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Who Will Determine the Future of Capitalism?

Posted by Philip Mattera on March 13th, 2009

Amid the worst financial and economic crisis in decades, the U.S. business press tends to get caught up in the daily fluctuations of the stock market and, to a lesser extent, the monthly changes in the unemployment rate. By contrast, London’s Financial Times is looking at the big picture. It recently launched a series of articles under the rubric of The Future of Capitalism. In addition to soliciting varying views on this monumental question, the paper published a feature this week presuming to name the 50 people around the world who will “frame the way forward.”

Kicking off the series, the FT’s Martin Wolf was blunt in asserting that the ideology of unfettered markets promoted over the past three decades must now be judged a failure. Sounding like a traditional Marxist, Wolf writes that “the era of liberalisation [the European term for market fundamentalism] contained seeds of its own downfall” in the form of tendencies such as “frenetic financial innovation” and “bubbles in asset prices.”

An article in the series by Gillian Tett casually notes that “naked greed, lax regulation, excessively loose monetary policy, fraudulent borrowing and managerial failure all played a role” in bringing about the crisis. Richard Layard of the London School of Economics weighs in with a piece arguing that “we should stop the worship of money and create a more humane society where the quality of human experience is the criterion.” Did editorial copy intended for New Left Review mistakenly end up in the FT computers?

Wolf finished his initial article with the statement: “Where we end up, after this financial tornado, is for us to seek to determine.” Yet who is the “we” Wolf is referring to?

Following the damning critique of markets and poor government oversight, the last ones we should turn to for leadership are the powers that be. Yet that is exactly the group that dominates the list of those who, according to the editors of FT, will lead the way forward. The 50 movers and shakers include 14 politicians, starting with President Obama and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao; ten central bankers; three financial regulators; and four heads of multinational institutions such as the IMF and the WTO. Also included are six economists, including Paul Krugman and Obama advisor Paul Volcker, and three prominent investors, among them George Soros and Warren Buffett.

The list also finds room for three chief executives (the heads of Nissan, PepsiCo and Google) and, amazingly, the chiefs of four major banks: Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, HSBC and BNP Paribas. It even includes two talking heads: Arianna Huffington and Rush Limbaugh.

Except for Olivier Besancenot of France’s New Anticapitalist Party, who is included among the politicians in a way that seems a bit condescending, there is not a single person on the list directly involved in a movement to challenge corporate power or even to significantly alter the relationship between business and the rest of society. There is not a single labor leader, prominent environmental advocate or other leading activist. The editors at FT seem never to have heard of civil society.

Then again, the problem may not be thickheadedness among FT editors. Perhaps the voices for radical change have simply not been loud enough to earn a place on a list of those who will play a significant role in the shaping capitalism’s future. In fact, one of the articles in the FT series suggests that in Europe neither the Left nor the labor movement has taken a leadership role in responding to the crisis, even as spontaneous protests have erupted in numerous countries.

In the United States, where those forces are weaker, anger at the crisis has to a great extent been channeled into support for the Keynesian policies of the Obama Administration. That’s unavoidable in the short term, but it doesn’t address the need for fundamental alteration of economic institutions. If, as the Financial Times suggests, the future of capitalism is up for grabs, let’s make sure we all join the fray.

Originally posted at: http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/341

The City Within

Posted by Mark Floegel on February 26th, 2009

Before his execution, Socrates was visited in prison by his friend Crito, who told him the bribes for the guards were ready and Socrates could escape whenever he wished. Socrates refused to go.

Crito, angered, argued Socrates would a) leave his children orphans and b) bring shame on his friends, because people would assume they were too cheap to finance his escape. (Apparently, this sort of thing was common in Athens in those days.)

Socrates replied that in his imagination, he hears the Laws of Athens saying, “What do you mean by trying to escape but to destroy us, the Laws, and the whole city so far as in you lies? Do you think a state can exist and not be overthrown in which the decisions of law are of no force and are disregarded and set at naught by private individuals?”

In short, either Socrates or the rule of law had to die. Socrates chose to die rather than diminish his city. Now, as then, he’d be a lonely guy. His notion that the city lay within him – that he was the city of Athens – is striking.

All failure to enforce law – or to work around it – is bad. This applies equally to speed limits, armed robbery and banking regulations. Failure to enforce our agreed-upon standards weakens our social bonds and undermines faith in both our justice system and our government. If the police will not apprehend or the courts will not prosecute or the legislatures draw protective circles around certain elements in society, then society as a whole suffers.

There is within all of us an affinity for justice. The majority of citizens have no training in law or political science, but we possess intuitive notions of right and wrong. We’re willing to tolerate some discrepancy on either margin of the page, but when things are pushed too far out of balance on either side, then the door to vigilantism, riot and revolution is opened.

This great imbalance – and we’re getting strong whiffs of it now – is a failure by our institutions to enforce the terms of the American social contract.

“America is a classless society.” “All citizens stand equal before the law.” Blah, blah, blah. It’s illegal to rob a convenience store. It’s illegal to defraud investors. The accused robber, who flashed a knife and made off with eighty or a hundred bucks, sits behind steel bars and waits for his overburdened public defender to get around to speaking with him.

The accused fraudulent investment fund manager, who flashed a phony set of books and made off with eight or fifty billion dollars, sits in his cosmopolitan penthouse and consults a million-dollar legal team, which he pays with ill-gotten dosh.

If we vigorously enforce laws on the working class and make only half-hearted attempts to do so with the managing class, then the class warfare Republican politician are always whining about comes closer to reality.

Worse, by allowing Ken Lays, Bernie Madoffs and Allen Stanfords to get off easy, it destroys real opportunity for people in the working classes to realize the American dream for themselves and their children. The crimes of the managing class – unlike the convenience store robber – have the real effect of depriving millions – both here and abroad - of their livelihoods and homes when the financial system crashes.

In the news and before Congressional committee, we hear that regulators were specifically warned for years that Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford were violating regulations.

While the beltway talkers argue over whether Wall Street bankers should be allowed to keep their bonuses and exorbitant salaries, the discussion that had yet to start is: why were these highly leveraged instruments and securitized debt transactions legal in the first place? We’re told incessantly that the Wall Street banking transactions were so complicated that “no one really understands them.” There is, however, the easily understood principle that one’s debts should be balanced by one’s assets. Or one’s at least one’s assets should be within shouting distance of one’s debts.

We have speed limits not because driving 110 is inherently evil, but because it is unsafe and anyone who does shows reckless disregard for themselves and others. And yet, a legion of reckless drivers loosed on the interstate for a decade could not have wrought as much misery as this handful of bankers, brokers and hedge fund managers.

We will now suffer for years. These will be hard times, but within this hardship will be opportunities to rediscover the extent to which our society lives within in us, as Socrates would have said.

