The presence of corporate corruption in the US has made a victim of investors and should help stimulate the market
When George Bush went to Wall Street and delivered his speech about corporate reform in front of a banner that read 'Corporate Responsibility,'' I thought: it doesn't get any better than this. It was as if Bill Clinton had flown to Las Vegas to deliver a speech in front of a banner that read 'Sexual Abstinence''.
But I was wrong. It did get better. Tipped off by a friend, I went to the C-Span website and watched the tape of the hearings of the House Financial Services Committee. The committee, previously known mainly as a good place to attract campaign funds from Wall Street, dragged before it for a public whipping of the cast of WorldCom.
There, as Jack Grubman and Bernie Ebbers stared stoically into the middle distance, California's Maxine Waters referred to the corrupt research reports of a Wall Street investment bank she called 'Salomon Barney Frank''.
And she was reading from a prepared statement. In the current political climate, it doesn't really matter whether a politician is able to distinguish between Smith Barney and Barney Frank, or to know that EBITA is not a brand of beer.
President Bush doesn't need to recognise that his own putatively successful business career was nothing more than a series of elaborately orchestrated bribes.
All that matters is that he is deeply outraged by the people who most recently betrayed capitalism. There is one good thing to be said on behalf of business corruption: it gives our politicians a rare chance to shine, morals-wise. But it is not the only good thing.
What is being lost in the fog of moral outrage is just how much good may come of its cause. We are all very angry at Ebbers and Enron's Kenneth Lay and the Great Kozlowski of Tyco International fame, and maybe we should be. But we should be a little grateful to them, too. The first and most important consequence of these men's alleged deceit is to instil greater investor trust in the markets.
Of course, we are meant to be living right now through a great crisis in investor confidence. Investors' lack of confidence is offered up as the cause of every stock market sell-off. Restoring confidence has become both a mantra and a reason for being for many otherwise unemployable people.
Forget for a moment that a better explanation for each stock market plunge is that the market is still pretty rich by historical standards, and historical standards are now back in fashion. Would it not seem likely that investors, even foreign ones who speak poor English, are more concerned about how companies will be governed in the future than how they've been governed in the past?
Anyone who was willing to dump his capital into a black box like Enron will no doubt be more than willing, nay, grateful, to dump even more capital into the newly chastened, slightly more transparent US corporation.
I don't know about you, but every day I feel a bit better about owning General Electric. A year ago I had only a vague idea of what it was up to. I relied, mistakenly, on others to watch it for me. Now I know that others are watching it for me and are picking it apart in ways they never imagined.
That is another, related benefit of business corruption: it lets the US investor off the hook for years of sloth.
Just now we are busy forgetting that what most of what the crooks did, they did to mollify big investors, who agreed to turn a blind eye to whatever the hell was actually going on inside the business for the sake of appearances, and, thus, share prices.
The presence of corruption transforms the investor from accomplice to victim. This is probably a good thing for the spirit of capitalism. If the US investor ever was forced to examine his own behaviour, he might become genuinely demoralised. And that would not do.
A final benefit of the corruption boom is to remind CEOs, maybe even inform a few for the first time, that they cannot remove themselves from the larger society.
Those of us who have been puzzled for years by the cult of the CEO, and watched in horror as people who were meant to lead others in a cause greater than themselves instead took as much loot as they could for themselves, wondered when, if ever, the process would reverse itself. It just did.
A new correlation has been established in the American mind, between CEOs who pay themselves tens of millions of dollars each year, and CEOs who cook their books and evade sales taxes and send their wives onto television to lie about how much money they still have. In the future, a healthy new suspicion shall arise whenever any CEO pays himself tens of millions of dollars.
The old rule of CEO pay was: the more you pay yourself, the more valuable you must be to the company. The new rule of CEO pay is: the more you pay yourself, the more you will be watched. After all, any CEO who is actually worth $25m a year should be responsible enough, and decent enough, not to take it.
Bloomberg newsroom, New York