Harm / Trust Issues

The potential for loss of trust and other types of harm can have a powerful bearing on the analysis and resolution of various COI issues, as will be examined here.

Conflicts of interest, compliance programs and “magical thinking”

An article earlier this week in the New York Times takes on the issue of “Doctors’ Magical Thinking about Conflicts of Interest.”  The piece was prompted by a just-published study  which examined “the voting behavior and financial interests of almost 1,400 F.D.A. advisory committee members who took part in decisions for the Center for Drug and Evaluation Research from 1997 to 2011” and found a powerful correlation between a committee member having a  financial interest (e.g., a consulting relationship or ownership interest ) in a drug company whose product was up for review and the member’s voting in favor of the company – at least in circumstances where the member did not also have interests in the company’s competitors.

Of course, this is hardly a surprise, and the Times piece also recounts the findings of earlier studies showing strong correlations between financial connections (e.g., receiving gifts, entertainment or  travel from a pharma company) and professional decision making (e.g., prescribing that company’s drug). Nonetheless, some physicians “believe that they should be responsible for regulating themselves.”

However, such self regulation can’t work, the article notes,  because “our thinking about conflicts of interest isn’t always rational. A study of radiation oncologists  found that only 5 percent thought that they might be affected by gifts. But a third of them thought that other radiation oncologists would be affected.  Another study asked medical residents similar questions. More than 60 percent of them said that gifts could not influence their behavior; only 16 percent believed that other residents could remain uninfluenced. This ‘magical thinking’ that somehow we, ourselves, are immune to what we are sure will influence others is why conflict of interest regulations exist in the first place. We simply cannot be accurate judges of what’s affecting us.”

While the findings of these and similar studies are, of course, most relevant to conflicts involving doctors and life science companies, there is a broader learning here which, I think, is vitally important to C&E programs generally.  That is, they help to show that “we are not as ethical as we think” – a condition hardly limited to the field of medicine or to conflicts of interest, as has been discussed in various prior postings on this blog.

One of the overarching implications of this body of knowledge is that we humans need structures – for business organizations this means  C&E programs, but more broadly these have been called “ethical systems” – to help save us from falling victim to our seemingly innate sense of ethical over-confidence.  So, to make that case, C&E professionals should – in training or otherwise communicating with employees (particularly managers) and directors  – address the issue of “magical thinking” head-on.

Moreover, using the example of COIs to prove the larger point here may be an effective strategy, because employees are more likely to have experience with ethical challenges in this area  than with other major risks, such as corruption, competition law or fraud – which indeed may be so scary as to be largely unimaginable to many employees.  I.e., these and other “hard-core” C&E risk areas might be subject to an even greater amount of magical thinking than is done regarding COIs.  So, at least in some companies,  discussing COIs might offer the most accessible “gateway” to addressing the larger topic of ethical over-confidence.

Friendship – and the ties that blind (directors to conflicts of interest)

King Herod the Great had something of a problem: he had backed the losing side in the contest between Marc Antony and Octavian to rule Rome,  and now fully expected to lose his life for it.  But, as described in Jerusalem: the  Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore,  when they met he cleverly asked Octavian “not to consider whose friend he had been but ‘what sort of friend I am.’”  Octavian was evidently persuaded by this, for not only was Herod’s life spared but the size of his kingdom was increased.

Loyalty is, of course, fundamental to friendship.  But, while potentially more physically dangerous in the Roman Empire than it is today, friendship in our world can be ethically treacherous.

In “Will Disclosure of Friendship Ties between Directors and CEOs Yield Perverse Effects?”  (to be published in the July 2014 issue of the Accounting Review), Jacob M. Rose, Anna M. Rose, Carolyn Strand Norman and Cheri R. Mazza  describe how they conducted thought experiments involving both actual corporate directors and MBA students to determine  whether “directors who have  friendship ties with the CEO [are more likely that are directors without such friendships] to manage earnings to benefit the CEO in the short term while potentially sacrificing the welfare of the company in the long term” and also whether “public disclosure of friendship ties mitigate or exacerbate such behavior, and will disclosure of friendship ties influence investors’ perceptions of director decisions.”