Originally published at:

http://markfloegel.org/2009/02/26/the-city-within/

The 10 Worst Corporations of 2008

Posted by on January 9th, 2009

What a year for corporate criminality and malfeasance!

As we compiled the Multinational Monitor list of the 10 Worst Corporations of 2008, it would have been easy to restrict the awardees to Wall Street firms.

But the rest of the corporate sector was not on good behavior during 2008 either, and we didn't want them to escape justified scrutiny.

So, in keeping with our tradition of highlighting diverse forms of corporate wrongdoing, we included only one financial company on the 10 Worst list.

Here, presented in alphabetical order, are the 10 Worst Corporations of 2008.

AIG: Money for Nothing

There's surely no one party responsible for the ongoing global financial crisis. But if you had to pick a single responsible corporation, there's a very strong case to make for American International Group (AIG), which has already sucked up more than $150 billion in taxpayer supports. Through "credit default swaps," AIG basically collected insurance premiums while making the ridiculous assumption that it would never pay out on a failure -- let alone a collapse of the entire market it was insuring. When reality set in, the roof caved in.

Cargill: Food Profiteers

When food prices spiked in late 2007 and through the beginning of 2008, countries and poor consumers found themselves at the mercy of the global market and the giant trading companies that dominate it. As hunger rose and food riots broke out around the world, Cargill saw profits soar, tallying more than $1 billion in the second quarter of 2008 alone.

In a competitive market, would a grain-trading middleman make super-profits? Or would rising prices crimp the middleman's profit margin? Well, the global grain trade is not competitive, and the legal rules of the global economy-- devised at the behest of Cargill and friends -- ensure that poor countries will be dependent on, and at the mercy of, the global grain traders.

Chevron: "We can't let little countries screw around with big companies"

In 2001, Chevron swallowed up Texaco. It was happy to absorb the revenue streams. It has been less willing to take responsibility for Texaco's ecological and human rights abuses.

In 1993, 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians filed a class action suit in U.S. courts, alleging that Texaco over a 20-year period had poisoned the land where they live and the waterways on which they rely, allowing billions of gallons of oil to spill and leaving hundreds of waste pits unlined and uncovered. Chevron had the case thrown out of U.S. courts, on the grounds that it should be litigated in Ecuador, closer to where the alleged harms occurred. But now the case is going badly for Chevron in Ecuador -- Chevron may be liable for more than $7 billion. So, the company is lobbying the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to impose trade sanctions on Ecuador if the Ecuadorian government does not make the case go away.

"We can't let little countries screw around with big companies like this -- companies that have made big investments around the world," a Chevron lobbyist said to Newsweek in August. (Chevron subsequently stated that the comments were not approved.)

Constellation Energy: Nuclear Operators

Although it is too dangerous, too expensive and too centralized to make sense as an energy source, nuclear power won't go away, thanks to equipment makers and utilities that find ways to make the public pay and pay.

Constellation Energy Group, the operator of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland -- a company recently involved in a startling, partially derailed scheme to price gouge Maryland consumers -- plans to build a new reactor at Calvert Cliffs, potentially the first new reactor built in the United States since the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979.

It has lined up to take advantage of U.S. government-guaranteed loans for new nuclear construction, available under the terms of the 2005 Energy Act. The company acknowledges it could not proceed with construction without the government guarantee.

CNPC: Fueling Violence in Darfur

Sudan has been able to laugh off existing and threatened sanctions for the slaughter it has perpetrated in Darfur because of the huge support it receives from China, channeled above all through the Sudanese relationship with the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).

"The relationship between CNPC and Sudan is symbiotic," notes the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights First, in a March 2008 report, "Investing in Tragedy." "Not only is CNPC the largest investor in the Sudanese oil sector, but Sudan is CNPC's largest market for overseas investment."

Oil money has fueled violence in Darfur. "The profitability of Sudan's oil sector has developed in close chronological step with the violence in Darfur," notes Human Rights First.

Dole: The Sour Taste of Pineapple

A 1988 Filipino land reform effort has proven a fraud. Plantation owners helped draft the law and invented ways to circumvent its purported purpose. Dole pineapple workers are among those paying the price.

Under the land reform, Dole's land was divided among its workers and others who had claims on the land prior to the pineapple giant. However, wealthy landlords maneuvered to gain control of the labor cooperatives the workers were required to form, Washington, D.C.-based International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) explains in an October report. Dole has slashed it regular workforce and replaced them with contract workers.

Contract workers are paid under a quota system, and earn about $1.85 a day, according to ILRF.

GE: Creative Accounting

In June, former New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston reported on internal General Electric documents that appeared to show the company had engaged in a long-running effort to evade taxes in Brazil. In a lengthy report in Tax Notes International, Johnston reported on a GE subsidiary's scheme to invoice suspiciously high sales volume for lighting equipment in lightly populated Amazon regions of the country. These sales would avoid higher value added taxes (VAT) in urban states, where sales would be expected to be greater.

Johnston wrote that the state-level VAT at issue, based on the internal documents he reviewed, appeared to be less than $100 million. But, he speculated, the overall scheme could have involved much more.

Johnston did not identify the source that gave him the internal GE documents, but GE has alleged it was a former company attorney, Adriana Koeck. GE fired Koeck in January 2007 for what it says were "performance reasons."

Imperial Sugar: 14 Dead

On February 7, an explosion rocked the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia, near Savannah. Days later, when the fire was finally extinguished and search-and-rescue operations completed, the horrible human toll was finally known: 14 dead, dozens badly burned and injured.

As with almost every industrial disaster, it turns out the tragedy was preventable. The cause was accumulated sugar dust, which like other forms of dust, is highly combustible.

A month after the Port Wentworth explosion, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors investigated another Imperial Sugar plant, in Gramercy, Louisiana. They found 1/4- to 2-inch accumulations of dust on electrical wiring and machinery. They found as much as 48-inch accumulations on workroom floors.

Imperial Sugar obviously knew of the conditions in its plants. It had in fact taken some measures to clean up operations prior to the explosion. The company brought in a new vice president to clean up operations in November 2007, and he took some important measures to improve conditions. But it wasn't enough. The vice president told a Congressional committee that top-level management had told him to tone down his demands for immediate action.

Philip Morris International: Unshackled

The old Philip Morris no longer exists. In March, the company formally divided itself into two separate entities: Philip Morris USA, which remains a part of the parent company Altria, and Philip Morris International. Philip Morris USA sells Marlboro and other cigarettes in the United States. Philip Morris International tramples the rest of the world.

Philip Morris International has already signaled its initial plans to subvert the most important policies to reduce smoking and the toll from tobacco-related disease (now at 5 million lives a year). The company has announced plans to inflict on the world an array of new products, packages and marketing efforts. These are designed to undermine smoke-free workplace rules, defeat tobacco taxes, segment markets with specially flavored products, offer flavored cigarettes sure to appeal to youth and overcome marketing restrictions.

