Opinion

Felix Salmon

Was Walmart’s ethics policy part of the problem?

Felix Salmon
Apr 24, 2012 14:36 UTC

Back in November 2006, Eduardo Castro-Wright, who was then the US president of Walmart, dispatched the company’s jet to pick up marketing head Julie Roehm in Chicago. She arrived late, in an ice storm, but made it in to the Walmart headquarters, where Castro-Wright started grilling her on the agency review process: how she had picked DraftFCB as the agency which would take over Walmart’s $1 billion-per-year account. Roehm had interviewed some 30 agencies before settling on Draft; the questions centered on whether she had allowed any of those agencies to pay for dinner while she was talking to them, and whether she had accepted a lift in the car of any of the agencies’ CEOs.

Four days later, Roehm was fired, for violations of Walmart’s extremely strict ethics policy. As Walmart expert Charles Fishman explains,

Wal-Mart had a kind of unbending almost obsessive adherence to even the trivialist elements of an ethical code. They’re a brutal competitor and everybody acknowledged that, but Wal-Mart was also the company that wouldn’t take a dinner from you, that wouldn’t let you provide a soda if you went to meet them to talk about business, where they wouldn’t join trade associations for many, many years because they didn’t want to pay dues and have a conflict of interest.

We now know, of course, that Castro-Wright was the man at the very center of the Walmex corruption scandal. Which raises the obvious question: did the corruption at Walmex appear despite Walmart’s ultra-strict ethics code? Or did it, paradoxically, appear because the code was so strict?

The point here is that Walmart left, essentially, nothing to its employees’ discretion. It didn’t trust them to do the right thing: it codified everything in a set of rules, and then told them to follow those rules. And you can see how that might have resulted in a kind of Calvinist scale-blindness, where accepting a soda when going to meet a vendor is exactly as bad as greasing Mexican wheels to the tune of 24 million dollars.

On top of that, the most senior executives at Walmart had a lot of discretion when it came to enforcing the rules. For someone like Roehm, who never fit in to the corporate culture, it was easy to find an infraction and fire her. On the other hand, when it came to allegations touching on Castro-Wright himself, it was similarly easy to hand the investigation off to one of his loyal subordinates, who did what he was expected to do and buried it.

Accepting a soda from a vendor, of course, is not illegal; engaging in sham investigations, on the other hand, is. Or can be, at any rate. At a grown-up organization, the Mexican allegations would have been a much darker shade of grey than anything that Roehm is alleged to have done, and would therefore have been taken much more seriously. But executives at Walmart, used to seeing the world in black and white, were unable to distinguish between the merely unethical and the downright illegal. As a result, there could be criminal charges for Walmart executives. Call it the ultimate unintended consequence of a strict ethics policy.

Update: EJ Fagan has a very smart take on all this.

There’s a difference between having a soda bought for you and buying someone a soda. Internally, maybe Wal-Mart did not want its employees to make economically inefficient decisions based on who bestowed upon them the most favor, just like people in Mexico don’t want their government making decisions they wouldn’t otherwise make if an agent from a giant multinationals didn’t transfer six figures to their offshore bank account. Their ethics policy may be designed to support what’s good for Wal-Mart, not necessarily to follow any sort of legal or moral code. We shouldn’t expect anything else from a profit-seeking corporation in a competitive marketplace.

COMMENT

The case of Walmart making facalitaing payments is extreemly similar to BofA and most other publicly traded banks bending and breaking forclosure rules.

The business case is simple… Walmart will not be, can not be, and should not be fined enough to make the net present value of breaking the law negitive. If the back of the envelope estimates are anywhere near accurate 20% of the value of the company is the mexican business. If they got an unfair jump start on half of that business than their crime is worth a clean 20 billion.

