Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Ten Worst Corporations

AIG: Money for Nothing. OK, not for nothing, but doesn't that describe half the corporations around the world? I guess AIG takes the grand prize in this category.

Cargill: Food Profiteers

Chevron: “We can’t let little countries screw around with big companies”

CNPC: Fueling violence in Darfur.

Constellation Energy: Nuclear Operators

Dole: The Sour Taste of Pineapple

General Electric: Creative Accounting

Imperial Sugar (Is there any question why this is the world's worst corporation with a name like that?): Other than that, 14 dead.

Philip Morris International: Unshackled

Roche: Saving Lives is Not Our Business

Multinational Monitor’s annual list of the 10 Worst Corporations of the year.

In the 20 years that we’ve published our annual list, we’ve covered corporate villains, scoundrels, criminals and miscreants. We’ve reported on some really bad stuff — from Exxon’s Valdez spill to Union Carbide and Dow’s effort to avoid responsibility for the Bhopal disaster; from oil companies coddling dictators (including Chevron and CNPC, both profiled this year) to a bank (Riggs) providing financial services for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet; from oil and auto companies threatening the future of the planet by blocking efforts to address climate change to duplicitous tobacco companies marketing cigarettes around the world by associating their product with images of freedom, sports, youthful energy and good health.

But we’ve never had a year like 2008.

The financial crisis first gripping Wall Street and now spreading rapidly throughout the world is, in many ways, emblematic of the worst of the corporate-dominated political and economic system that we aim to expose with our annual 10 Worst list. Here is how.

Improper political influence: Corporations dominate the policy-making process, from city councils to global institutions like the World Trade Organization. Over the last 30 years, and especially in the last decade, Wall Street interests leveraged their political power to remove many of the regulations that had restricted their activities. There are at least a dozen separate and significant examples of this, including the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, which permitted the merger of banks and investment banks. In a form of corporate civil disobedience, Citibank and Travelers Group merged in 1998 — a move that was illegal at the time, but for which they were given a two-year forbearance — on the assumption that they would be able to force a change in the relevant law. They did, with the help of just-retired (at the time) Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who went on to an executive position at the newly created Citigroup.

Deregulation and non-enforcement: Non-enforcement of rules against predatory lending helped the housing bubble balloon. While some regulators had sought to exert authority over financial derivatives, they were stopped by finance-friendly figures in the Clinton administration and Congress — enabling the creation of the credit default swap market. Even Alan Greenspan concedes that that market — worth $55 trillion in what is called notional value — is imploding in significant part because it was not regulated.

Short-term thinking: It was obvious to anyone who cared to look at historical trends that the United States was experiencing a housing bubble. Many in the financial sector seemed to have convinced themselves that there was no bubble. But others must have been more clear-eyed. In any case, all the Wall Street players had an incentive not to pay attention to the bubble. They were making stratospheric annual bonuses based on annual results. Even if they were certain the bubble would pop sometime in the future, they had every incentive to keep making money on the upside.

Financialization: Profits in the financial sector were more than 35 percent of overall U.S. corporate profits in each year from 2005 to 2007, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Instead of serving the real economy, the financial sector was taking over the real economy.

Profit over social use: Relatedly, the corporate-driven economy was being driven by what could make a profit, rather than what would serve a social purpose. Although Wall Street hucksters offered elaborate rationalizations for why exotic financial derivatives, private equity takeovers of firms, securitization and other so-called financial innovations helped improve economic efficiency, by and large these financial schemes served no socially useful purpose.

Externalized costs: Worse, the financial schemes didn’t just create money for Wall Street movers and shakers and their investors. They made money at the expense of others. The costs of these schemes were foisted onto workers who lost jobs at firms gutted by private equity operators, unpayable loans acquired by homeowners who bought into a bubble market (often made worse by unconscionable lending terms), and now the public.

What is most revealing about the financial meltdown and economic crisis, however, is that it illustrates that corporations — if left to their own worst instincts — will destroy themselves and the system that nurtures them. It is rare that this lesson is so graphically illustrated. It is one the world must quickly learn, if we are to avoid the most serious existential threat we have yet faced: climate change.

Of course, the rest of the corporate sector was not on good behavior during 2008 either, and we do not want them to escape justified scrutiny. In keeping with our tradition of highlighting diverse forms of corporate wrongdoing, we include only one financial company on the 10 Worst list. Here, presented in alphabetical order, are the 10 Worst Corporations of 2008.

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