Roche: "Saving lives is not our business"

The Swiss company Roche makes a range of HIV-related drugs. One of them is enfuvirtid, sold under the brand-name Fuzeon. Fuzeon brought in $266 million to Roche in 2007, though sales are declining.

Roche charges $25,000 a year for Fuzeon. It does not offer a discount price for developing countries.

Like most industrialized countries, Korea maintains a form of price controls -- the national health insurance program sets prices for medicines. The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs listed Fuzeon at $18,000 a year. Korea's per capita income is roughly half that of the United States. Instead of providing Fuzeon, for a profit, at Korea's listed level, Roche refuses to make the drug available in Korea.

Korean activists report that the head of Roche Korea told them, "We are not in business to save lives, but to make money. Saving lives is not our business."

Originally posted on December 29, 2008, at:

http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/editorsblog/index.php?/archives/105-The-10-Worst-Corporations-of-2008.html#extended

Robert Weissman is managing director of the Multinational Monitor.

Satyam’s Fraudulent “Maquiladora of the Mind”

Posted by Philip Mattera on January 8th, 2009

It was only a few years ago that a group of offshore outsourcing companies based in India seemed poised to take over a large portion of the U.S. economy. Business propagandists insisted that work ranging from low-level data input to skilled professional work such as financial analysis could be done faster and much cheaper by workers hunched over computer terminals in cities such as Bangalore. The New York Times once described one of these offshoring companies as “a maquiladora of the mind.”

Among the most aggressive of the Indian firms was Satyam Computer Services Ltd., which signed up blue-chip clients such as Ford Motor, Merrill Lynch, Texas Instruments and Yahoo. In a 2004 report I wrote for the U.S. high-tech workers organization WashTech, I found that Satyam was also among the offshoring companies that were doing work for state government agencies. It was hired, for example, as a subcontractor by the U.S. company Healthaxis to develop a system for handling applications for medical insurance services provided by the Washington State Health Care Authority. As it turned out, Healthaxis’s contract was terminated, allegedly because of late delivery and poor quality in the work done by Satyam.

The Washington State fiasco may have been an early omen of things to come. Satyam has just admitted that for years it cooked its books and engaged in widespread financial wrongdoing. The revelation came in a letter sent to the company’s board of directors by Satyam founder and chairman B. Ramalinga Raju (photo), who simultaneously tendered his resignation.

Raju wrote that what started as “a marginal gap between actual operating profit and the one reflected in the books” eventually “attained unmanageable proportions” as the company grew. The fictitious cash balance grew to more than US$1 billion. “It was like riding a tiger,” Raju colorfully wrote, “not knowing how to get off without being eaten.”

While admitting that he engaged in very creative accounting, Raju insisted he did not personally benefit from the fraud, denying for instance that he had sold any of his shares in the company. I guess it is meant to be some consolation that among his sins Raju is not guilty of insider trading.

Apart from Raju, the party most on the hot seat is the company’s auditor, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, whose Indian unit gave Satyam’s financial reports a clean bill of health. The Satyam scandal is being called India’s Enron. It should probably also be called India’s Arthur Andersen as this seems to be another case in which an auditor was either oblivious to widespread accounting misconduct by one of its clients or complicit in it.

Some soul-searching is probably also in order for the many large U.S. corporations that have not hesitated to take jobs away from American workers and ship the work off to Indian companies such as Satyam. The revelation that much of the work has been going to a crooked company is all the more galling.

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/297

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

Public Ownership -- But No Public Control

Posted by Rob Weissman on October 21st, 2008

Originally posted Tuesday, October 14. 2008 -- It is an extraordinary time. On Friday, the Washington Post ran a front-page story titled, "The End of American Capitalism?" Today, the banner headline is, "U.S. Forces Nine Major Banks to Accept Partial Nationalization."

There's no question that this morning's announcement from the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) is remarkable.

It was also necessary.

Over the next several months, we're going to see a lot more moves like this. Government interventions in the economy that seemed unfathomable a few months ago are going to become the norm, as it quickly becomes apparent that, as Margaret Thatcher once said in a very different context, there is no alternative.

That's because the U.S. and global economic problems are deep and pervasive. The American worker may be strong, as John McCain would have it, but the "fundamentals" of the U.S. and world economy are not. The underlying problem is a deflating U.S. housing market that still has much more to go. And underlying that problem are the intertwined problems of U.S. consumer over-reliance on debt, national and global wealth inequality of historic proportions, and massive global trade imbalances.

Although it was enabled by deregulation, the financial meltdown merely reflects these more profound underlying problems. It is, one might say, "derivative."

Nonetheless, the financial crisis was -- and conceivably still might be -- by itself enough to crash the global economy.

Today, following the lead of the Great Britain, the United States has announced what has emerged as the consensus favored financial proposal among economists of diverse political ideologies. The United States will buy $250 billion in new shares in banks (the so-called "equity injection"). This is aimed at boosting confidence in the banks, and giving them new capital to loan. The new equity will enable them to loan roughly 10 times more than would the Treasury's earlier (and still developing) plan to buy up troubled assets. The FDIC will offer new insurance programs for bank small business and other bank deposits, to stem bank runs. The FDIC will provide new, temporary insurance for interbank loans, intended to overcome the crisis of confidence between banks. And, the Federal Reserve will if necessary purchase commercial paper from business -- the 3-month loans they use to finance day-to-day operations. This move is intended to overcome the unwillingness of money market funds and others to extend credit.

But while aggressive by the standards of two months ago, the most high-profile of these moves -- government acquisition of shares in the private banking system -- is a strange kind of "partial nationalization," if it should be called that at all.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson effectively compelled the leading U.S. banks to accept participation in the program. And, at first blush, he may have done an OK job of protecting taxpayer monetary interests. The U.S. government will buy preferred shares in the banks, paying a 5 percent dividend for the first three years, and 9 percent thereafter. The government also obtains warrants, giving it the right to purchase shares in the future, if the banks' share price increase.

But the Treasury proposal specifies that the government shares in the banks will be non-voting. And there appear to be only the most minimal requirements imposed on participating banks.

So, the government may be obtaining a modest ownership stake in the banks, but no control over their operations.

In keeping with the terms of the $700 billion bailout legislation, under which the bank share purchase plan is being carried out, the Treasury Department has announced guidelines for executive compensation for participating banks. These are laughable. The most important rule prohibits incentive compensation arrangements that "encourage unnecessary and excessive risks that threaten the value of the financial institution." Gosh, do we need to throw $250 billion at the banks to persuade executives not to adopt incentive schemes that threaten their own institutions?

