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Law and Regulation

Reversing the 'race to the bottom’ in corporate conduct: Governance reform, ethical focus 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.

Closing thoughts on the "Harnessing Digital Trade for Competitiveness and Development" conference

Rosanna Chan's picture

Fiber optic light bokeh. Source - x_tineDigital entrepreneurs have the potential to connect to global markets like never before. Whether selling physical goods on internet platforms, or providing digital goods and services that can be downloaded and streamed, an entirely new ecosystem of innovative micro and small businesses has emerged in the developing world.
 
The World Bank Group hosted some of the pioneers in this space for a full-day conference on Harnessing Digital Trade for Competitiveness and Development on May 19. Here, we heard entrepreneurial success stories—an online platform for jewelry in Kenya, a provider of software solutions in Nepal, an online platform for livestock trade in Serbia—and dove into the constraints and challenges of running a digital business in an emerging economy.
 
The scope of these challenges made these success stories, and the broader potential they represent, even more inspiring. From internet connectivity to logistics, from financial payments to trade regulations, from bankruptcy laws to entrepreneurial and consumer digital literacy-- clearly, more needs to be done to fully harness the potential of digital trade for competitiveness and development and to foster an enabling environment to digital trade.

Justice in Kenya: measuring what counts

Nicholas Menzies's picture
Chief Justice Willy Mutunga and Chief Registrar of the Judiciary Anne Amadi sign the Understandings after the launch of the Performance Management and Measurement report in Nairobi, Kenya.


“You cannot solve a problem you haven’t fully understood.” – Chief Justice Mutunga, April 15, 2015
 
It’s difficult to know whether you’re succeeding in any institution – public or private – if you don’t set targets and collect data to measure progress against them. Courts are no different.
 
The Kenyan Judiciary has been making great strides in performance management. A ceremony at the Supreme Court in Nairobi last month was the latest step. Chief Justice Willy Mutunga signed “Performance Measurement and Monitoring Understandings” with the heads of Kenya’s courts.

These commit each court to targets such as hearing a case within 360 days, delivering judgments within 60 days of the end of a trial, and delivering a minimum number of 20 rulings a month. 

Wanted! Your proposals on Regional Integration in South Asia

Sanjay Kathuria's picture
Wanted! Your proposals on Regional Integration in South Asia



Home to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, South Asia is one of the fastest growing regions in the world and yet one of the least integrated. Intra-regional trade accounts for only 5% of South Asia’s GDP, compared to 25% of East Asia’s. Meanwhile, with a population of 1.6 billion, South Asia hosts one of the largest untapped talent pools.

To encourage young researchers in the region who aspire to use their research to inform policy making, the World Bank Group calls for research proposals on South Asia regional integration. Proposals will be carefully reviewed and the most suitable proposals (no more than five overall) will be awarded with a grant based on criteria listed below. An experienced researcher from the World Bank’s research department or an external academic will mentor and guide the young researcher in the implementation of the research.[1]
 

Will South Asia make the most of cheap oil?

Markus Kitzmuller's picture

The world economy today presents itself as a diverse canvas full of challenges and opportunities. Advanced economies continue to struggle towards recovery, with the US on its way to tighten monetary policy as the economy picks up while a still weak Eurozone awaits quantitative easing to kick in. At the same time, plunging oil prices have set in motion significant real income shifts from exporters to importers of oil. Astonishingly, amidst all this turmoil, South Asia has emerged as the fastest growing region in the world over the second half of 2014. Led by a strong India, South Asia is set to further accelerate from 7 percent real growth in 2015 to 7.6 percent by 2017, leaving behind a slowing East Asia gradually landed in second spot by China.