Sadly but not surprisingly, their research  found “that friendship ties caused directors to be more willing to approve reductions to research and development (R&D) expenses that cause earnings to rise enough to meet the CEO’s minimum bonus target more often than  when the directors and CEO were not friends.” Seemingly more of a surprise, they also found that “disclosing friendship ties resulted in even greater reductions in R&D expenses and higher CEO bonuses than not disclosing friendship ties.”

But this latter finding is not so surprising – given other  behavioral research showing that disclosure can “morally license” individuals  to act inappropriately when faced with a conflict of interest ( as discussed in this   and other prior posts.) As described in a recent piece in the NY Times  by Gretchen Morgenson, one of the study’s authors explained: “When you disclose things, it may make you feel you’ve met your obligations…They’re not all that worried about doing something to help out the C.E.O. because everyone has had a fair warning.”

Morgenson added: “There are two messages in this study. One is for regulators: Simply disclosing a conflict or friendship does not eliminate its potential to create problems. The other,” again quoting one of the study’s authors (but echoing Herod) “is for investors: ‘Shareholders should take a more active role in finding out what kinds of relationships their boards and C.E.O.s have…and recognize the potential traps created by them’.”

For more on conflicts of interest and directors see the posts collected here .

 

Spanking bankers for conflicts of interest. Again.

Two years ago the Delaware Chancery Court had harsh words about Goldman Sachs’ advising El Paso Corporation on a possible sale of the company while also having an ownership interest in the buyer.   Ultimately, the bank lost a $20 million fee due to this and other conflicts.

Goldman’s ethical lapse was not unique in the banking world.  Indeed, just a few months before the El Paso case, Barclay’s paid/gave up claims for about $45 million to settle a lawsuit in the Chancery Court based on its undisclosed dual role  in advising Del Monte on a sale the company while also providing financing to the buyers.  

The most recent addition to the banking COI hall of infamy is the Royal Bank of Canada, which, as described in this Reuters piece, the Chancery Court last week found should be “held liable to former shareholders of Rural/Metro Corp because [the bank] failed to disclose conflicts of interest that tainted the $438 million buyout of [Rural/Metro. The bankers] were so eager to collect higher fees that they convinced Rural/Metro directors to sell the company in June 2011 to private equity firm Warburg Pincus LLC at an unreasonably low” price,  while “conceal[ing] their efforts to provide financing to fund the buyout and other transactions,…” The court will “decide later how much RBC should pay former Rural/Metro shareholders in damages, including possibly damages for bad faith.”

That this could happen after the El Paso and Del Monte cases seems amazing.  But maybe it isn’t – since we’re seeing only the cases where the conflicted bankers got caught.  Perhaps there are many others where the betrayal went undetected and the wrongdoing proved profitable.  If so, the prospect of giving back fees – even large fees – may be a weak deterrent.

A piece on the case in the Wall Street Journal concluded:   “The bottom line is that investment banks that aren’t paying attention the Chancery Court’s continuing admonitions on conflicts will continue to be spanked.”  Yes, but will they be spanked enough to deter future COIs of this sort?

(For those wanting to learn more about the actual spanking, the court’s 91-page opinion can be found here.) 

An important real-world conflict of interest experiment

In today’s NY Times, Michael Greenstone, an economics professor at MIT, writes about a study on auditor COIs that he –  together with Esther Duflo of M.I.T.;  and Rohini Pande  and Nicholas Ryan, both of Harvard – recently published.   The study was conducted in Gujarat, India, where industrial plants with high pollution risks are required  “to hire and pay auditors to check air and water pollution levels three times annually and then submit a yearly report to” a governmental body. In the study, for a randomly selected set of companies, but not for a control group, “auditors were paid a fixed fee from a central pool of money, a subset of the audits was chosen to have its findings re-examined, and auditors received payments for accurate reports, judged by comparisons with the re-examinations. The control group continued under the status quo system in which auditors were chosen and paid by the plants they were auditing.”

