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Financial Sector

Halting the 'race to the bottom’ in corporate conduct: Governance reform, focus on ethics must repair the damage

Christopher Colford's picture

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.

Swept up in work: My years in the Kabul office

Paul Sisk's picture
Family on Motorbike in Afghanistan
Afghanistan. Photo by Graham Crouch/World Bank


I spent the past 11 years working and living in Afghanistan.  I didn’t intend to stay that long in one country office, but I got swept up in the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, which under the World Bank, was financing 50% of government expenditures earlier on.  Its budget operations grew from $600 million in 2004 to more than $5 billion in 2014.

For anyone working on public financial management, there were a lot of challenges to tackle and no good time to leave. Our work in Afghanistan is the World Bank at its best. Moreover, Afghans are excellent hosts and have been very receptive to World Bank collaboration.

Stock-markets lead to more FDI...or is it vice-versa?

Fulbert Tchana Tchana's picture
Most studies on the relationship between foreign direct investments (FDI) and financial market development focus on financial market development as a link between FDI and economic growth. However at present our disciple has no deep understanding of direct causality between FDI and financial market development, especially in emerging markets, where financial markets are in the development stage.
 

Six Financial Sector Challenges for Emerging and Developing Economies

Erik Feyen's picture
The relatively weak economic growth outlook, particularly for emerging and developing economies (EMDE), provides an important backdrop for the financial challenges that some of them currently face.
 
Recently, financial volatility returned because of various concerns in the marketplace – including (just to name a few) shifting expectations of the shape of the Federal Reserve’s exit path from ultra-low interest rates and the rapid strengthening of the US dollar; the launch of quantitative easing by the European Central Bank and its impact on inflation expectations and bond markets; low and volatile oil prices; China’s growth slowdown, additional stimulus and financial-sector challenges; the standoff between the new Greek government and its creditors; and continuing geopolitical turmoil.
 
In this context, EMDEs face six interrelated financial challenges, although it is important to note significant differences between countries exist.
 
First: Prolonged extraordinary monetary policies (EMPs) in developed countries and the prospect of asynchronous exits create a wide range of global financial market challenges. EMPs in developed economies created an environment of ultra-low interest rates, as policymakers have aimed to rekindle economic growth and battle disinflationary pressures. Three key risks have emerged:
 
  • Low rates and excessive risk-taking have contributed to very high asset valuations, compressed risk spreads and term premiums, and stimulated non-bank-sector growth, boosting leverage, illiquidity and collateral shortages. That exposes the financial system to shocks. This has weakened risk pricing and contributed to the “illusion of liquidity,” raising the risk of pro-cyclical “fire sales” with global spillovers.
  • Sudden shifts in market expectations or a bumpy trajectory of the U.S. Federal Reserve exit path to normalized interest rates could trigger volatility in currency, equity and capital-flow markets – similar to the “Taper Tantrum” of 2013, when the Federal Reserve openly contemplated scaling back its asset purchases.
  • Increasing divergence between central bank policies in developed economies has already had significant implications for currency markets, particularly for the euro-dollar pair. Divergence creates an interference risk and the possibility of miscommunication, which could trigger new bouts of global financial market volatility.

Afghanistan debt - when words get lost in translation

Paul Sisk's picture
Photo Credit: Rumi Consultancy/World Bank

 

One of the many successful fiscal initiatives implemented in Afghanistan was the HIPC, the Highly Indebted Poor Country program, a joint IMF–World Bank effort to reduce the public debt of poor countries. We called this the forgiveness of debt.
At an early stage in this work I had to meet with a senior Afghan government official to explain the program. The official, the Deputy Auditor General, was a dedicated, serious man who had trained in the former Soviet Union as an engineer and did not speak English, so we relied on an interpreter.

