at one that doesn’t revolve around a single event, like Rapture insurance does. What about, for example, selling homeopathy? Now, it’s one thing for a homeopath to prescribe and sell homeopathic treatments. After all, the homeopath presumably believes that such remedies work, in spite of the lack of evidence for that belief. Now, that belief itself might be culpable — if you’re going to sell a product, then ethically you ought to do what you can to make sure it really works — but at least the homeopath is selling in good (if misguided) faith. What about when licensed Pharmacists, people with the training to know perfectly well that homeopathic treatments cannot possibly work, sell them? That happens all the time. Shoppers Drug Mart, for example — Canada’s largest pharmacy chain — sells homeopathic treatments, and all the franchisees of that chain are required to be licensed Pharmacists. That is, they are people whose scientific training tells them that such remedies have zero scientific credibility. So they, too, are profiting from their customers’ false* beliefs — beliefs that they, the sellers, know to be false. Of course, the difference between selling homeopathy and selling Rapture insurance is that in the case of homeopathy, people’s lives really might be at stake.

Information is crucial to the efficient operation of a free market. Asymmetries of information constitute an entire category of situations in which economists will tell you market failures are liable to occur. Knowledge, alas, can never be perfect. So what we instead insist on is that transactions at least be made in good faith. It’s clear that that means the consumer needs to have enough information to know that the product she is about to buy will satisfy her desires; what’s less clear is whether the consumer must also know enough to know whether the product will satisfy her needs.

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*Note: some of you may want to quibble with my use of the word “false” to refer to beliefs in either a) the Rapture or b) homeopathy. You may point out that saying that there’s a lack of evidence for a particular belief isn’t the same as saying that that belief is false. That’s technically true. But when a belief is implausible on the face of it, is unsupported by evidence, and conflicts with a great number of beliefs that are well-supported by evidence, it is entirely reasonable to call it “false.” At least until the Rapture.

Rajaratnam: Insider Trading, Soft Skills, and Slippery Slopes

Yesterday, Raj Rajaratnam, founder and head of hedge-fund management firm, The Galleon Group, was found guilty of 14 separate counts of securities fraud and conspiracy.

I think two things are worth talking about, with regard to this case.

1) One is the extent to which Rajaratnam was apparently a master of the so-called ‘soft skills’ of business. Rajaratnam’s success (and his eventual downfall) was rooted to a large extent in his talent for extracting insider information from his network of corporate contacts, charming them into revealing their employers’ secrets. To get a sense of this, it’s worth reading this richly detailed piece by Peter Lattman and Azad Ahmed, for the New York Times: Galleon Chief’s Web of Friends Proved Crucial to Scheme. Here’s a taste:

In his soft-spoken manner, shaped by his years at secondary school and college in England, Mr. Rajaratnam alternately prodded, chided, ridiculed and flattered his sources. Above all, he was a good listener, saying little as those on the other end of the phone, eager to impress the hedge fund titan, kept talking….

In other words, this ‘hedge fund titan’ used the same interpersonal skills in pursuit of millions as the common scam artist uses in pursuit of the little old lady’s retirement savings. This fact reinforces the importance of teaching these skills — and teaching about the dangers inherent in misusing them — in business schools.

2) The second point worth discussing has to do with grey zones and slippery slopes. Rajaratnam was found guilty of a criminal variant of something that professional investors do all the time, namely gathering information from people who know stuff about the firms those investors are considering investing in. In order to make their case, prosecutors would have had to convince the jury that Rajaratnam’s intelligence-gathering wasn’t just the run-of-the-mill kind.

But it’s also worth pointing out that there’s more than just a binary distinction to be made here. Somewhere between benign information-gathering, on one hand, and criminal insider trading, on the other, is a category of ethically-suspect behaviour that involves asking corporate insiders to provide ‘perspective’ or an ‘overview’ of, for example, the financial health of their firms. Such behaviour can be unethical for the same reason actual insider trading is illegal. Corporate insiders have fiduciary duties — duties rooted in trust — and providing information to outsiders so that they can have a trading advantage is a betrayal of that trust. And Rajaratnam’s methods played on his accomplices’ uncertainty about where to draw the relevant lines. The slope from benign to unethical to illegal is, it seems, quite slippery, especially when that slope is greased with flattery and a few hundred thousand dollars.

Business, Football, and Incentives

I’m fond of sports analogies in helping to explain key issues in business ethics. In both business and sport, a useful competitive endeavour is constrained by a set of rules for the benefit of both players and spectators.

According to Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management (where I’m currently a Visiting Scholar) the comparison is not just explanatory, it is prescriptive. According to Martin, for example, CEOs Should Be More Like Quarterbacks. In particular, he says, CEOs should be more like quarterbacks in the way quarterbacks stay focused on the real goal of the game — winning — rather than on meeting the expectations of those who speculate on the outcome of the game from the outside. QBs focus on real performance, measured in yards and touchdowns, rather than on performing well relative to the expectations of bookmakers. Likewise, Martin says, CEOs should focus on their companies’ real performance, rather than on how they perform relative to the expectations of stock analysts.

It’s tempting to run wild with sports metaphors, as the comments under Martin’s blog demonstrate. But we should not be tempted, just because we see one useful comparison, into thinking that CEOs should be like quarterbacks in all ways. You need to make the argument, on a point-by-point basis. Indeed the power of the comparison lies in abstracting away the ways in which CEOs and quarterbacks are not, and should not, be alike.

It’s also worth noting that Martin doesn’t think that the change in CEO behaviour that he advocates is going to happen magically, or even as a result of his own advice and efforts at persuasion. No, Martin is clear that CEO behaviour is only going to change in response to changes in incentives — in other words, changes in how they are paid:

…compensation is largely based in the expectations market in business and is strictly based in the real market in football. CEOs have a large portion of their compensation based on the performance of their company in the stock market, so CEOs spend their time shaping and responding to expectations. Quarterbacks have no part of their compensation based on the performance of their team against the point spread, so they focus completely on winning games.

Of course, that simple analogy needs to be fleshed out. Just what counts as “winning” in business, for example? And why are the opinions of external analysts such a bad way of measuring corporate performance? And finally, what would it look like to reward CEO’s for something other than improved stock performance, and would that lead reliably to better CEO performance on all dimensions, or just some?

(The ideas in Martin’s blog entry are drawn from his new book, Fixing the Game: Bubbles, Crashes, and What Capitalism Can Learn from the NFL. Watch here for more comments on the ideas in that book in the coming weeks.)

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