The results of this real-world experiment  powerfully demonstrate the impact on the ethicality of conduct that financial incentives can have – even on the judgment of individuals who, by virtue of their professional norms, are supposed to be resistant to COIs.  That is: “While many of the plants violated the pollution standards, few of the auditors in the control group reported these violations. In the case of particulate matter, an especially harmful air pollutant, auditors reported that only 7 percent of industrial plants violated the pollution standard. In reality, 59 percent of plants exceeded it.” However, “[t]he rules changes [in the experiment] caused the auditors to report more truthfully. In the restructured market, auditors were 80 percent less likely to falsely report a pollution reading as in compliance, and their reported pollution readings were 50 to 70 percent higher than when they were working in the status quo system. This difference was as large even when comparing reports of auditors working simultaneously under the two systems. Finally, and most important, the plants that were required to use the new auditing system significantly reduced their emissions of air and water pollution, relative to the plants operating in the status quo system. Presumably, this was because the plants’ operators understood that the regulators were receiving more accurate information and would follow up on it.”

Three comments on this important study.

First, while most directly relevant to auditors, these results can, I believe, be broadly applicable to COIs generally.  That is, if professionals who are trained to rise above COIs fare this poorly, one can only imagine the impact of COIs on the rest of us.

Second, the more important compliance and ethics program efforts become to society, the greater the need for not just C&E auditing but other forms of checking – such as monitoring, as was discussed in a piece in Corporate Compliance Insights.   But monitoring  (as a general matter) is even less independent than is auditing, so this recent study underscores  the considerable  challenges for making forms of checking beyond auditing effective.

Third, research to determine “what works”   is vitally important for the C&E field to mature and realize its full promise,  and real-world studies such as this one can be particularly valuable in that regard.  Interestingly, another article in today’s NY Times describes how in the UK there is now an government-run effort (headed by a “Behavioral Insights Team”) to use research to determine what works with respect to various public policies, including some compliance-related ones. I hope that the US and other countries will follow the UK’s lead here.

Finally, here is a prior post on auditor COIs

 

Thanksgiving edition: conflicts of interest and cholesterol

For millions of individuals (including me) Thanksgiving is not only a time for giving thanks but also for thinking about cholesterol.  And  if guidelines recently issued by the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology are followed, the number of us who use  statins – cholesterol reducing drugs – will increase substantially, as described in this piece from Forbes.   But as described in this piece in Time (and also in the Forbes article) “the chair of the panel responsible for the new advice, which many see as favorable to … statins, had previous ties to a number of drug makers that manufacture those very same medications,” as did six of the other fourteen members of the panel.

I should add that the financial ties were duly disclosed and applicable guidelines (issued by the Institute of Medicine) were complied with, in that the guidelines do not prohibit any such COIs – only COIs by a majority of members of a panel.  Still, one cannot help feel uneasy about this situation for several reasons.

First, with respect to the panel’s report, one should not assume that disclosure cures the COI.  Indeed, as described in earlier posts in this blog, behavioral ethics experiments have shown just the opposite – that disclosure may “license” conflicts-inspired decision making.

Second, it is not clear to what extent the disclosures here are sufficiently processed.  As described in this article in MedPage Today by a faculty member at Harvard Medical School: “[A]midst all the late-breaking clinical trial presentations and ask-the-expert sessions, what I didn’t hear were the speakers’ financial conflicts of interest. Don’t get me wrong — the AHA mandates that all speakers present a disclosure slide at the beginning of every talk, and this rule was reliably followed by all presenters … in the following manner: ‘Here are my disclosures’ — PowerPoint slide flashes on screen with a list of pharmaceutical/device companies. Yet, by the time the speaker finishes speaking those four words, the slide deck has already advanced to the next slide. I, and my fellow audience members, didn’t even have enough time to read the disclosures, let alone process them.”