While bolstered by record low inflation and strong external positions across the region, the biggest question yet to be addressed by policy makers in South Asia will be how to make the most of cheap oil.
All countries are net oil importers as well as large providers of fuel and related food subsidies, therefore bound to benefit from low oil prices. However, the biggest oil price dividend to be cashed in by South Asia is one yet to be earned, and not one that will automatically transit through government or consumer accounts. The current constellation of macroeconomic tailwinds provides a unique opportunity for policy makers to rationalize energy prices and to improve fiscal policy. Decoupling external oil prices from fiscal deficits may decrease vulnerability to future oil price hikes – something that may very well happen in the medium term. Furthermore, cheap oil offers a great opportunity to introduce carbon taxation and address the negative externalities from the use of fossil fuels.

The World Bank’s latest South Asia Economic Focus (April 2015) titled “Making the most of cheap oil” provides deeper insights regarding South Asia’s diverse policy challenges and opportunities stemming from cheap oil.
A first major realization is that the pass through from oil prices to domestic South Asian economies is as diverse as the countries themselves, thanks to a variety of different policy environments across countries and oil products. This is also reflected in recent dynamics, seeing India taking determined action towards rationalizing fuel and energy prices, even introducing a de facto carbon tax and beginning to reap fiscal and environmental benefits. Other countries have so far shown less or no enthusiasm towards reform, in spite of significant and/or increasing oil dependency (particularly in electricity generation, one of the region’s weak spots). 

What’s in a name? How new reforms are easing entry into Ethiopia’s formal sector

Mamo Mihretu's picture

Registering a trade name is a big piece of the puzzle when doing business in Ethiopia. Source - MaziramaIn Ethiopia, registering a trade name-- a precondition for a business startup-- had long been one of the most cumbersome procedures of starting a new business. One had to make frequent visits to the Ministry of Trade with a number of potential trade names, which in most cases were routinely rejected for no clear reason. In one documented instance, an applicant had to submit eighty different names before he was issued a legally registered trade name. The inordinate amount of time that one would spend in the process had created a huge public outcry.
 
Thankfully, things have changed. The Ministry of Trade, with support from the World Bank Group’s Investment Climate Program, has issued a new, simplified, and modern Trade Name Registration Law.

How long is too long? When justice delayed is justice denied

Georgia Harley's picture
As the saying goes, ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ Yet, across the world, court users complain that the courts take too long. For your regular court user facing endless talk from lawyers, reams of paper, and mounting legal bills, a court case can feel like it goes on…FOR….EV….ER.
 
But how long is too long? The question has arisen on each of my last four missions in as many months – from Kenya to Croatia to Serbia and back.
 
And it’s not a rhetorical question. Answers can assist client countries in analyzing their efficiency and devising reforms that improve both timeliness and user satisfaction. It also enables potential court users to better estimate how long it might take to resolve their dispute – allowing them to then adjust their expectations accordingly.
 
After all, better enabling people and businesses to resolve their disputes contributes to poverty reduction and shared prosperity.
 

Piggybanks for plunder: Corrupt cash flows to Global Cities, requiring transparency and complete disclosure of assets

Christopher Colford's picture



Corrupt cash from secretive international sources – deliberately funneled through ‘shell companies’ to conceal the money’s illicit origins – is often used to buy ‘Towers of Secrecy’ in leading global cities like New York, as documented by a recent New York Times investigation.

Cities exert a magnetism that’s irresistible – attracting not just the most ambitious who seek economic opportunity and the most creative who revel in cultural richness, but also lawbreakers and looters: notably nowadays, the corrupt kleptocrats and tax-avoiding oligarchs whose hot money increasingly flows into the safe haven of prime real estate in the world’s leading cities.

At least part of the trend toward soaring center-city property prices, according to many anticorruption monitors, is due to the impact of illicit financial flows. It’s not just the plutocratic One Percenters who are steadily bidding up real-estate valuesPlunderers and profiteers – often concealing their identities, with the aim of shielding their wealth from tax authorities and international asset-trackers – use prestigious parcels of center-city property as a piggybank to shelter their tainted lucre.

The most vibrant and most competitive of Global Cities – notably London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore – have long been magnets for money, luring the world’s most enterprising entrepreneurs as well as its most desperate refugees. As their global vocation and vitality have lured the ambitious and the avaricious, however, the “priced out of Paris” syndrome has often taken over: Gentrification has morphed into “plutocratization,” notes Simon Kuper of The Financial Times, with “global cities turning into vast gated communities where the One Percent reproduces itself.”