They will never be fined that much… probably not even one hundreth of that amount… and so the ethics are pretty small potatoes…

…there is no inured party that I can find anyway… customers save money, the employees actually make a market wage in mexico, the mexican goverments actually collect taxes since Walmart actually reports unlike many small mexican businesses, and best of all Walmart reinvests every dime of mexican profit in mexico because they don’t want to pay US income tax on repatrating the profits they make down there.

If I’m a Walmart share holder I’m glad they did what they did… it’s not like they killed someone here which a bunch of companies have.

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What does the Walmex corruption scandal mean for Banco Walmart?

Felix Salmon
Apr 21, 2012 19:33 UTC

David Barstow’s explosive 7,600-word investigation of corruption at Wal-Mart is required reading this weekend. I’m not going to attempt to summarize the whole thing, but basically Eduardo Castro-Wright, currently Wal-Mart’s vice-chairman, oversaw a culture of bribery when he was CEO of Walmex. And when a key player in that bribery scheme blew the whistle, Walmart in Bentonville buried the investigation, and didn’t report anything to the authorities in either Mexico or the US.

All of this looks like a slam-dunk case under Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and I’m quite sure that multiple extremely senior heads are going to roll in the wake of this NYT exposé. As always in such cases, the crime was bad; the cover-up was worse.

One name, however, is conspicuous by its absence in Barstow’s report: Banco Wal-Mart, the huge bank which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Walmex. It’s a serious player in the Mexican banking industry — it opened its millionth account over a year ago — and thanks to a quirk of international banking-regulation protocols, it lacks a lot of the regulation that its competitors have.

Banks like Banco Wal-Mart which are subsidiaries of foreign corporations are meant to be regulated by the bank regulators in the parent’s country. But because regulators in the US have consistently refused to allow Wal-Mart to become a bank here, bank regulators in the US don’t regulate Wal-Mart at all — let alone its Mexican subsidiary. (There is a Wal-Mart-branded prepaid debit card, but that’s run by Green Dot, not Wal-Mart.)

Barstow’s report shows that corruption is marbled throughout Walmart’s international operations, not only in Mexico but also in Asia, where reports of bribery were coming in to Bentonville HQ at the rate of five per month just from Asia alone. There’s nothing in the NYT which suggests that Banco Wal-mart was doing anything suspect at all — but at the same time, all parts of Castro-Wright’s empire should be under suspicion now, given the kind of illegal activity which peaked under his leadership. And Banco Wal-mart was one of the jewels in Castro-Wright’s crown.

All US corporations are held to high standards under the FCPA, but banks are even more important, given the way in which they’re regularly used by criminals for money laundering. After reading the NYT this weekend, I have no faith at all that Wal-mart has done an effective job of ensuring that Banco Walmart is corruption-free. And given its regulatory status, I also have no faith at all that if there were corruption at the bank, its regulators would have found it.

If I were the Mexican banking authorities, then, I’d start asking some very pointed questions indeed in the wake of this news — and I might even start thinking about revoking Banco Walmart’s license entirely. Certainly there’s no indication at all that Wal-Mart cares about stamping out corruption in Mexico — quite the opposite. And if a foreign-owned bank is operating in your country, you want to be sure that its parent is particularly assiduous in such matters.

I’ve historically supported the idea that Wal-mart should get a banking license: I think, in principle, that such a bank would provide healthy competition for existing banks, and that it would help to reduce the rolls of the unbanked. But in the wake of this news, the chances of Wal-Mart getting such a license are surely more remote than ever. And the Mexican authorities must be wondering whether US banking regulators didn’t have the right idea after all.

COMMENT

What do you mean by “it lacks a lot of the regulation that its competitors have”??? It is regulated by the Mexican authorities as a “Insitucion de Banca Multiple” (see http://www.cnbv.gob.mx/Paginas/PES.aspx) just like HSBC, Santander, American Express and all its competitors.

If you meant by US regulatiors, that would probably not apply to other non-American banks in Mexico either (HSBC, BBVA, Scotiabank, RBS, et al.)

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