Finally, and on a broader level, COIs of this sort could have a more pernicious effect beyond directly impacting the patients involved, because of the great extent to which health-care costs are borne by the country as a whole.  As discussed in this recent post:

–          there are certain challenges (such as climate change and public debt) that both pose great risks to society as a whole and will require broad-based sacrifice to successfully address; and

–          COIs can imperil the likelihood that all relevant parties will be willing to make such sacrifices.

Health care costs fit into this category, too, and, like the others, key players in these areas have, in my view, a higher (i.e., “Caesar’s wife”) duty when it comes to addressing COIs ethically.

Two conflicts of the apocalypse

The COI Blog has, since its launch in 2011, examined a host of different types of conflicts.  (For those new to the blog, you can explore this “parade of horribles” through the various tabs and sub-tabs to your left on this site.)  But, of course, not all conflicts should be of equal concern. Rather, and as described in this earlier post,  worrisome conflicts typically involve one of several types of “market failures,” as those are the conflicts  for which market mechanisms provide insufficient corrective capacities. Indeed, that is only part of the picture, because while a market failure analysis can explain the likelihood  of an unaddressed COI, the possible impact of a COI is important tooAnd, at the risk of drifting into the realm of politics (which I have tried to keep this blog out of in its young life) there seem to be two areas involving COIs that could have a  truly apocalyptic impact on our society, both politically charged.

One of these is public debt, and particularly the conflict in saddling future generations with an insurmountable debt burden.  Indeed,  two of the principal areas of focus of this blog are highly relevant to the risks here: behavioral ethics, and particularly the phenomenon of overly discounting the future; and moral hazard (i.e., present generation takes the risks, future generations bear the costs).

But in addition to these two structural conflict-like challenges in dealing with public debt there are also plain-old COIs to be identified and addressed.  As noted in an article last week in the NY Times – in discussing an investigation by New York’s financial services superintendent into COIs in the handling of the state’s pension funds – COIs may have played a role in leading Detroit to what is clearly a financial apocalypse: the city’s “municipal pension fund suffered severe losses on real estate investments, among other problems, and now that the city is bankrupt, investigators are trying to find out exactly what went wrong. In some cases, certain Detroit pension trustees were taken on junkets dressed up as investment site inspections. And in one instance, an investment promoter paid a bribe to win pension money for real estate projects in the Caribbean but then spent the money building an $8.5 million mansion in Georgia.”

Of course, whatever COIs may have existed or still exist in any state or municipality likely cannot explain more than a small fraction of the entity’s debt.  But conflicts can undermine the trust and sense of shared sacrifice that will be needed to work our way out of these debts – in the same way that a COI can undermine the sense of organizational justice needed to promote compliance and ethics generally in an organization, as discussed in this post.  Another way to think about this is that COIs not only directly cause individual harms but they can make it harder to prevent and remediate a broad range of harms. For this reason, COIs in the public pension area seem to deserve an extra degree of attention, and investigations like that now taking place in New York are, in my view, worth pursuing.

The other area where – given the potential harmful impact at issue – we need to be extra careful about COIs is, of course, climate change.  Here the prospect of an apocalypse dwarfs even that in the area of public debt.

The principal COI issues here concern the science of climate change, and particularly the extent to which those speaking to those issues as experts have conflicting interests.  This recent post on the web site of the Union of Concerned Scientists– while clearly weighing in on one side of that issue – makes a lot of sense to me, and I urge readers of the COI Blog to read it.

Of course, I’m not a scientist and am in no position to say anything meaningful about the science involved in climate change.  But I do know something about conflicts of interest, and when – as the above post describes – scientists who have no financial interest in the issue are accused of COIs by climate change deniers who receive fossil fuel industry funding, that to me suggests not only a flawed ethical analysis but a strategy of deflecting attention from the merits of the scientific issues at hand.

More generally, given what is at stake in getting such issues right, those involved in all sides of the climate science debate have a particularly important obligation to get the ethics right. And that includes avoiding spurious charges of COIs, which can have the same trust-destroying harmful impact that actual ones do.

