Economic development needs our wisdom and efforts.There is one and only one social responsibility of businesses,” wrote Milton Friedman, a Nobel prize-winning economist, “That is, to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” But even if you accept Firedman’s premise and regard corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies as a waste of shareholders’ money, things may not be absolutely clear-cut. New research suggests that CSR may create monetary value for companies-at least when they are prosecuted for corruption.
The largest firms in America and Britain together spend more than $ 15 billion a year on CSR, according to an estimate by EPG, a consulting firm. This could add value to their businesses in three ways. First, consumers may take CSR spending as a “signal” that a company’s products are of high quality. Second, customers may be willing to buy a company’s products as an indirect way to donate to the good causes it helps. And third, through a more diffuse “halo effect,” whereby its good deeds earn it greater consideration from consumers and others.
Previous studies on CSR have had trouble differentiating these effects because consumers can be affected by all three. A recent study attempts to separate them by looking at bribery prosecutions under America’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). It argues that since prosecutors do not consume a company’s products as part of their investigations, they could be influenced only by the halo effect.
The study found that, among prosecuted firms, those with the most comprehensive CSR programmes tended to get more lenient penalties. Their analysis ruled out the possibility that it was firms’ political influence, rather than their CSR stand, that accounted for the leniency: Companies that contributed more to political campaigns did not receive lower fines.
In all, the study concludes that whereas prosecutors should only evaluate a case based on its merits, they do seem to be influenced by a company’s record in CSR. “We estimate that either eliminating a substantial labour-rights concern, such as child labour or increasing corpora giving by about 20% results in fines that generally are 40% lower than the typical punishment for briding foreign officials,” says one researcher.
Researchers admit that their study does not answer the question of how much businesses ought to spend on CSR. Nor does it reveal how much companies are banking on the halo effect rather than the other possible benefits, when they decide their do-gooding policies. But at least they have demonstrated that when companies get into trouble with the law, evidence of good character can win them a less costly punishment.
Bankers have been blaming themselves for their troubles in public. Behind the scenes, they have been taking aim at someone else: the accounting standard-setters. Their rules, moan the banks, have forced them to report enormous losses, and it’s just not fair. These rules say they must value some assets at the price a third party would pay, not the price managers and regulators would like them to fetch.
Unfortunately, banks’ lobbying now seems to be working. The details may be unknowable, but the independence of standard-setters, essential to the proper functioning of capital markets, is being compromised. And, unless banks carry toxic assets at prices that attract buyers, reviving the banking system will be difficult.
After a bruising encounter with Congress, America’s Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) rushed through rule changes. These gave banks more freedom to use models to value illiquid assets and more flexibility in recognizing losses on long-term assets in their income statement. Bob Herz, the FASB’s chairman, cried out against those who “question our motives.” Yet bank shares rose and the changes enhance what one lobby group politely calls “the use of judgment by management.”
European ministers instantly demanded that the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) do likewise. The IASB says it does not want to act without overall planning, but the pressure to fold when it completes it reconstruction of rules later this year is strong. Charlie McCreevy, a European commissioner, warned the IASB that it did “not live in a political vacuum” but “in the real word” and that Europe could yet develop different rules.
It was banks that were on the wrong planet, with accounts that vastly overvalued assets. Today they argue that market prices overstate losses, because they largely reflect the temporary illiquidity of markets, not the likely extent of bad debts. The truth will not be known for years. But bank’s shares trade below their book value, suggesting that investors are skeptical. And dead markets partly reflect the paralysis of banks which will not sell assets for fear of booking losses, yet are reluctant to buy all those supposed bargains.
To get the system working again, losses must be recognized and dealt with. America’s new plan to buy up toxic assets will not work unless banks mark assets to levels which buyers find attractive. Successful markets require independent and even combative standard-setters. The FASB and IASB have been exactly that, cleaning up rules on stock options and pensions, for example, against hostility from special interests. But by giving in to critics now they are inviting pressure to make more concessions.