Opinion

Edward Hadas

A corporate abdication of corruption

Edward Hadas
Jun 4, 2014 14:39 UTC

By Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Allegations of corruption did not exactly cost King Juan Carlos the Spanish throne, but they probably played a role in his decision to abdicate. A popular desire for change was fuelled in part by claims of a 5.6 million euro fraud by his son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, who denies any wrongdoing. The resulting dynastic change may be considered a sign that corruption has become less acceptable. That would be a misreading.

Actually, it is hard to decide whether corruption is waxing or waning globally, because the concept is hard to define. A Danish anti-corruption group’s explanation captures the ambiguity: “Corruption is a broad term covering a wide range of misuse of entrusted funds and power for private gain… A corrupt act is often – but not necessarily – illegal. In handling corruption you will often face grey zones and dilemmas.”

That sounds about right, and the grey zone is large. A bribe, for example the sort of payment alleged to have contributed to Qatar’s selection as host nation for the 2022 soccer World Cup, is obviously corrupt. But what about a consulting arrangement that channels a substantial portion of the revenue from an oil well to someone with excellent political connections? In the country with the oil, such payments can be perfectly legal and socially accepted remuneration for services rendered. Outsiders see a corrupt power and business elite.

The Danish group was not considering the huge pay packets of corporate chief executives, but they seem to qualify as at least grey. Like a consulting contract, the money in question is considered a legal and socially accepted remuneration for services rendered. However, outsiders usually see a corrupt power and business elite. The seals of approval from remuneration committees and consultants only make the corruption look more deeply entrenched.

AstraZeneca is no one’s property

Edward Hadas
May 13, 2014 09:12 UTC

Pfizer’s planned offer for AstraZeneca is a poor test case for almost any big question about big corporate acquisitions. The weaknesses of everyone involved in the potential deal only bring out the futility of the whole idea that big companies have owners.

The would-be American acquirer, the British target, the UK government and whole pharmaceutical industry are all tainted. They are guilty, respectively, of a tax fixation, cutting research, empty words and inadequate drug discovery. So there is really no one with the moral authority to say whether this is a good deal.

But the whole debate is marred by the law, which leaves the final decision to only one group, the equity shareholders. The squealing politicians and whinging scientists can be cast as intruders, interfering with the rights of these owners. That is wrong. Shareholders should not decide, because the law is economically wrong. The typical large company does not have owners.

Don’t bother with share-based pay

Edward Hadas
Apr 16, 2014 12:13 UTC

Coca-Cola’s plan to give generous awards of shares to executives has angered some of its shareholders. They have good reason to complain about the potential transfer of about 15 percent of the company to the top 1 percent of its staff. But Coke is only pushing the already bad idea of share-based pay to a foolish extreme.

The justification for paying workers in their employer’s paper is simple and superficially appealing. Worker-owners might be more motivated to push for higher profit than if they just received salaries, even salaries which have bonuses in the millions tied to company performance.

The argument relies on a narrow view of corporate purpose: the sole goal is to maximise the share price, that is, the present value of future profit. Even if that doubtful assertion is accepted, the connection between an individual worker’s contribution and the movement of the share price is too weak for stock awards to motivate behaviour.

Elop and the neo-feudal revolution

Edward Hadas
Oct 2, 2013 15:17 UTC

I have nothing against Stephen Elop. The former and future Microsoft executive seems to have done a pretty good job running Nokia. It’s a little awkward that he was offered $7.3 million to move from Microsoft to the Finnish phone-maker and stands to receive $25.4 million to rejoin the his former employer. But the tech industry often has a slightly incestuous feeling, and there were plausible strategic arguments for both moves. Elop did what almost any senior American executive would have done – negotiated and renegotiated favourable contracts.

However, Elop’s packages are part of an outrageous system of executive remuneration. It features pointlessly complex arrangements – base salary, cash bonus, a small collection of share plans plus substantial payments for coming and going. The deals are rigged in the executive’s favour; Elop obtained highly attractive last minute alterations just before the sale of the phone business. And the numbers are all unjustly large, by any relevant standard.

The announcement of Elop’s terms was understandably met with widespread disgust. The same response is typical whenever executive pay comes up.

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