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The Corporate Smell Test

The Corporate Smell TestRemember the 70s and 80s Savings and Loan scandal? Untold billions of personal, private, and public funds went walkabout. The government ended up bailing out some of the victims, but very few of the perps got much of a comeuppance. Many are still prominent–no names, please. That seemed to set something of a precedent for the following decades-the ratio of risk to reward was so small for big money manipulation that it became a profession or two.

Most recently, enough people and governments have been hurt by the Enron collapse and a few others that “tough” regulations and reporting standards have been put (at least partially) in place. A few big boys are actually being prosecuted, even jailed, but there are many left to go, notably from MCI WorldCom. The problem is not so much the huge sums involved, it is “public confidence”. When distrust is so richly deserved, even the “I’m all right, Jack” public can start to get antsy. So often, the watchdogs are compromised or outright corrupt that people start assuming that all statements by executives and accountants about present or future income and assets are likely to be false and self-serving, deliberately designed to accomplish massive theft.

The stench of corruption clings and spreads across whole sectors and categories of people and professions. Accountants are descending to the status of “bought men”, like lawyers, who say what they are told to say as persuasively as possible. In an effort to salvage shreds of respectability, stock commentators and guest analysts on TV shows now close with “disclosure” statements about whether they own any of the stocks they have mentioned or recommended. But we will never be able to know in advance that anyone is clean and uncompromised; there’s just too much at stake. Clearly IT is not immune; money is money. How many of the dot-boom IPOs were flip-and-flee schemes?

Probably the heightened sensitivity to bad smells has had something to do with the response to the nVidia / FutureMark controversy, too. When the bias in press, public, and expert opinion is that corporate goals include obtaining maximum return for minimum real value to the consumer, nobody is going to take much on trust. It gets treated as “more blood in the water”, and no one gets a free pass.

The fifth estate, the press, is, according to Thomas Jefferson and others, the final and most important bastion of honesty and freedom. Its behavior in this case has been important but worrisome. There’s little doubt the press attention has made more of the penny-ante Martha Stuart case than of the massive MCI and other scandals, and the “headline of the day” approach hardly does justice to the issues and consequences. One almost gets the impression that TV and the papers want criminal charges and jail time for responsible individuals just because it makes for more sensational and grabby visuals.

I am personally more than half convinced that this has been one of the primary protections and defenses that corporate crooks have relied on over the decades and even centuries: the scams and fiddles are sufficiently complicated, distant, and abstract, that public outrage is rare and passes quickly. When the public does get excited, enforcement agencies throw up a bunch of new laws and regs for discussion, or even enact them, and promise that this will never happen again. Of course, after a while for consolidation and some creative corporate thinking, it does.

It’s come to the point that the sane attitude is to assume that where there’s a whiff, there’s rot. Do you want to see the world of investment as a huge Ponzi scheme in which you hope to get out before the pyramid collapses? If you and many others do, the flow of capital and cash in general will choke. So hold your nose, shoot the odd stinker, and carry on.

Author: Brian Hall


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