The banks reportedly will not be able to increase dividends, but will be able to maintain them at current levels. Really? The banks are bleeding hundreds of billions of dollars -- with more to come -- and they are taking money out to pay shareholders? The banks are not obligated to lend with the money they are getting. The banks are not obligated to re-negotiate mortgage terms with borrowers -- even though a staggering one in six homeowners owe more than the value of their homes.

"The government's role will be limited and temporary," President Bush said in announcing today's package. "These measures are not intended to take over the free market, but to preserve it."

But it makes no sense to talk about the free market in such circumstances. And these measures are almost certain to be followed by more in the financial sector -- not to mention the rest of economy -- because the banks still have huge and growing losses for which they have not accounted.

If the U.S. and other governments are to take expanded roles in the world economy -- as they must, and will -- then the public must demand something more than efforts to preserve the current system. The current system brought on the financial meltdown and the worsening global recession. As the government intervenes in the economy on behalf of the public, it must reshape economic institutions to advance broad public objectives, not the parochial concerns of the Wall Street and corporate elite.

http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/editorsblog/index.php?/archives/99-Public-Ownership-But-No-Public-Control.html#extended

Robert Weissman is managing director of the Multinational Monitor.

Getting Wall Street Pay Reform Right

Posted by Robert Weissman on September 30th, 2008

There's mounting talk on Capitol Hill that a Wall Street bailout will include some limits on executive compensation, as well as contradictory reports about whether a deal on controlling executive pay has already been reached.

Four days ago, such a move seemed very unlikely. But the pushback from Congress -- from both Democrats and Republicans -- has been surprisingly robust, thanks in considerable part to a surge of outrage from the public.

Will restrictions on CEO pay just be a symbolic retribution, as some have charged?

The answer is, it depends.

Meaningful limits not just on CEO pay, but also on the Wall Street bonus culture, could significantly affect the way the financial sector does business. Some CEO pay proposals, by contrast, would extract a pound of flesh from some executives but have little impact on incentive structures.

There are at least five reasons why it is important to address executive compensation as part of the bailout legislation.

First, there should be some penalty for executives who led their companies -- and the global financial system -- to the brink of ruin. You shouldn't be rewarded for failure. And while reducing pay packages to seven digits may feel really nasty given Wall Street's culture of preposterous excess, in the real world, a couple million bucks is still a lot of money to make in a year.

Second, if the public is going to subsidize Wall Street to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, the point is to keep the financial system going -- not to keep Wall Street going the way it was. Funneling public funds for exorbitant executive compensation would be a criminal appropriation of public funds.

Third, the Wall Street salary structure has helped set the standard for CEO pay across the economy, and helped establish a culture where executives consider outlandish pay packages the norm. This culture, in turn, has contributed to staggering wealth and income inequality, at great cost to the nation. We need, it might be said, an end to the culture of hyper-wealth.

Fourth, as Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research says, the bailout package must be, to some extent, "punitive." If the financial firms and their executives do not have to give something up for the bailout, then there's no disincentive to engage in unreasonably risky behavior in the future. This is what is meant by "moral hazard."

If Wall Street says the financial system is on the brink of collapse, and the government must step in with what may be the biggest taxpayer bailout in history, says Baker, then Wall Street leaders have to show they mean it. If they are not willing to cut their pay for a few years to a couple of million dollars an annum, how serious do they really think the problem is?

Finally, and most importantly, financial sector compensation systems need to be changed so they don't incentivize risky, short-term behavior.

There are two ways to think about how the financial sector let itself develop such a huge exposure to a transparently bubble housing market. One is that the financial wizards actually believed all the hype they were spreading. They believed new financial instruments eliminated risk, or spread it so effectively that downside risks were minimal; and they believed the idea that something had fundamentally changed in the housing market, and skyrocketing home prices would never return to earth.

Another way to think about it is: Wall Street players knew they were speculating in a bubble economy. But the riches to be made while the bubble was growing were extraordinary. No one could know for sure when the bubble would pop. And Wall Street bonuses are paid on a yearly basis. If your firm does well, and you did well for the firm, you get an extravagant bonus. This is not an extra few thousand dollars to buy fancy Christmas gifts. Wall Street bonuses can be 10 or 20 times base salary, and commonly represent as much as four fifths of employees' pay. In this context, it makes sense to take huge risks. The payoffs from benefiting from a bubble are dramatic, and there's no reward for staying out.

Both of these explanations may be true to some degree, but the compensation incentives explanation is almost certainly a significant part of the story.

Different ideas about how to limit executive pay would address the multiple rationales for compensation reforms to varying degrees.

A two-year cap on executive salaries would help achieve the first four objectives, but by itself wouldn't get to the crucial issue of incentives.

One idea in particular to be wary of is "say on pay" proposals, which would afford shareholders the right to a non-binding vote on CEO pay compensation packages. These proposals would go some way to address the disconnect between executive and shareholder interests, reducing the ability of top executives to rely on crony boards of directors and conflicted compensation consultants to implement outrageous pay packages. But while they might increase executive accountability to shareholders, they wouldn't direct executives away from market-driven short-term decision making. Shareholders tend to be forgiving of outlandish salaries so long as they are making money, too, and -- worse -- they actually tend to have more of a short-term mentality than the executives. So "say on pay" is not a good way to address the multiple executive compensation-related goals that should be met in the bailout legislation.

The ideal provisions on executive compensation would set tough limits on top pay, but would also insist on long-term changes in the bonus culture for executives and traders. Not only should bonuses be more modest, they should be linked to long-term, not year-long, performance. That would completely change the incentive to knowingly participate in a financial bubble (or, more generously, take on excessive risk), because you would know that the eventual popping of the bubble would wipe out your bonus.

Four days ago, forcing Wall Street to change its incentive structure seemed pie in the sky. Today, thanks to the public uproar, it seems eminently achievable -- if Members of Congress seize the opportunity.

http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/editorsblog/index.php?/archives/98-Getting-Wall-Street-Pay-Reform-Right.html

Robert Weissman is managing director of the Multinational Monitor.

The Dangers in Outsourcing the Bailout

Posted by Philip Mattera on September 30th, 2008

Originally posted at Dirt Digger's Digest on September 23, 2008 -- A number of leading Democrats and Republicans expressed strong misgivings last Monday about the autocratic plan for bailing out Wall Street that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wants to ram through Congress. It remains to be seen whether this is mere posturing or serious opposition.

Critics are focusing on vital issues such as cost and oversight, but a lot less attention is being paid to the mechanics of Paulson’s proposal – specifically, the question of who would carry out the federal government’s purchase of $700 billion in “troubled” securities from banks. As I noted in my post a week ago Sunday, the draft legislation circulated over the weekend includes a provision that seems to allow Treasury to contract out the process. Treasury then put out a fact sheet making it quite clear it intends to use private asset managers to manage and dispose of the assets it acquires, though the document does not specifically allude to the purchasing. Paulson himself referred to the use of “professional asset managers” during an appearance on one of the Sunday morning talk shows.

