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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Cite this article

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

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