Meanwhile, “the middle classes and small companies [are] falling victim to class-cleansing," Kuper asserts. "Global cities are becoming patrician ghettos” – with the middle class and the poor being driven ever-further out from the center-city in search of affordable housing, doomed to interminable commutes to sterile suburbs or brooding banlieues.

Most of the property price spiral in world-leading cities is surely attributable to the allure of cosmopolitan life in an age when urbanization is accelerating worldwide. But as two members of the World Bank Group’s unit on Financial Market Integrity (FMI) and the Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative recently wrote in a StAR blog post, the melt-up of prime property prices often involves corrupt money and evasive property-registration practices.

Citing a recent New York Times investigative series that meticulously documented suspicious practices within Manhattan real-estate trends, FMI specialists Ivana Rossi and Laura Pop noted that the property-buyers “took several steps to hide their identity as the real owners of the properties. Some of these steps involved buying condos through trusts, limited liability companies or other entities that shielded their names. Such tactics made it very hard to identify the 'beneficial owner': to figure out who owned what, or who was the ultimate controller of a company (or other legal entities) since the names were not shown in the company records.”

Vast sums are flowing unchecked around the world as never before – whether motivated by corruption, tax avoidance or investment strategy, and enabled by an ever-more-borderless economy and a proliferation of ways to move and hide assets,” said the painstaking New York Times investigation, "Towers of Secrecy," by Louise Story and Stephanie Saul.

Probing “the workings of an opaque economy for global wealth,” the reporters excavated the substrata of this enduring scandal. “Lacking incentive or legal obligation to identify the sources of money, an entire chain of people involved in high-end real-estate sales – lawyers, accountants, title brokers, escrow agents, real-estate agents, condo boards and building workers – often operate with blinders on.”

In a moment of inadvertent self-revelation, a Manhattan real-estate broker confessed her look-the-other-way negligence “when vetting buyers: ‘They have to have the money. Other than that, that’s it. That’s all we need.’ ” A former executive of a property-development firm was equally blunt: “You pretty much go by financial capacity. Can they afford it? They sign the contract, they put their money down with no contingency, and they close. They have to show the money, and that is it. I don’t think you will find a single new developer where it’s different.”

No wonder that the upper reaches of the U.S. real-estate market are “more alluring for those abroad with assets they wish to keep anonymous,” the Times analysis found. “For all the concerns of law-enforcement officials that ‘shell companies’ can hide illicit gains, regulatory efforts to require more openness from these companies have failed.”      

The Times’ discoveries, asserted Rossi and Pop, thus underscore the important issues involved in asset disclosure and "beneficial ownership” rules. Many nations require that public officials fully disclose their financial holdings. Such transparency is one important safeguard against the plundering of public wealth by kleptocrats, corrupt clans or well-connected cronies in countries that are vulnerable to chronic larceny.

Yet some dishonest public officials exploit legal loopholes – or flout the law entirely: “As the StAR publication ‘Puppet Masters’ demonstrated, those that do engage in corrupt activities are likely to use entities such as companies, foundations and trusts to hide their ill-gotten wealth,” wrote Rossi and Pop. “These conclusions are also confirmed by a recent Transparency International UK report. It showed that 75 percent of UK properties in the UK, under criminal investigation since 2004 – as the suspected proceeds of corruption – made use of offshore corporate secrecy to hide the owner’s identities.”

Drawing on a new World Bank Group report (which they co-authored with Francesco Clementucci and Lina Sawaqed), “Using Asset Disclosure for Identifying Politically Exposed Persons,” Rossi and Pop argued that accurate and complete financial disclosure by officials in positions of public trust (known in the financial-integrity world as “Politically Exposed Persons”) are an essential safeguard against the diversion of assets. Such disclosures, by themselves, don’t provide a “magic bullet” solution to prevent corruption, yet they are a vital mechanism in building transparency and trust.