It amazes me that there is not more outrage over this aspect of the plan. Paulson seems to be leaving open the possibility that the same firms that are being bailed out could be hired to run the bailout. This would mean that institutions receiving a monumental giveaway of taxpayer money could turn around and earn yet more by acting as the government’s brokers. Aside from the unseemliness of this arrangement, this would be an egregious conflict of interest.

The alternative proposal floated by Senator Chris Dodd, which accepts Paulson’s language on contracting out, includes a section on conflict of interest. But rather than stating what the rules should be, the draft leaves it up to the Treasury Secretary to do so. There were reports last Monday night that Treasury would go along with the inclusion of a conflict-of-interest provision.

Paulson’s approach to the Big Bailout, particularly the insistence that there be no punitive measures for the banks, shows he is not the right party to oversee ethical issues. Paulson apparently can’t help himself. He still has the mindset of a man who spent more than 30 years working on Wall Street, at Goldman Sachs. He is a living example of the perils of the reverse revolving door: the appointment of a private-sector figure to a key policymaking position affecting his or her former industry.

The weak conflict-of-interest provisions Paulson is likely to impose would probably not address the inherent contradiction in having for-profit money managers running the bailout program. Even if Treasury chooses managers whose firms are not getting bailed out, there is still the danger that they will use their inside knowledge to benefit their non-governmental clients (and themselves) or will collude with buyers to the detriment of the public.

A Reuters story of last Monday reported that a leading contender for a federal money management role is Laurence Fink and his firm BlackRock, which was involved in managing the portfolio of Bear Stearns when that firm was sold to JPMorgan Chase as part of an earlier bailout. Last March, BlackRock, which is 49-percent owned by Merrill Lynch (now part of Bank of America), announced it was forming a venture to “acquire and restructure distressed residential mortgage loans.” Will Paulson see that as a conflict of interest – or more likely as a credential?

Letting financial firms that have profited from the mortgage crisis manage the bailout gives the impression that we are permanently in the grip of Big Money. To Paulson’s way of thinking, that’s not a problem, but it could make a bad plan much worse.

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/200

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

The Financial Re-Regulatory Agenda

Posted by Robert Weissman on September 23rd, 2008

As the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department careen from one financial meltdown to another, desperately trying to hold together the financial system -- and with it, the U.S. and global economy -- there are few voices denying that Wall Street has suffered from "excesses" over the past several years.

The current crisis is the culmination of a quarter century's deregulation. Even as the Fed and Treasury scramble to contain the damage, there must be a simultaneous effort to reconstruct a regulatory system to prevent future disasters.

There is more urgency to such an effort than immediately apparent. If the Fed and Treasury succeed in controlling the situation and avoiding a collapse of the global financial system, then it is a near certainty that Big Finance -- albeit a financial sector that will look very different than it appeared a year ago -- will rally itself to oppose new regulatory standards. And the longer the lag between the end (or tailing off) of the financial crisis and the imposition of new legislative and regulatory rules, the harder it will be to impose meaningful rules on the financial titans.

The hyper-complexity of the existing financial system makes it hard to get a handle on how to reform the financial sector. (And, by the way, beware of generic calls for "reform" -- for Wall Street itself taken up this banner over the past couple years. For the financial mavens, "reform" still means removing the few regulatory and legal requirements they currently face.)

But the complexity of the system also itself suggests the most important reform efforts: require better disclosure about what's going on, make it harder to engage in complicated transactions, prohibit some financial innovations altogether, and require that financial institutions properly fulfill their core responsibilities of providing credit to individuals and communities.

(For more detailed discussion of these issues -- all in plain, easy-to-understand language, see these comments from Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO, The American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner, author of the The Squandering of America and Obama's Challenge, and Richard Bookstaber, author of A Demon of Our Own Design: Markets, Hedge Funds, and the Perils of Financial Innovation.)

Here are a dozen steps to restrain and redirect Wall Street and Big Finance:

1. Expand the scope of financial regulation. Investment banks and hedge funds have been able to escape the minimal regulatory standards imposed on other financial institutions. Especially with the government safety net -- including access to Federal Reserve funds -- extended beyond the traditional banking sector, this regulatory black hole must be eliminated.

2. Impose much more robust standards for disclosure and transparency. Hedge funds, investment banks and the off-the-books affiliates of traditional banks have engaged in complicated and intertwined transactions, such that no one can track who owes what, to whom. Without this transparency, it is impossible to understand what is going on, and where intervention is necessary before things spin out of control.

3. Prohibit off-the-books transactions. What's the purpose of accounting standards, or banking controls, if you can evade them by simply by creating off-the-books entities?

4. Impose regulatory standards to limit the use of leverage (borrowed money) in investments. High flyers like leveraged investments because they offer the possibility of very high returns. But they also enable extremely risky investments -- since they can vastly exceed an investor's actual assets -- that can threaten not just the investor but, if replicated sufficiently, the entire financial system.

5. Prohibit entire categories of exotic new financial instruments. So-called financial "innovation" has vastly outstripped the ability of regulators or even market participants to track what is going on, let alone control it. Internal company controls routinely fail to take into account the possibility of overall system failure -- i.e., that other firms will suffer the same worst case scenario -- and thus do not recognize the extent of the risks inherent in new instruments.

6. Subject commodities trading to much more extensive regulation. Commodities trading has become progressively deregulated. As speculators have flooded into the commodities markets, the trading markets have become increasingly divorced from the movement of actual commodities, and from their proper role in helping farmers and other commodities producers hedge against future price fluctuations.

7. Tax rules should be changed so as to remove the benefits to corporate reliance on debt. "Payments on corporate debt are tax deductible, whereas payments to equity are not," explains Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO. "This means that, once you take the tax effect into account, any given company can support much more debt than it can equity." This tax arrangement has fueled the growth of private equity firms that rely on borrowed money to buy corporations. Many are now going bankrupt.

8. Impose a financial transactions tax. A small financial transactions tax would curb the turbulence in the markets, and, generally, slow things down. It would give real-economy businesses more space to operate without worrying about how today's decisions will affect their stock price tomorrow, or the next hour. And it would be a steeply progressive tax that could raise substantial sums for useful public purposes.

9. Impose restraints on executive and top-level compensation. The top pay for financial impresarios is more than obscene. Executive pay and bonus schedules tied to short-term performance played an important role in driving the worst abuses on Wall Street.

