When terms like “criminal conspiracy” and “felony” appear in confessions and plea bargains, the criminal-justice system sits up and takes notice. And when the confessed felons are some of the world’s largest corporations, the private sector ought to be jolted into action, too.
The continuing shame of confessed corporate misconduct – in this case, lawbreaking conducted with such a degree of guile that the U.S. Attorney General called it “breathtaking flagrancy” and that the FBI labeled it criminality “on a massive scale” – reached a new intensity this month: Four of the world’s largest banks confessed to taking part in a five-year-long conspiracy to manipulate the world’s foreign-exchange markets.
This latest in a series of stern legal judgments has damaged the corporate reputations of some of the world’s most pivotal financial institutions – with guilty pleas, to felony charges no less, entered by Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Barclays PLC and The Royal Bank of Scotland PLC. A separate guilty plea by UBS – along with earlier fines against Bank of America and HSBC in separate settlements in related cases – has brought the total of fines against those once-trusted, now-tarnished firms to about $6 billion.
The corporate confessions of deliberate lawbreaking, pursued with systematic and sinister stealth – at the very center of the international financial system – vividly validate the recent exhortation of Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund: that corporate governance must be strengthened and that a higher standard of individual ethics must prevail, especially in the financial sector.
Lagarde wisely linked skewed incentives and a short-term profit-maximization mindset to the risk of financial instability, in an eloquent recent address to the Institute for New Economic Thinking’s conference on “Finance and Society”: “There is still work to be done to address distorted incentives in the financial system. Indeed, actions that precipitated the [global financial] crisis were – mostly – not so much fraudulent as driven by short-term profit motivation. This suggests to me that we need to build a financial system that is both more ethical and oriented more to the needs of the real economy – a financial system that serves society, and not the other way round.”
Those who champion the creative potential of the private sector (including, I imagine, the regular readers of this blog) have a particular reason – one might even say, a special responsibility – to voice their anger about the foreign-exchange-rigging scandal and other acts of lawlessness.
Idealists who esteem the private sector’s ingenuity in delivering growth and jobs sans frontières know that business' creativity will be indispensable in achieving the vital development goals of eliminating extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity. Society thus rightly expects that the full measure of corporate energies should be focused on companies’ central mission of generating wealth that benefits all of society. Whenever any of those energies are diverted – especially toward criminal schemes that put short-term personal plunder ahead of long-term economic growth – the lawbreakers undermine public confidence (or what little remains of it, in the wake of the global financial crisis) in the fairness of the economic system.
Moreover, lawbreakers provide ammunition to critics who allege that today’s economic system is irredeemably corrupt, through-and-through – thus making it even more difficult for law-abiding companies, holding true to the values of honest business behavior, to make the case for policies that liberate private-sector dynamism.