Fat Cats versus Alley Cats

Fat Cats versus Alley Cats:

Why the Occupy Movement is Right

Blog by Wayne Visser

Part 2 of 13 in Wayne Visser’s Age of Responsibility Blog Series for 3BL Media.

The most common explanation for the global financial crisis is to point a finger at the banks. And rightly so. But I believe we also need to shine a spotlight on the greed and irresponsibility of executives, fat-cats like Lehman Brothers’ former CEO Richard Fuld. These are the enriched 1% that suck the lifeblood out of the fleeced 99% and which the Occupy Movement is justifiably targeting. Naming and shaming is important, but we need to realise that this is a systemic cancer in our economic and financial system.

It is also not a new phenomenon, but worrying it is showing signs of getting worse, not better. In 2000, Enron was the 7th largest company in America, with revenues of $111 billion and over 20,000 staff. When the company collapsed in 2001, due to various fraudulent activities fuelled by a culture of greed, the average severance payment was $45,000, while executives received bonuses of $55 million in the company’s last year. Employees lost $1.2 billion in pensions; retirees lost $2 billion, but executives cashed in $116 million in stocks.

At the end of 2007, just before the crisis went public, Lehmans’ CEO Fuld and president Joseph Gregory paid themselves stock bonuses of $35 million and $29 million respectively. At the time, Fuld lived in an enormous Greenwich mansion, over 9,000 square feet, valued at $10 million. He had four other homes and an art collection valued at $200 million. Hardly a picture of responsible restraint.

Taken on their own, these executive pay packages are outrageous enough. But the extent of creeping executive greed comes into even sharper focus when we look at trends in relative pay. In 1965, U.S. CEOs in major companies earned 24 times more than a typical worker, a ratio that grew to 35 in 1978 and to 71 in 1989. By 2000, it had hit 298, and despite falling to 143 in 2002 (after the post-Enron stock market slump), it bounced back again and has continued rising through the noughties (2000s).

The Institute for Policy Studies Executive Excess report reveals that the 2010 ratio between average worker and average CEO compensation leaped to 325-to-1, up from in 263-to-1 in 2009. Among the nation’s top firms, the S&P 500, CEO pay last year averaged $10,762,304, up 27.8 percent over 2009. Average worker pay in 2010? That finished up at $33,121, up just 3.3 percent over the year before.

According to Fair Economy, the average U.S. worker’s salary could pay for 10 months of health insurance, 5 months of college tuition, and buy 10 percent of an average home. On the other hand, the average Fortune 500 CEO’s salary could pay for 300 years of health insurance, 200 years of college tuition and buy 34.5 new homes.

But at least these CEOs are contributing through taxes, right? Wrong. In fact, corporate  …

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Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org/”]Website[/button] CSR International (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-age-of-responsibility”]Page[/button] The Age of Responsibility (book)

Cite this blog

Visser, W. (2012) Fat-Cats versus Alley-Cats: Why the Occupy Movement is Right, Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 14 February 2012.

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Is Greed Still Good?

Is Greed Still Good?

Blog by Wayne Visser

Part 2 of 13 in the Age of Responsibility Blog Series for CSRwire.

If CSR isn’t working, could it be because it pales into insignificance in the face of a much more pervasive force at work in business and society, namely greed? After all, “greed is good!” So declared the fictional character Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, Wall Street. “Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms – greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge – has marked the upward surge of mankind.” I wonder if today, nearly 25 years and a 7 trillion dollar global financial meltdown later, we are finally ready to lay this powerful myth to rest?

We have lived through an Age of Greed and come out the other side bruised and battered, disillusioned and angry. But are we any wiser? Ever since the first financial derivatives were traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 1972 and the casino economy really got going, it seems like ‘greed is good’ and ‘bigger is better’ became the dual-mottos underpinning (at least one popular version of) the American Dream. The ‘invisible hand’ of the market went largely unquestioned, despite its self-pleasuring habit. Incentives – like Wall Street profits, traders’ bonuses and CEO pay – became perverse, leading not only to unbelievable wealth in the hands of a few, but ultimately to global financial catastrophe.

With the world still reeling from the ensuing global recession, and threatening to slip into the ‘double-dip’ doldrums, I find myself compelled to ask many difficult questions: Was this, as Lehman Brothers trader Larry McDonald suggests in his book of the same name, just ‘a colossal failure of common sense’? Was it the greed of ‘bad apples’ like Lehman’s CEO Dick Fuld, or the banks and their insatiable bonus-driven traders? Or was it the pervasive culture of greed in Wall Street as a whole? What about the greed of politicians and governments who were happy to benefit from growth-on-steroids? And what about Main Street? Wasn’t the public – we, the people – more than happy to greedily lap up those subprime loans?