10. Revive competition policy. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, separating traditional banks from investment banks, was the culmination of a progressive deregulation of the banking sector. In the current environment, banks are gobbling up the investment banks. But this arrangement is paving the way for future problems. When the investment banks return to high-risk activity at scale (and over time they will, unless prohibited by regulators), they will directly endanger the banks of which they are a part. Meanwhile, further financial conglomeration worsens the "too big to fail" problem -- with the possible failure of the largest institutions viewed as too dangerous to the financial system to be tolerated -- that Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson cannot now avoid despite his best efforts. In this time of crisis, it may not be obvious how to respect and extend competition principles. But it is a safe bet that concentration and conglomeration will pose new problems in the future.

11. Adopt a financial consumer protection agenda that cracks down on abusive lending practices. Macroeconomic conditions made banks interested in predatory subprime loans, but it was regulatory failures that permitted them to occur. And it's not just mortgage and home equity loans. Credit card and student loan companies have engaged in very similar practices -- pushing unsustainable debt on unreasonable terms, with crushing effect on individuals, and ticking timebomb effects on lenders.

12. Support governmental, nonprofit, and community institutions to provide basic financial services. The effective governmental takeover of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and AIG means the U.S. government is going to have a massive, direct stake in the global financial system for some time to come. What needs to be emphasized as a policy measure, though, is a back-to-basics approach. There is a role for the government in helping families get mortgages on reasonable terms, and it should make sure Fannie and Freddie, and other agencies, serve this function. Government student loan services offer a much better deal than private lender alternatives. Credit unions can deliver the basic banking services that people need, but they need back-up institutional support to spread and flourish.

What is needed, in short, is to reverse the financial deregulatory wave of the last quarter century. As Big Finance mutated and escaped from the modest public controls to which it had been subjected, it demanded that the economy serve the financial sector. Now it's time to make sure the equation is reversed.

http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/editorsblog/

Robert Weissman is managing director of the Multinational Monitor.



Paulson Blueprint Promotes Insurance Industry Shell Game

Posted by Philip Mattera on April 5th, 2008


There’s something peculiar in the report on financial market regulation issued March 31 by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. The plan, touted by some as a bold expansion of federal control over capital markets and dismissed by others as a mere rearranging of the deck chairs on the financial Titanic, includes an incongruous section on the insurance industry.

While insurance is a financial service, it hasn’t been at the center of the implosion of the housing market or (aside from the bond insurance crisis) linked to the instability on Wall Street. The Paulson plan, nonetheless, provides a resounding endorsement of a “reform” that key players in the insurance industry have been seeking for at least 15 years—allowing large national carriers to do an end run around the current state-based insurance regulatory system. Such carriers would be permitted to adopt an “optional federal charter” and thereby put themselves under the supervision of a federal regulatory agency that does not yet exist.

Big Insurance has not sought federal oversight because it wants more regulation. After all, this is the industry that pioneered offshoring when some carriers moved their official headquarters to tax havens such as Bermuda. While it is true that many state regulators have been toothless watchdogs, other states have been aggressive in protecting the interests of policy holders and the public.

In fact, the Paulson proposal comes just a couple of weeks after insurers were celebrating the downfall of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer in a prostitution scandal. During his time as New York’s attorney general, Spitzer pursued major insurance companies such as Marsh & McLennan and American International Group for offenses such as bid rigging. Marsh ended up settling for $850 million in 2005, and AIG paid a whopping $1.6 billion the following year. While it is true that Spitzer went after the industry as a prosecutor rather than a regulator, he did so in the overall context of state oversight.

The insurance industry swears that it supports the optional federal charter in the name of modernization (as does the Paulson report), but it is significant that the reform has been supported by groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the American Enterprise Institute that are no friends of regulation (some Democrats in Congress are also in favor). When word of Paulson’s insurance proposal leaked out over the weekend, the American Insurance Association rushed out a press release hailing it, saying that the optional federal charter “will be more efficient, effective and rational given the ‘increasing tension’ a state-based regulatory system creates.”

Throughout its history, the insurance industry has avoided “tension” by trying to minimize government interference in its affairs. In 1945 the industry supported the McCarran-Ferguson Act, which responded to a Supreme Court ruling by affirming the regulatory role of the states. In recent times, the industry has wanted the option of federal oversight on the assumption that it would be less onerous. I’ll let the legal scholars decide whether state or federal regulation is inherently more appropriate. The issue is whether an industry not known for generous treatment of its customers (think of Katrina victims denied coverage) is going to be subjected to some strict oversight somewhere.

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/23

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

Global Accounting Standards

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on October 18th, 2007

The world of global accounting is girding up for a trans-Atlantic battle. Last month L'Oreal, Royal Dutch Shell, and Unilever, all gigantic companies, asked the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to allow them to choose which accounting standards they want to use. (The companies belong to the European Association of Listed Companies, who delivered the letter.)

The reason is that U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) is 25,000 pages long (which are based on very specific rules) and they don't like it. By comparison, the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), is just one tenth the length (which are based on principles which can be more open to interpretation).

There are other good arguments for using the global rules - there are now more than 100 countries either using or adopting international financial reporting standards, or IFRS, including the members of the European Union, China, India and Canada.

But L'Oreal, Royal Dutch Shell, and Unilever, don't just want the easier rules, they want to choose which version of IFRS they can use - a European Commission version that allows them to choose how they value certain assets.

Financial Week, an industry magazine, in New York is up in arms.

" Imagine signing a contract and not having to hold up your end of the bargain. Or being able to say "I do" at the altar when you might sometimes mean "I don't." Having it both ways in such matters sure provides flexibility, to put it charitably. Yet that's exactly what a group of European companies want when it comes to accounting standards for global companies tapping the U.S. capital markets," editors of Financial Week, wrote earlier this month.   (see "Converging on Chaos")

Another industry magazine, Accountancy Age in London, has also been critical of companies that use the more flexible European Commission rules. A couple of years ago, Taking Stock, the magazine's blog, asked Rudy Markham, the finance director of Unilver, why he was using flexible IFRS rules in reporting for the company, but he refused to comment, leading them to poke fun at him:

" TS understands that the biggest accounting change for a generation can be a complete turn off. We assume the numbers involved didn't mean that much to Markham anyway - a billion off the top line there, a billion on the bottom line there. He did, after all, personally take home just over £1.1 million last year. Money, money, money, as Abba used to sing... "

The good news is that the U.S. which has long insisted on using its own complex rules, may be open to using the global standard. SEC chairman Christopher Cox has agreed to allow U.S. companies to use the IFRS but has cautioned against local versions of the rules, like the European Union version. Financial Accounting Standards Board chairman Robert Herz has also said that this is a bad idea.

