Outrage of the Week: The Crumbling Pillars of Public Confidence

November 9, 2007

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Merck pays out nearly $5 billion to settle Vioxx claims, Yahoo incurs the wrath of legislators, and another poisoned child’s toy made in China is recalled. The growing credit market implosion threatens recession. These are the predictable consequences of the subprime leadership and ethics in our boardrooms and in our institutions of government over the past number of years.

The Outrage generally prefers to focus on a single event. This week, however, there was a common theme among several events. There was the Merck $4.85 billion settlement over its Vioxx debacle. Next, there was the appearance of Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee to answer questions about his company’s turning over information that led to the arrest and imprisonment of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist and political activist.

The week ended with revelations that yet another toy made in China contained toxic chemicals and with officials ordering that Aqua Dots, distributed in North America by Toronto-based Spin Master, recall more than four million units.

What these incidents share is a betrayal on the part of the companies and leaders who could have done better, but failed miserably in their ethical performance. Merck is one of the world’s leading drug companies, yet it continued to market this highly profitable product even after company officials were warned by their own medical researchers of serious problems.

The company pulled Vioxx off the market in 2004, citing increased cardiac risk. But, as the Wall Street Journal reported at the time, Merck had earlier indications of serious problems. A March 2000 internal email shows company research chief Edward Scolnick warning that cardiovascular events “are clearly there.” Still, Merck continued to deny any link between heart attacks and Vioxx.

Yahoo is a company founded and headed by a brilliant billionaire who one might have thought had enough money and youth to still have a social conscience. But doing business in a multi-billion consumer market headed by a corrupt authoritarian regime was too tempting to resist, it seems. And so it was that Yahoo became an adjunct of the Chinese secret police –spying and snitching on its customers and thereby poisoning a name and a brand that had become known world-wide for its sense of innovation and exploration of the limitless knowledge held in cyberspace.

We don’t know who is really behind this latest toxic threat to our children. And maybe that’s the real problem here. Distant manufacturers operating under opaque regulations and dubious enforcement, vague distributors, off-shore companies and the lure of huge profits all conspire to put health and safety way down the line and out of the mind of any responsible entity. These kinds of incidents have happened too often in recent months to be a mistake. They reflect a cultural and ethical deficit endemic to the way global business is being done with despotic regimes.

Among the factors that are causing a crumbling of the pillars of confidence, the subprime mortgage scandal also figures prominently. Here, once again, the too-clever-by-half characters who concocted these elaborate schemes and got paid a sultan’s treasure for their efforts have turned out to be not quite as clever as they wanted us to think. It is unlikely they will have to repay any of the stratospheric bonuses they were receiving while creating these artifices that, like the dot.com bubble and the Enron-era accounting shenanigans, foolishly attempted to defy the rules of basic economics and common sense as only those infused with the curse of hubris will do.

And the figures touted for their wisdom and vigilance who are supposed to be monitoring the actions of these other bright fellows whom history has shown to have gotten carried away with themselves on more than a few occasions, seem not to have been as wise and as vigilant as advertised. Having underestimated the effects of these toxic credit toys before with assurances that the subprime mortgage defaults would not intrude into the broader economy, one wonders if they are any better prepared for the wider economic crisis that seems to be looming.

There will be many casualties before the full extent of the great unfolding 21st century credit debacle is over. There have already been a few CEOs who are taking a very well paid early retirement. More will follow. Some companies will not survive. The stock market will continue to experience unsettling jolts, like its more than 600 point drop this week. But, unfortunately, it will be the ordinary consumer —not the central bankers or the treasury luminaries or the credit agency raters or the boardroom directors who permitted this fiasco and were blind to its early signs— who will suffer most from the turmoil and set backs that lie ahead. So too will the idea that we can look to the icons at the top to do the right thing because their wealth and privilege bestow on them a higher level of accountability to do the right thing. That moral touchstone seems to have vanished, along with the primacy of the common stakeholder —something that has been a recurring theme at Finlay ON Governance.

These events have been the predictable consequence of what has amounted to decidedly subprime leadership and ethics in our boardrooms and in our institutions of government over the past number of years. They are a harbinger of the further crumbling of the pillars of public confidence and trust, which make them our choice for the Outrage of the Week.

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