Monday, April 23, 2012

How Many Bribes

How many bribes can a company make before it is disqualified from operating a bank?

That was one of the questions to come out of the big business news story of the weekend, and to me, the most fascinating aspect of the story is the mere fact that people are discussing this question. To me, this is a bigger deal than the possible alignment of an American company with the criminal element in a foreign country, in opposition to the legitimate governmental authority there.

For most of my life it has been a given that no degree of malfeasance would disqualify a financial company from continuing to operate. When a bank is caught paying bribes or participating in the financial side of drug running, one or two executives may have to take the fall and be banned from banking for life, and maybe even go to jail for a year, but the bank itself will carry on, essentially unaffected, its governance, licenses, and market positioning never in any serious doubt.

But maybe not this time, or at least, it’s become a matter of discussion. And if there can be a public discussion, then you can no longer take for granted that big businesses that want to operate outside the law will be met with a nod and a wink. Maybe they will, or maybe they will be met with quite a different reaction.