Governments and Value III: Bribery, Corruption and other "Dark" Costs
In this last post on the effects of government on valuations, I want to return to the value destructive effects that corruption, bribery and other "illegal" side-payments to government officials can have on value.
In many countries, business people know that to keep doing business, they have to grease palms and provide “gratuities” to the gatekeepers of officialdom. A spate of news stories in the last few weeks should alert us all to the reality that the problem is not only still prevalent but that companies everywhere are exposed to its costs.
- In a reminder to natural resource companies that the countries where these resources are most abundantly found are often also the ones with the most corrupt government officials, Cobalt International Energy, an energy company backed by , saw $900 million of its value wiped out, after revelations that three powerful Angolan officials held concealed interests in the company.
- India is the second-largest telecom market in the world, with hundreds of millions of subscribers. The regulatory uncertainty that has always bedeviled companies competing in the sector was augmented to by a tainted telecom auction in 2008, which resulted in the resignation and arrests of a cabinet minister. The saga played out in the Indian Supreme Court's recent ruling taking away licenses awarded to eight companies in that auction; the fact that six of these eight companies were foreign suggested a nativist spin to corruption. Put in blunter terms, the ruling seemed to suggest that bribery of Indians by other Indians was par for the course, but bribery by foreign nationals was an abomination.
- Finally, from the other great growth story in Asia, China, came the story of Bo Xilai, a prominent member of the party elite, and his family: his wife, who is accused of murdering a British businessman, and a son, Bo Guagua, who goes to the Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, drives a Ferrari and has the lifestyle of a top notch capitalist. While the story is filled with the kinds of details that tabloid newspapers love, the real story that the Chinese government wants to keep a lid on is that Bo is not alone among government officials, in accumulating wealth out of proportion to his "income" as a government official.
I am not an expert on corruption but here is what I see as the ingredients that allow it to flourish. First, for official gatekeepers to have power, you need gates: the more licenses, permissions or other official approvals you need to operate, the greater the potential for corruption. Second, it is a lot less risky being corrupt if you have political hegemony (whether it be of the dictatorial variety or one party rule), an ineffective legal system (making it impossible to challenge biased official acts) and an apathetic or controlled media (that either cannot or will not view corruption as a good news story). Third, the odds of corruption increase if the system is designed on the premise that corruption is the rule rather than the exception. Thus, setting the salaries of public employees at well below what the market would pay them, given their qualifications, on the assumption that they will augment these salaries with "side payments", will ensure that you will attract the "most corrupt" people into government and a continuation of the system.
|Least corrupt countries in the world||Most corrupt countries in the world|
|1. New Zealand||1. Somalia|
|2. Denmark||2. North Korea|
|3. Finland||3. Myanmar|
|4. Sweden||4. Afghanistan|
|5. Singapore||5. Uzbekistan|
|6. Norway||6. Turkmenistan|
|7. Netherlands||7. Sudan|
|8. Australia||8. Iraq|
|9. Switzerland||9. Haiti|
|10. Canada||10. Venezuela|
If you are valuing a company that operates in these dens of iniquity, how do you incorporate the costs of corruption into your value? Here are a three alternatives:
- Treat bribes as operating expenses: From a valuation perspective, it would be easiest to deal with bribes if they were out in the open and treated as a separate line item in the expenses. So, in your operating expense breakdown, you could have a line item titled "Bribes and payments to corrupt officials" with the expense associated with it. Perhaps, we can then assess firms on the efficiency of their bribery and treat it as a competitive advantage for companies that are exceptionally good at getting results for their money. Unfortunately, even in countries where corruption is endemic, it remains "under the surface" and unreported.
- Treat corruption as an implicit (and unreported) tax: In the more likely scenario, where corruption exists but is not explicitly reported, it may make sense to consider the expenses associated with it as an implicit tax levied by the government. The fact that this tax revenue goes to the government officials and not to the taxpayers is deplorable, but that makes little difference to the company paying it. While this idea may seem farfetched, PWC did exactly this in an "opacity index" that they computed for dozens of countries and converted into tax rates. In 2001, for instance, they estimated the added cost of operating in China was the equivalent of facing an effective tax rate of 46%. Unfortunately, this listing is almost a decade old and while the opacity index itself has been updated by others, the effective tax rates no longer seem to be computed by country.
- Increase the cost of capital to cover "government" partners: When corruption occurs at the highest levels, you can argue that as a private business owner, you have "corrupt government officials" as partners who provide no capital but get a share of the income. Consequently, you have to generate a higher return on your capital invested to cover the cash outflows to your implicit partners. You can find interesting attempts to quantify this effect here and here.
There are two complicating factors. The first is that the United States (among other countries) has laws on the books that forbid companies from paying bribes not only to US officials but to officials in other countries . As a consequence, the costs of bribery may be far greater than the actual expenditures incurred and include the penalties that these companies will be face, if the bribery is exposed. The second is that the "right connections in high places" in countries with extensive corruption is a significant competitive advantage in itself. Odious though we may find this proposition, the firms that understand how the system works (or who to pay and how much to pay to make it work) will generate excess returns and higher value than their more virtuous counterparts.