Today the International Accounting Standard Board, which drew up the IFRS, appointed a new chairman, Gerrit Zalm, a former Dutch finance minister, who has already announced that he would try to prevent local variations of the global rules: "One of my first priorities will be no new carve-outs in Europe and trying to get rid of the existing carve-out, because if Europe is doing this, other countries could get the same inspiration and then all the advantages of the one programme fade away," Zalm told the Financial Times. "The fragmentation of standards is costly for the enterprise sector and it doesn't help in creating clarity for investors."

We look forward to his efforts to create a single global standard. Stronger global rules are always welcome, especially if they are easier to follow, but weaker ones that cater to nationalistic interests are not.

2008 Public Eye Awards

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on September 27th, 2007

Which are the world's worst multinationals? Which are the best? These are questions CorpWatch gets asked practically everyday. Just to clarify, we do not rank good corporations or endorse any of them, for several reasons: today's idols sometimes turn out to have feet of clay. And we see our job as investigators of malfeasance. For those who want to do the opposite, there are plenty of groups out there who promote "socially responsible" businesses, and we encourage you to look them up. (We don't have a list of these groups for the aforementioned reasons, but we do have a guide to the principles that we believe good businesses should follow -- and we leave it to you, our gentle readers, to apply this criteria to evaluate corporations.)

(We strongly believe that it is very important not to take corporate claims at face value, because sometimes these companies are not telling the whole truth. This is known as "greenwash" and to see a history of this phenomenon, we urge you to check out our short history of the subject, in this handy guide written by Josh Karliner, the founder of CorpWatch.)

Today, there is an opportunity for you to get your favorite (or maybe, least favorite) multinational nominated for an award for corporate malfeasance -- the Berne Declaration and Friends of the Earth Switzerland are holding its fourth annual award ceremony in January 2008, to coincide with the annual gathering of Fortune 500 chieftains in Davos. You can take part in this contest by clicking here

(Previous winners from 2005, 2006 and 2007 are available online.)

If you have questions, contact Oliver Classen who is coordinating the awards ceremony.

In case you are wondering, how do you find out whether companies are telling the truth? Well, here's a tip -- there's a group in the Netherlands that collects these reports: the Global Reporting Intitiative. You can even search their database to look up your favorite/least favorite company. GRI is about to launch a tool on October 1st, 2007 that will allow you to rank these reports -- if you are so inclined.

Read the reports, search our website and that of Multinational Monitor, and then contact groups on the ground to see if these companies are telling the truth or not.

Remember the deadline to nominate a company for the Public Eye on Davos award is September 30th, 2007!

Accounting for Errant Auditors

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on September 14th, 2007

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) brought charges against 69 accountants for failing to register with the Public Company Accounting Board (PCAB) earlier this week. This somewhat obscure action is the latest ripple in the wave of crackdowns that followed the Enron accounting scandals in 2001 -- to break up the all too cozy relationship between auditors and the multinationals that they are supposed to be policing.

Governments allow companies to close their financial books at the end of the fiscal year, if a qualified accountant has signed off on it. The problem is that both the companies and the auditors are private entities whose ultimate motive is to make a profit, so there is potential for one or both of the two not to report any cooking of the books, unless they know that a regulator might catch them and discipline them. And in the last two decades, as favored accountants have been rewarded with multi-million dollar non auditing consulting gigs (such as tax planning or management consulting), the worry was that they were looking the other way in order to win more business.

Following the Enron scandal, which showed that Arthur Andersen, the company's auditor, had failed in its public duty, the U.S. Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley law in 2002 that replaced the accounting industry's own regulators with the Public Company Accounting Board with subpoena and disciplinary powers. Auditors are supposed to register with the board, but clearly not everyone took this seriously.

The SEC's enforcement director, Linda Chatman Thomsen, said that Thursday's action showed that the agency "is committed to ensuring compliance with the regulatory framework Congress established for auditors of public companies." A total of 50 of the errant accountants settled the charges with the federal agency the very same day.

This action is an important warning shot across the bows to let the auditors know that the SEC is checking up on them. But the jury is still out as to whether the SEC will go one step further and prosecute auditors who fail to report companies that are cooking their books.

In related news, a new study from the University of Nebraska suggests the whistle-blowers who report violations of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to agencies like the PCAB are not properly protected. The study looked at 700 cases where employees experienced retaliation from companies for whistle-blowing and found that a mere 3.6 per cent of cases were won by employees.

Richard Moberly, the study's author, argues the findings "challenge the hope of scholars and whistle-blower advocates that Sarbanes-Oxley's legal boundaries and burden of proof would often result in favourable outcomes for whistle-blowers."

The Financial Times reports that Louis Clark, president of the Government Accountability Project, a non-profit organization that lobbies for whistle-blowers, calls the law "a disaster." Jason Zuckerman, a lawyer at the Employment Law Group, a law firm that represents Sarbanes-Oxley whistle-blowers, says: "Part of the problem is that investigators misunderstand the relevant legal standards and believe that a complainant must have a smoking gun -- that is, unequivocal evidence proving retaliation."

The debate is still on over whether Sarbanes-Oxley is effective five years after the law was passed, although all appear to agree it was a step in the right direction. The proof of the pudding, they say, will be in the eating, so we eagerly await the day that SEC puts errant accountants behind bars.

Will the Pope tell Gucci and Prada to please pay their taxes? (Mick Jagger and Microsoft too!)

Posted by Tonya Hennessey on August 14th, 2007

In the next few days Pope Benedict plans to issue his second encyclical – the most authoritative statement a pope can issue – which apparently will focus on social and economic inequity in a globalized economy. In the statement, he is expected to denounce the use of tax havens as socially-unjust and immoral in cheating the greater well-being of society.

According to the Times (UK) newspaper, the statement may have been inspired by a recent request to the Vatican by Romano Prodi, the Italian prime minister, who urged church leaders to speak out on tax evasion.

Prodi’s government plans to seek taxes on undeclared earnings of €60 million ($84 million) by Valentino Rossi, the world motorcycling champion. How about also asking Gucci and Prada, some of Italy’s best known fashion designers, to move their tax headquarters back to home turf (from the tax-saving Netherlands, see below) and contribute to Italy’s budget deficit?

As global capital has progressively unbound itself from traditional national constraints, excessive off-shore wealth seemingly knows no shame, with wealthy individuals and corporations setting up front companies abroad to avoid paying taxes, supported by a new class of financial services specialists.

While Caribbean island resorts are often assumed to be the places where the wealthy stash their money away for retirement, some European countries (and I don't mean Lichtenstein) have also newly seen the light.

A favored location is the Netherlands -- check out the November 2006 report by Dutch-based SOMO, "The Netherlands: A Tax Haven?" The report is the first comprehensive analysis of the complex system of double tax treaties, tax incentives, the relationship with the Netherlands Antilles and the now 20,000 and counting mailbox corporations operating within the borders of this small European nation. According to SOMO, "examples of companies with tax-induced headquarters in the Netherlands are Volkswagen, IKEA, Gucci, Pirelli, Prada, Fujitsu-Siemens, Mittal Steel, and Trafigura."