“Once there is an ongoing investigation, the information declared can be very helpful as evidence, both in what has been included as well as omitted,” wrote Rossi and Pop. “In many countries, intentionally leaving out information on a house or a bank account carries serious penalties. Furthermore, financial disclosures can help catch a dishonest public official whose lavish lifestyle – including real estate in a prized location – could not be supported by the resources, such as a public-sector salary, indicated in the declaration.” The key factor in ensuring integrity and combating corruption is thus the full disclosure of “beneficial ownership.”

Property prices in Global Cities are already being propelled upward by the gusher of money that is flooding, through fully legal channels, into the world’s most desirable and stable locations – thus threatening to put affordable housing, in many major cities, beyond the reach of all but the fortunate few. The last thing that already-unaffordable cities need is an unchecked flood of illicit billions and furtive real-estate transactions, which will only intensify the pressure that now threatens to create a renewed boom-and-bust cycle of unstable housing prices.

Urban advocates who are working to promote inclusive, sustainable, resilient and competitive cities will applaud the continued vigilance of asset-trackers and corruption-hunters – like the FMI and StAR units, through their work sans frontières
on the disclosure of beneficial ownership – whose efforts to halt illicit financial flows will provide an additional instrument to help ensure that cities will be as inclusive as possible in a relentlessly urbanizing age.

 

#TakeOn Corruption


The story of one thousand earthquakes

Saurabh Dani's picture
In early 2014 I saw a video circulated by a colleague, wherein someone from Japan had put together all the earthquakes that struck Japan between January 2011 to September 2011, essentially capturing the early tremors, the Great Tohoku earthquake of March 11, 2011 and subsequent aftershocks. It was a compelling visual which brought home the sheer intensity of the earthquake event. While the video was a visual representation of an event, could the same concept be used to create a product that could become a tool for raising awareness to a serious issue?
 
The Story of One Thousand Earthquakes
Over a one-year period from May 2013 to May 2014, there were a total of 1,247 recorded earthquake events of 4.0 magnitude or higher. It's time to get prepared.
 

With over 600 million people living along the fault-line across the Himalayan belt, South Asia’s earthquake exposure is very high. To further compound the problem, South Asia is urbanizing at a rapid pace and a significant growth in mega-cities, secondary and tertiary cities / towns is happening in high risk seismic zones. The region has experienced three large events over the past 15 years, the Bhuj earthquake of 2001, the Sumatra earthquake of 2004 (leading to the Asian tsunami) and the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. While there have been no major earthquakes these past 9 years, the region is akin to a ticking bomb for an earthquake disaster. Keeping this in mind, we mapped a region of 3000 Km radius from the center of India and analyzed earthquake events over a one-year period from May 2013 to May 2014. Only those earthquakes recorded by the United States Geological Survey’s global earthquake monitoring database (USGS) greater than 4.0 magnitude on the Richter scale were considered. We found a total of 1,247 recorded earthquake events. The story of a 1000 earthquakes was born and was a story that needed to be told.

We decided to create a video that would become an awareness tool and effectively communicate the risk the region faces. We deliberately steered away from talking about work being undertaken to reduce seismic risks or policy mechanisms that can be adopted. There are other mechanisms, mediums and opportunities to take that agenda forward. This is a short 90 seconds video and hopefully communicates the urgency of investing resources and efforts into earthquake safety. Increase the volume, enjoy, get scared. and then be prepared!

Here are five countries with the highest and least proportion of women in parliaments

Ravi Kumar's picture
Maria Neida. Brazil
Maria Neida. Jatoba Black Community Association. Brazil. Video Stil. © Romel Simon/World Bank

“When one woman is a leader, it changes her. When more women are leaders, it changes politics and policies,” says Michelle Bachelet, the president of Republic of Chile. It’s true.

Over the last few decades, the world has seen an increase in number of women leaders. It’s key to our progress. When there are more women leaders, everyone benefits not just women.

​If we want a better world, we need to elect more women leaders.


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