Sunday, December 16, 2007

Cheating in American Baseball

A report was just issued stating that many renown players working for professional baseball teams in America have used steroids and other muscle-building drugs to enhance their natural ability and win out over other players.

Here is an instance of moral grand corruption.

The ethic of sport - going back to Greek Olympics - was supposed to be in the character of the athlete - in his or her mental effort, self-discipline, skill and courage. Winning was only icing on the cake.

Now winning seems to be all and at any price. A winning record leads to more money, lots more money, in the business of professional sports.

Just like winning in the stock market - to get the most out of it for ourselves, why not take a few performance enhancing drugs? In the world of finance, such drugs are misleading information about a company's prospects. See Enron, WorldCom, et. al.

Misleading information gives a company unfair advantages in the competition for investor interest.

Professional sports in the United States provide moral and ethical standards for a large number of Americans. The behavior - noble or vile - of sports celebrities triggers imitation among the young and, thus, has a public good quality about it. The behavior of such role-models cannot be overlooked by society.

What surprises me is the lack of programs in business ethics for professional sports companies and their employees.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Like Death and Taxes - there are consequences

Advocates of cash flow as the “summum bonum” of capitalism often take the position, as they must, that there are no negative consequences attendant upon such a course of business enterprise worthy of note.

The assumption they make is that the enterprise is autonomous, separated from society by various walls such that the only costs of material concern are those that show up on the income statement.

Thus, the “costs” of enterprise born by stakeholders – the environment, civil society, customers, employees, investors, creditors – do not count. They can be ignored.

This point of view is very short-sighted and so wrong as several developments here in the United States make very clear.

First, in the sub-prime mortgage mess; The consequences of rising foreclosures on home mortgages were set by entrepreneurs who extended mortgages to borrowers who were very much at risk of non-payment when conditions changes. By pushing off risks on borrowers with marginally secure abilities to pay, the originators of the sub-prime lending set off a sequence of developments that carried within its economic logic high risks of social dislocation.

With homes in foreclosure, with the prices of homes dropping for America’s great middle class, with the banking system under great stress, the government could not leave the market alone. Anxieties were too high and the demand for protection from market forces too intense.

So, President Bush felt compelled (it’s presidential election season as well and his party is not doing well in the polls) to step in. He imposed an emergency freeze on the raising of the interest rates on certain mortgages. The freeze will last for five years.

Nothing could be more alien to his principles of free market autonomy, where private actions without government regulation bring about optimal outcomes for society.

The moral lesson from the sub-prime adventures is: as you sow, so shall you reap. There are consequences for business that don’t always show up on the quarterly income statement.

Second, there are recent developments with UnitedHealth Group. This company in Minnesota underwrote for premiums the health care costs of millions of Americans. It paid its CEO William McGuire hundreds of millions of dollars and gave him stock options as well. The company’s stock rose in the market.

But it then turned out that many of his stock options had been rigged – backdated – to give him even more financial advantage.

When the back-dating was discovered, the Securities and Exchange Commission began an investigation and investors brought litigation. On December 6, 2007, McGuire decided to settle the claims against him. He agreed to give back to the company some $420 to $460 million in stock options and pay and to pay a $7 million fine.

He is still left with over $500 million in stock options so he will be able to live for the rest of his life as a gentleman should.

But there were consequences that followed upon his taking short-term financial advantage of the company.

Now, one way in which McGuire’s leadership of UnitedHealth Group had led to substantial profits was to squeeze its customers – the insured and doctor’s to be paid for their services. As a result of these business practices, the company in recent years lost 315,000 customers this year and angered doctors.

So, as a consequence, it is changing its practices. It will now show doctors and patients on the day of a doctor’s visit how a claim will be paid; it will pay doctors more quickly; UnitedHealth employees will be given incentives to put quality and patient advocacy first and productivity (i.e. cash profit) second.

Like death and taxes, consequences cannot be avoided. There is no free lunch in capitalism. Ethics is material to the bottom line.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

In China it's culture, not ethics or CSR

A conference this past week in Beijing was most informative on several levels. The topic was to discuss in a Chinese context business values and corporate culture. The audience was engaged – very engaged; more engaged than audiences in most of the conferences I have attended where the topic is business ethics or corporate social responsibility.

The substance of our discussions in Beijing was essentially the same concerns as inform discussions of business ethics or corporate social responsibility. But the conceptual framework, the lens, brought to bear on the subject matter was unique. The starting point was “culture”, not ethics, not the business case for taking stakeholder concerns into account when running a for-profit enterprise.