The issue has been in the news, mostly because big name musical artists (like Bono and Mick Jagger) and famous athletes (think David Beckham) have also been getting in on the act. When it comes to evading taxes on lucrative licensing and royalties, the Netherlands is fast emerging as the hip tax haven of choice because Holland levies no tax on earnings royalties.

In an article titled “Gimme Tax Shelter”, the New York Times reported on this in February 2007 as newly public documentation surrounding the assets and wealth-transfer plans of the Rolling Stones demonstrated that the wily rockers have paid a mere 1.5% (as opposed to the British tax rate of 40%), or $7.2. million, on $450 million in earnings routed through the land of tulips with the help of their company Promogroup.

"The Caribbeans are thinking about trading profits, not royalties, so the smaller European countries like Holland have had to be creative, tax-wise,'' David Pullman, an investment banker in New York who caters to entertainers and athletes told the New York Times. ''They are going for the high-end stuff and don't want to be seen as shady like some Caribbean haven.''

More scandalous was the 2006 revelation that super-rockers U2 had transferred their song-publishing catalog from Ireland to Holland's Promogroup, in order to avoid a change in Irish tax law introducing taxes on royalties earned in excess of 250,000 Euros per year. Much ado was made of Bono's unwillingness to pony up his share of the tax obligation in service of the global debt relief and poverty eradication for which he so famously advocates.

Another European country that has figured they can make money out of tax evasion is Ireland -- whose “Celtic Tiger” growth is largely the product of charming huge corporations like Dell, Google, Microsoft and Sun Systems to move much of their intellectual property patents over to subsidiaries in the land of Eire -- where the corporate tax rate is 12.5%, but no taxes are charged on royalties.

Microsoft has been a major beneficiary of this scheme for the last four or so years -- it slashed billions in tax receipts to the U.S. Treasury -- by setting up subsidiaries Round Island One and Flat Island Company in Dublin. Recently Microsoft took things a step further by re-registering the two patent-holding entities as unlimited liability companies which have no obligation to file their accounts publicly.

Indeed, the Sunday Independent (Ireland) reports that Ireland was the most profitable location for U.S. multinationals between 1998-2002, during which the “the profits of US companies with Irish facilities doubled.”

The Irish law exempting patent income from taxes also provides a sweet loophole for corporate executive pay. In November 2005 it was reported that Dell Ireland’s top executives were reaping the fruits of sumptuous pay, and saving the company taxes: between them the senior management shared nearly $3.8 million in tax-free dividends since 2003.

These corporate tax breaks have earned Ireland the distinction of being hailed “the world’s 7th freest economy” in 2007 by the conservative, DC-based Heritage Foundation, which says that “Ireland’s economy is 81.3 percent free.”

Most of this tax evasion, is sadly, quite legal. But ordinary citizens around the world who think that Microsoft and Mick Jagger should pay taxes, can take heart from the fact that some members of the global elite have been punished -- take the recent conviction of media mogul Conrad Black of Hollinger International. In July, Canadian and U.S. press reported on the lawsuits, corporate and civil, that are following his conviction for obstruction of justice and mail fraud, seeking remuneration from assets, including purported millions stashed in the Caribbean:

…"Not satisfied with receiving $20 to $40 million a year in excessive management fees, Black and the Ravelston insiders then directed significant portions of those fees to Moffat Management and Black-Amiel Management, which were empty shell companies registered in Barbados," a special report from Hollinger’s board stated.

"Even though these entities did nothing to earn fees, and did not have either employees or real operations, paying management fees to them on the pretense that they performed services allowed the recipients the prospect of transforming a portion of the enormous management fees that would otherwise most likely have been taxable in Canada (where the payments were received), or possibly the U.S. (where services were largely performed), into dividends received in Barbados (where nothing occurred)," the report stated.

NOTE: For more good examples of what tax journalist Lucy Komisar calls the “corporate bag of tricks called profit laundering,” check out the Tax Justice Network, and the Komisar Scoop -- who just revealed where did Rupert Murdoch get $5 billion to buy up the Wall St. Journal?  (Answer: A collection of 800 offshore companies that helped him cut corporate taxes to 6%!)

Iraq Wounded Fight for Insurance Coverage

Posted by David Phinney on July 12th, 2006

CBS Evening News and ABC Nightline are both working stories about wounded civilian contractors fighting for insurance coverage from their employers.

It's a very rich story. The Pentagon's privatizing of military support services may or may not save money, but it certainly does privatize the human toll of war.

Civilians are coming home by the thousands with injuries sustained in Iraq. Whenever the Pentagon and the news media report US casualties -- the 500 dead (or more) working under US contractors are ignored.

The story is also a nightmare for many civilians serving in Iraq. A good number of them went to Iraq because they were making good money -- and, as the president told them, "major combat is over."

Thousands are suffering from battle fatigue -- once known as soldier's heart and now even more widely known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Veterans struggled with the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs for years to get the acknowledgement and support for the debilitating condition. PTSD is one reason for the huge homeless problem among Vietnam vets.

Now civilian contractors are fighting the same battle -- not to mention the struggle to get coverage and disability benefits for physical injury.

(The first story to tackle the issue of civilians fighting for their insurance payments, Adding Insult to Injury, appeared under my byline. Just one of many stories framed by me that set the tone for major news organizations to follow. Anytime you guys want to send a check or share some credit, please do.)

My understanding is that both CBS and ABC are relying heavily on two fabulously strong sources for their insurance angles: Jan Crowder and Houston attorney Gary Pitts.

Jana runs several Web sites to help support contractors working in Iraq and their families, most notably Contractors in Iraq. Gary Pitts represents dozens of clients suing companies for their coverage. Jana, me and CorpWatch regularly refer potential clients to him.

While ABC and CBS will undoubtedly focus on KBR truck drivers (some riveting amateur video of insurgent attacks shot by truckers is available -- and in the hands of CBS), there are plenty of other companies in the same pickle, including Titan, which provides translators to the Army in Iraq. The San Diego Union ran an excellent series on the issue.

Mine Tragedy Spun as Profit Opportunity

Posted by CorpWatch on January 11th, 2006

Spectacular. Bad-boy investment celebrity Jim Cramer, host of CNBC's "Mad Money with Jim Cramer," actually recommended today investing in "mine-safety" stocks. Not because it is important for us as a country to pick up the slack left by a "paper tiger" federal mine safety agency, but because there could be lots of dough in it.

According to the blog Crooks and Liars, Cramer actually said ""we're not partisan here... we're just looking to make money, and the Bush Administration has been negligent." And why on earth not cash in?

There is simply something obscene about the very suggestion.

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