In those days any Afghan who spoke some English could find work as an interpreter, and ours was a medical doctor. He told me he was anxious to find work in his own field but in the meantime was willing to work anywhere, even interpreting in this arcane field of auditing, although he was unfamiliar with the jargon. The conversation was not to be long; just outline that the external public debt, which was mostly Russian debt from the communist era, would be absorbed by a trust fund and hence “forgiven” if Afghanistan met the program requirements – basically good fiscal transparency and discipline.

Financial development can boost fiscal response after disasters: insurance more efficient than debt market development

Martin Melecky's picture

The frequency of natural hazards has increased over time. From 1970 to 2010, approximately 3.3 million people were killed (on average, 82,500 deaths per year), and the property damages exceeded US$2,300 billion, or 0.23% of the cumulative world output. After a disaster, governments should be able to respond fast with robust emergency relief aid as well as reconstruction. In fact, they should rebuild better. However, the average fiscal response after disasters across countries and time is close to zero (Melecky and Raddatz 2008, table 2). [1] This result can stem from very heterogeneous responses of countries, including due to the varying available fiscal space and ability of the private sector to respond alongside the government. In addition to good preparation, having available resources to respond after disasters is key, and financial development could help.  

Financing for Development: World Bank's role in supporting tax and revenue mobilization reforms is critical

Rajul Awasthi's picture

Melissa Thomas, author of Govern like us, speaking at the World Bank recently raised a very interesting question: is our expectation that poor countries with limited resources can deliver high-quality governance unrealistic?

Can these countries provide the public goods and services that citizens demand and need, to be able to forge a strong social contract?

She compares the levels of revenue per capita in rich and poor countries and finds that in the poorest countries, levels of revenue per capita are so low that it would be years, or even decades, until they have enough to provide a decent level of public goods and services.

It is in that context that I thought of Sri Mulyani’s appeal during the Spring Meetings when she spoke of the need to clamp down on tax evasion and avoidance and boost the domestic resource mobilization (DRM) capacities of developing countries as a means of finding resources for financing development going forward.

From Ronaldo and Buffon to teamwork: what finance ministries can learn from the beautiful game

Mario Marcel's picture
South Africa is steadily preparing for the 2010 Soccer World Cup while the enthusiasm at ground level builds. Photo: © John Hogg/World Bank

If you were a football (soccer) player, who would you be? Representatives of Ministries of Finance from 20 African countries were confronted with this question at a CABRI-sponsored conference in Johannesburg last April.

Three years ago, 2.5b adults were unbanked, compared to 2b today

LTD Editors's picture
The Global Findex, launched last month, is a massive database that tracks account ownership and use, savings, borrowing, and payments around the world.  Jake Kendall, Deputy Director of Research and Innovation on the Financial Services for the Poor team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and World Bank Lead Economist Leora Klapper, recently wrote a blog post highlighting key facts and figures, some of which are: 
  • Sixty-two percent of the world’s adult population has an account, up from 51 percent in 2011
  • In developing economies, account ownership rose disproportionately among adults living in the poorest 40 percent of households.
  • Worldwide, account penetration among women rose from 47 percent in 2011 to 58 percent in 2014

Read the full blog post here.

Shaping a procurement plan for emergencies

Felipe Goya's picture
Volunteers unload relief materials in Nepal
Volunteers transporting relief supplies. Credits: Rajib Upadhya. World Bank​

Nepal is coping with the consequences of a disastrous earthquake. During the next months the government will be under a lot of pressure to respond quickly to the needs of the population.

Public procurement units across the country will also feel this pressure. They will be deciding over the purchase of goods and services with taxpayer money. On the one hand, the purchases are urgently needed. On the other, there is a risk that taxpayer money can be wasted if decisions are taken too hastily.

One instrument that can be helpful in this kind of situation is a framework agreement. This should be part of any country’s Disaster Risk Management plan. Its aim is to have a procurement system ready that responds quickly to an emergency. But this quick response should not increase risks beyond what policymakers have defined as acceptable. Special procurement procedures for emergencies should be part of disaster management systems and should especially include tailored framework agreements.

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