Foreign Corruption

Corruption Crack-Down

Governments around the globe step up efforts to wipe out corruption.
By: | October 15, 2013 • 7 min read

Around the world, social pressure against public corruption is resulting in huge demonstrations, investigations and legislation. And that is rebounding on multinationals that face their own pressure to keep business above board while trying to expand in countries where bribery is often necessary to get permits and permission.

A survey of CFOs and board members by Ernst & Young found that 95 percent of the respondents were “very” or “fairly” concerned about the potential liability resulting from fraud and corruption in Latin America — the area that offers the most concern.

Not far below were the Middle East and Africa, at 87 percent, and Central and Eastern Europe, at 84 percent.

While laws are almost universally clear — don’t do it — the risks are increasingly complex, as anti-corruption laws and their enforcement evolve both in the United States and overseas.

In the United States, investigators appear to be scouring industries that traditionally have not attracted notice, according to attorneys and experts in the field.

Retailers have been in the spotlight, for instance, ever since news surfaced in April 2012 of a probe into Wal-Mart. The retail giant is alleged to have paid bribes in Mexico to speed growth there.

Enforcement is intensifying in other countries as well, pushed along by public protests as well as by an anti-bribery convention overseen by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Forty countries, including Argentina, Russia and South Africa, have signed the OECD convention since it was drafted in 1997.

Today, more than 300 investigations are underway in 24 countries, according to Patrick Moulette, head of the OECD’s anti-corruption division. “It has not doubled from last year or the year before, but it’s 10 or 20 more every year, so maybe this is a positive sign,” said Moulette, who hopes greater attention will spur countries to crack down harder.

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Other nations, notably China, are dusting off their own anti-bribery laws, exposing U.S. companies to potentially costly legal action on new fronts.

“It’s very hard to find a country anywhere where bribery is legal,” said Brian Loughman, Americas leader for Fraud Investigation and Dispute Services with Ernst & Young. “The challenge is always, what’s the enforcement like.”

To top it off, foreign prosecutors today are more likely to share information with their U.S. counterparts. “The world is smaller for prosecutors, too,” Loughman said.

For decades, U.S. companies only had to worry about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, or FCPA, which bans bribery of public officials in other countries. American executives often complain they are disadvantaged by the statute, as it does not apply to businesses based outside the United States.

Enforcement eventually prompted stronger controls and tougher policies, but investigators remain aggressive, according to Michael Himmel, an attorney and chair of the litigation and white-collar criminal defense departments at the law firm of Lowenstein Sandler.

“More and more cases are being investigated, and prosecutors are tending to take harder lines,” said Himmel. Over the last five years, he said, investigators have asked companies to open up more of their operations to review. “That’s obviously going to be a greater expense,” he said.

Equal Opportunity Scrutiny

Investigators also seem to be eyeing new sectors, expanding beyond defense, energy and mining to include pharmaceuticals and retail.

It’s a costly occurrence for the probed companies. The ongoing probe into Wal-Mart so far has cost the company more than $150 million, according to company filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The SEC and the Department of Justice, which enforce the FCPA, do not explicitly target industries, said Timothy P. Peterson, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Murphy & McGonigle. But as investigators dig into one company’s operations, they may follow a trail to others in the same sector.

“The real danger for retailers is that when there are very large investigations, the government is going to start to get familiar with how that business works,” Peterson said. “They may, as they get more familiar with the business, decide they want to find more companies that operate in a similar way.”

It’s not just government investigators. Corporate rivals are another source of FCPA-related allegations, said Brett W. Johnson, a partner in the Phoenix office of law firm Snell & Wilmer. Companies may arouse suspicion if they are moving goods or opening stores more quickly than competitors, especially in countries where corruption is considered rife.

“The default is, ‘He’s paying somebody off,’ ” Johnson said.

For retailers, corruption risks extend throughout the supply chain, and they are compounded by the pressure to stock shelves in time to meet buyers’ needs. Bathing suits don’t sell well in November, at least in the northern hemisphere.

“Keeping the supply chain flowing is critical to a retailer, especially one that has any kind of seasonality,” said Randy Stephens, vice president of the Ethical Leadership Group of NAVEX Global Inc., a compliance technology firm based in Portland, Ore.

Foreign customs officials often recognize the time pressure — and the power it can give them to demand bribes, Stephens said.

“If you give them the sense that you’re going to participate in that scheme, at any level, you only open yourself up to more trouble, because you look like somebody who’s going to play that game,” Stephens said.

In addition to training employees and establishing clear policies, retailers need to examine internal incentives, Stephens said. If executives overseas are rewarded solely for growing revenue, opening more stores or hitting other bottom-line goals, they may overstep ethical boundaries.

Compensation should be tied, in part, to actions that avoid fines, penalties or stains on a company’s global reputation, Stephens said.

“You’ve got to be willing to let people make decisions that could negatively impact your supply chain, yet comply with the law.”

Another risk arises from the use of third-party agents, a requirement for doing business in some nations. When those agents pay bribes to expedite deals, the U.S. business is on the hook for any FCPA violations.

As a result, companies seeking overseas growth must know their foreign business partners and regularly audit their operations, as well as know the country’s laws and norms.

“You’ve got to be willing to let people make decisions that could negatively impact your supply chain, yet comply with the law.” —Randy Stephens, vice president, Ethical Leadership Group of NAVEX Global Inc.

What’s legal in one country may not be legal in another. And companies can no longer focus on the FCPA alone, attorneys said.

A Tangled Web of Compliance

The United Kingdom adopted a tough anti-bribery statute in 2011. And Brazil enacted a stringent new law this year, following public protests that coalesced around government corruption. In addition to increased penalties, the law allows companies to be found guilty of bribing public officials. Previously, only individuals could be found guilty of that crime.

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“Very few companies today can comply, or attempt to comply, with just one home jurisdiction,” said Michel Léonard, chief economist and senior vice president of Emerging Markets for Alliant. “It’s a bit like antitrust laws. These days, mergers need to be approved in the U.S. and Europe as well.”

Experts said U.S. companies should partner with local attorneys who can can train employees, navigate the nuances of a country’s laws, and react quickly to problems.

“You’re not going to have the same processes; you’re not going to have the same protections,” said Joe Martini, co-chair of the White-Collar Defense, Investigations and Corporate Compliance Practice Group at the law firm of Wiggin and Dana.

Given the potential costs of an investigation, specialized insurance coverage is the next step in corporate compliance, said Machua Millett, a senior vice president with Marsh USA Inc. The brokerage firm introduced a specialized product in 2011.

In the past, Millett said, companies sought coverage for FCPA-related expenses under D&O policies. But underwriters and carriers hesitated, due to the size of the potential exposure.

Cooperation with the government does not necessarily lessen the expense. Although Ralph Lauren Corp. voluntarily disclosed bribes made by a subsidiary in Argentina, it still faced a penalty of $882,000.

Companies should focus first on compliance, with insurance as a backstop, Millett said. “At the end of the day, you might be able to show that you acted well.”

Joel Berg is a freelance writer and adjunct writing teacher based in York, Pa. He has covered business and regulatory issues. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now an where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]