This Monday brought news of suspected bribery at Walmart and fraud charges against the former head of CalPERS. It’s a useful reminder about the limits of human frailty and of social investing. Walmart is one of the most environmentally conscious companies out there, and CalPERS runs a great shareholder activism program. But both play in governments known for corruption, Mexico and the US. (In the US, bribes are laundered as “campaign contributions” and “Super PACS”. We have plenty of corruption here.)
We all (should) learn about ethical behavior as children, and it is (should be) reinforced in school, by professional organizations, in society, and on the job. That doesn’t mean it always happens that way. People go off track, usually do to some combination of greed and the belief that “everyone else is going it”. Sad, huh?
Bribery should not be a necessary element of doing business anywhere. As an Illinois taxpayer, I find “pay to play” politics disgusting. As a market observer, I don’t buy the idea that bribery is simply the custom in some markets, no different from tipping a waitress or buying someone a birthday lunch. If it were an accepted customer, there wouldn’t be investigations and there wouldn’t be qualms about publicity. Ironically, one of the reasons that Rod Blagojevich believes he is innocent is that he was doing business as normal.
I once had a boss who said that you should behave as though anything you do will end up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Naturally, ruthless behavior in business is rewarded just as corruption is punished. Or, as the traders like to say, pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.