All this begs the larger question: Is capitalism itself fundamentally flawed? Are we really talking about endemic greed, built into the free-market system – a system which not only allowed, but encouraged the fantasy of double-digit profit growth and an endless bull market? Will capitalism, with its short term, cost-externalization, shareholder-value focus always tend towards greed, at the expense of people and the planet? Will the scenario of ‘overshoot and collapse’ that was computer modelled in the 1972 ‘Limits to Growth’ report (and reaffirmed in revisions 20 and 30 years later) still come to pass? Has Karl Marx been vindicated in his critique (albeit not in his solution) that, by design, capitalism causes wealth and power to accumulate in fewer and fewer hands?

Perhaps the trillion-dollar question for me is not whether capitalism per se acts like a cancer gene of greed in society, but whether there are different types of capitalism, some of which are more benign than others. To date, the world has by and large been following the Western, Anglo-Saxon model of shareholder-driven capitalism, and perhaps this is the version that is morally bankrupt and systemically flawed …

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Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-age-of-responsibility”]Link[/button] The Age of Responsibility (book)

Cite this blog

Visser, W. (2011) Is Greed Still Good? Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 13 October 2011.

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CSR 2.0: Beyond the Age of Greed

CSR 2.0:

Beyond the Age of Greed

Chapter by Wayne Visser

Extract from Reframing Corporate Social Responsibility

Quotes

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. – Gordon Gekko, Wall Street (the movie)

Responsibility is literally what it says – our ability to respond. To be responsible is to be proactive in the world, to be sensitive to the interconnections, and to be willing to do something constructive as a way of giving back. Responsibility is the footprints we leave in the sand, the mark of our passage. What tracks will you leave? -Wayne Visser, Business Frontiers (the book)

Abstract

The 1987 movie Wall Street and our recent global financial crisis (GFC), despite one being fictional and the other painfully real, tell a common story. Over the past few decades, we have been living through an Age of Greed, characterised by a colossal failure of corporate responsibility and corruption of individual morality. This Crisis of Responsibility has had catastrophic consequences for the global economy, bankrupting whole economies (like Iceland) and wreaking havoc with the lives of ordinary citizens around the world, many of whom are now without a job and without a roof over their heads.

In this chapter, I want to explore the ways in which the GFC represents a multi-level failure of responsibility – from the individual and corporate level to the finance sector and entire capitalist system. I will also examine the impact of the GFC on what is traditionally viewed as corporate social responsibility (CSR). To conclude, I will set out my conviction

that unless CSR itself is fundamentally transformed, into CSR 2.0, it will do nothing to prevent an equally (if not more) devastating Crisis of Responsibility from recurring in future.

The Age of Greed

Gordon Gekko’s words, although spoken by a fictitious character of Oliver Stone’s imagination, captures the spirit of a very real age: the Age of Greed. This was an age that, in my view, began when the first financial derivatives were traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 1972 and ended (we hope) with Lehman’s collapse in 2008. It was a time when ‘greed is good’ and ‘bigger is better’ were the dual-mottos that seemed to underpin the American Dream. The invisible hand of the market went unquestioned. Incentives – like Wall Street profits and traders’ bonuses – were perverse, leading not only to unbelievable wealth in the hands of a few speculators, but ultimately to global financial catastrophe.

The story of Gordon Gekko (and his modern day real-life equivalents like Richard Fuld, the captain of the titanic Lehmans before it hit the iceberg) gets to the heart of the nature of greed …

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Related pages

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-age-of-responsibility”]Page[/button] The Age of Responsibility (book)

Cite this chapter

Visser, W. (2010) CSR 2.0: From the Age of Greed to the Age of Responsibility, In W. Sun, et al. (eds.), Reframing Corporate Social Responsibility: Lessons from the Global Financial Crisis. Bingley: Emerald.

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CSR and the Financial Crisis

CSR and the Financial Crisis:

Taking Stock

Blog by Wayne Visser

The Scale of the Crisis

There is nothing small or trivial about this financial crisis. According to the Bank of England’s recent Financial Stability Report, governments worldwide have already pledged more than $7 trillion in loans, guarantees, capital injections, and other assistance in their coordinated effort to prop up the global financial system. And the ILO estimates the crisis will cost 20 million jobs by next year.

This is not the first financial crisis the world has seen over the past century. The worst, of course, resulted in the Great Depression in the 1930s. But there have been numerous others, all of which carried painful economic and human costs. For example, the crises inArgentina (1981-1990), South Korea (1997-1999) and Thailand (1997-2000) all cost more than 30% of those countries’ GDPs.