In prior workshops on business ethics in China my observation was the absence of concern for the topic on the part of Chinese business owners and managers. This recent discussion, however, was very different. It struck me as being very authentically Chinese while the previous meeting seems now in retrospect to have been the extension of a foreign framework into an unresponsive Chinese intellectual and emotional milieu.

Something like the assertion of exterritorial legal jurisdiction in China by the western powers during the glory years of Western colonial dominance. For example, Western powers had their own tribunal in Shanghai to resolve matters according to French, British, or other European legal norms and practices.

In startling contrast, in this past week’s conference and panel discussions, the Chinese asserted conceptual ownership of the subject and fully engaged their minds as well as their emotions.

It appears that, for them, the discussion of “culture” is not a trivial matter.

Which fact, I suppose, should not have come as a surprise to me. After all, Chairman Mao’s great effort to shape China in his image was undertaken as a “cultural” revolution.

In ways that were quite exciting and revealing, speakers and commentators asked basic questions as a starting point on the way to defining appropriate levels of business conduct.

They asked what is human nature? Are people basically sinful and greedy? Do people have a capacity for moral behavior? Can they acknowledge the claims of society on their freedom and autonomy? Don’t we have to choose between “profit” on one side and ethical conduct on the other as Mencius argued so many years ago?

I felt as I listened that the objective of the conversation was to find a formula for “market freedoms with Chinese characteristics.”

The need to find such a formula is palpable as the Chinese Communist Party is moving more and more beyond Deng Xiao Ping’s formula of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” that justified the program of reform and opening up that began some 30 years ago.

The unstated question in everyone’s mind in the conference seemed to be “what kind of company behaviors will maximize market efficiencies and so create wealth but at the same time not be destructive of social harmony and non-financial values?

“Corporate culture” seemed to be assumed to be the meeting point of profit and social responsibility. One participant described the role of culture in a market setting as the brakes to off set too much pressure on the gas pedal. Excessive acceleration – a metaphor for excessive individualism or self-seeking – is tempered by putting on the brakes and keeping the car under the speed limit or safely hugging the road as it twists and turns.

This assumption is not a bad one in my opinion. Culture is a restraint on individualism. Culture is the action of the moral sense within us; culture arises within communities and sustains communities with commonalities of values, behaviors, practices, understandings.

Our discussions in Beijing had the following logic: with the right culture in place, companies will be ethical and socially responsible.

But the approach to implementation starts with culture – the psychology of the human, the needs and motivations of people - not with debates over moral theory or a list of stakeholder interests.

At the same time, a discussion of “culture” provided a way to reclaim China’s moral heritage. We spoke of Confucianism, of Taoism, even Buddhism, as rich sources of cultural “brakes” for companies in today’s China.

I very pleasantly felt that the Caux Round Table had a constructive role to play in this conversation as we have in a number of cultures been successful in mapping global standards of ethics and corporate social responsibility to core values within national settings. I was very pleased that our colleagues Dr. Roger Conant, Hiroshi Ishida, Andy Whitford from Westpac Bank, and Brinton Scott from the Fredrickson & Byron law firm office in Shanghai could make notable and constructive contributions to the discussions.

It’s the same all over

I arrived in Beijing on Sunday night the 2nd of December for a conference discussing CSR and the cultural imperatives of Chinese companies.

This morning in the paper were two front page stories that caught my attention.

One was about the sentencing to 16 years in prison of a Shanghai “tycoon” for abusive “brute” capitalist behavior. He had embezzled money, forged tax receipts, defrauded investors in the stock market, among other criminal acts carried out through the means of business enterprise.

This story put to me once again the role of character in free markets: cheating is everywhere; laws alone don’t stop it; free markets can clear it out only after the truth comes to light.

There would thus seem to be a constant, universal need to focus on ethics, character, personal goals and integrity as a third counter-weight to the human tendency to abuse power in private hands.

The second story was the report of a Chinese government agency that the average temperature in China so far during 2007 was at the highest level since 1951. This marks the 11th year in a row of higher average temperatures than in previous periods.

Systemic temperature rise is prima facia evidence of global warming. It does not provide evidence of the cause or causes of the trend, but does leave us with the fact of a change in our environment.

And, to me, if we don’t like the implications of the trend, regardless of its causes, we should be taking steps to moderate the rise in global temperatures.