These are glorious days for US corporate crisis managers due to the “bad smell hanging over a number of powerful companies,” according to The Economist of April 6.
While the magazine says it’s tempting to blame bad luck, human error, negligence or criminality for corporate scandals, other factors are in play.
The rash of high-profile scandals include Boeing (claims it loaded its 737 Max planes with lousy software), Wells Fargo (fake accounts), Monsanto (California jury rules it failed to warn of cancer-causing agents in its weed killer), Equifax (personal data theft), Purdue Pharma (Oxycontin maker) and McKesson (opioid distributor).
And American companies are more scandal-plagued than their cousins "across the pond." The Economist reports the market value of US firms caught in scandal since 2016 is $1.5T, compared to less than $600B for European firms.
While US scandals earn headlines, trigger outrage on social media and calls for reforms in Congress, there is little financial cost for the companies involved.
So what’s up? American capitalism is simply out-of-kilter.
While American companies “test the boundaries of what is possible and permissible,” the traditional corporate restraining forces (regulation, competition and litigation) have been weakened.
The referees have left the playing field.
On regulation: The Federal Aviation Administration allows Boeing to inspect itself, while the Food & Drug Administration allows opioids to be sold to the masses.
"Criminal cases leading to jail terms for top executives are as rare as socialists at Goldman Sachs," observes The Economist. Class action lawyers complain financial penalties have shrunk to a pittance vis-à-vis the value of companies. A threat of a multi-billion-dollar settlement ‘doesn’t move the needle anymore,” said a lawyer.
As for competition, forget about it. Boeing rules the skies as Airbus lacks spare capacity. Social media giants like Facebook and Google pretty much stand alone. “Pesticides and herbicides, credit-checking, drug distribution and drug retailing have grown more concentrated, too,” notes the magazine.
The Economist hopes the rash of crises may prompt corporate soul-searching because if it doesn’t public confidence in capitalism may suffer another blow.
PR may have a major role to play in restoring the confidence in capitalism, but that won't happen until regulatory, legal and competitive corporate watchdogs learn how to bite once again.