But even by historical standards, the 2008 crisis is BIG. In what’s been dubbed “Wall Street’s Red October”, the S&P 500 plunged 16.9%, or 198 points, for the month. That’s the worst-ever monthly point decline for the S&P 500. The Dow similarly dropped 14.1%, or 1,526 points. And the ILO estimates that the crisis will bring the total unemployed to more than 210 million for the first time in history.

The key difference is that, unlike the Asian and Latin American crises in the 1980s, this crisis is truly global. Some countries, like Iceland andPakistan, are threatened by bankruptcy. Others, like Japan, have been hit by huge volatility in the markets. And even the cash-rich, high-flyers like China are seeing their growth suffering as a result. But what does any of this have to do with corporate social responsibility (CSR)?

The Links to CSR

Irresponsible banking

I’d like to suggest a multi-level approach to this. At the first and most obvious level, we can say the financial crisis is a direct result of irresponsible banking. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, the number of sub-prime loans offered to risky borrowers increased more than 15 times since 1998. Essentially, the banks got greedy and compromised good banking practices of credit risk assessment.

Irresponsible financial markets

At another level, the crisis is the predictable consequence of irresponsible financial markets. Since the deregulation of the 1980s, the derivatives market has grown to around $600 trillion dollars, almost 10 times the value of global GDP. This speculative trading (which some call the “casino economy”) is meant to hedge risk, but it also increases the volatility and systemic risk of financial markets.

We would do well to recall economist John Maynard Keynes’ warning: “Speculators may do no harm as bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise. But the position is serious when enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation. When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done.”

Irresponsible corporations 

Others argue that the crisis is the inevitable consequence of irresponsible corporations. This is linked to the short-termism of shareholder value driven public companies …

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Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-age-of-responsibility”]Link[/button] The Age of Responsibility (book)

Cite this blog

Visser, W. (2008) CSR and the Financial Crisis, Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 4 November 2008.

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Beyond Reasonable Greed

Beyond Reasonable Greed:

From Accounting to Accountability

Article by Wayne Visser

In our recently launched book entitled Beyond Reasonable Greed (Visser & Sunter 2002), we attributed the phenomenon of unreasonable corporate greed to boards “being collectively swept along by the prevailing paradigm of success which is purely financial.” However, we added the following rider: “In light of Enron’s failure, this judgment may be overly kind and more cases of dodgy accounting, inflated profits and insider trading by the board may pop up in Corporate America and Corporate Europe.”

Well, since publication of the first impression of the book, they have popped up! Starting with WorldCom, but extending to other corporate heavyweights as well. Big business is under the whip like never before from the public and politicians alike. And the accounting profession, in particular, is feeling very uncomfortable under the harsh interrogative spotlight. However, if the response to all the accounting irregularities and other misdemeanours is merely to throw a few CEOs in jail and threaten the rest with a long prison sentence unless they check the figures personally, a great opportunity for real transformation will be lost.

Corporate Governance Under Fire

As business and the accounting profession begins to respond to the rising tide of international scrutiny, the word “corporate governance” is on everybody’s lips. Even more so in South Africa, where the revised King Report on Corporate Governance is hot off the press. But the critics remain skeptical, maybe justifiably so. If the Enron and Worldcom sagas are revealing anything, it is that corporate governance is sometimes not worth the paper it is written on. Should the people involved in implementing corporate governance not have their hearts in the right place and just be going through the motions, the process becomes a charade.

You can have all the non-executive chairpersons, non-executive directors, board committees and external auditors you like, but things will go hideously wrong if ceremony has replaced substance and cynicism is the order of the day. Some non-executive directors sit on so many boards that it is physically impossible for them to exercise their fiduciary responsibilities properly. Worse still is a situation where the Chairman and CEO are one and the same person and he (it still almost always is a “he”) has managed to load the board with his buddies. If things go right, they are the first to congratulate him and approve a handsome bonus. If things go wrong, they are the last to ask the tough questions needed to expose malpractice. They would prefer to have the wool pulled firmly over their eyes even though ignorance is no excuse in terms of the law.

Seeking a Reformation in Business

Rather than implementing a smattering of short-term corporate governance fixes (which are necessary, but not sufficient), what is required is nothing short of a Reformation in business, along the same lines as the one precipitated by Martin Luther in 1517. On October 31 of that year, he wrote an attack on the sale of indulgences (remissions of punishment for sin) in 95 theses which he  …

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Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/beyond-reasonable-greed”]Page[/button] Beyond Reasonable Greed (book)

Cite this article

Visser, W. & Sunter, C. (2002) Beyond Reasonable Greed: From Accounting to Accountability. Accountancy SA, September 2002.

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