.

Massive but (mostly) harmless conflicts of interest

The conflicts of interest will be enormous when  the recently announced merger between Publicis and Omnicom – each a giant ad agency (or collection of agencies) in its own right – is finalized.  Both companies, through their respective subsidiaries,  represent major players in such industries as automotive,   telecommunications,  food,  beverages, and beer (as described in this article) .   Are conflicts of this sort something that business-ethics-minded individuals should find of concern?

Not in my view – because such conflicts can, at least as a general matter,  be addressed by market forces.  By contrast, truly dangerous conflicts typically involve one of several types of “market failures.”

The first such failure is “information asymmetry,” meaning where market players lack the information needed to make an informed – and hence optimal – decision.  In the COI context, this can occur when a conflict isn’t fully disclosed, which, in some cases, can be seen not only as an ethical breach but a legally actionable instance of fraud or corruption.  To this classic type of information asymmetry one should add the various findings of behavioral ethicists – some discussed in this earlier post – showing that, for a variety of reasons,   even when COIs are disclosed the information doesn’t seem to be processed in an optimal manner. (I’m not sure if this would truly count as an information asymmetry, but it is in that neck of the woods.)

The other most often relevant market failure to COIs concerns externalities, meaning where the cost of a COI is not borne by the individual/entity in a position to address it but by a third party who doesn’t have a seat at the decision making table.  COIs in the health care field – the costs of which are passed on in large measure to taxpayers and insurance companies – are a prominent example of the great harm that externalities can cause.  Moreover, the phenomenon of   “moral hazard” – also addressed in various prior posts – can be seen as causing harm in this way.   Of course, some COIs – like public-sector corruption – involve more than one type of  market failure.

COIs caused by the mergers of ad agencies certainly don’t raise the issue of externalities, at least not as a general matter. For the sake of completeness, I should note that if the merger creates a monopoly that would be yet another form of market failure –  but this seems very unlikely to ever happen, due to (what I assume are) relatively low barriers to entry in the advertising industry.

Finally, while it is possible that the above-mentioned behaviorist findings about the weakness of disclosure does raise the prospect  of information asymmetry (or the behaviorist version thereof) in this setting,  I think that the strong presence of market forces in the form of competitors pointing out to advertisers  the risks of staying with a conflicted agency would largely negate harms of this sort too.  Indeed, astute ad agencies looking to recruit new clients could do worse than trying to utilize some of this behaviorist science for their commercial advantage.

For further reading:

here’s a description of the various forms of market failures;  

here’s a piece about another context  – joint venture governance  – in which COIs should not be seen as inherently troublesome; and

here’s something on how market failures should factor into anti-corruption risk assessment.

A telling tale to end the year

One of the most closely watched COI stories of the year concerned the Facebook IPO.  As a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal  notes, this IPO is seen as a “telling example of the divided loyalties at many firms, which woo lucrative investment-banking clients and then prod brokerage customers to buy the same stocks even if they look bruised.”

What is particularly noteworthy about this example is how  starkly quantifiable the apparent conflict seems to be: “Among the 33 firms that sold Facebook shares to the public in the $16 billion deal, 62% of the 208 analyst reports have urged investors to buy the shares, according to Thomson Reuters. None has suggested investors sell the shares.”

For the COI Blog, statistics like these are relevant not only to the financial services industry. They also help inform a broader view of conflicts – one that suggests that, for a variety of reasons, mitigating conflicts generally tends to be much more difficult than is often appreciated.

And, as this blog begins its second full year, we are eager to watch each new “fresh hell” (to borrow from Dorothy Parker) in the realm of conflicts of interest emerge, as many of these do present teachable moments.  See you then, and thanks for reading the COI Blog in 2012.

Fracking, conflicts of interest and adverse inferences

Being reasonably informed about the issues of the day is fundamental to participating meaningfully in the democratic process, but as those issues become more technically (and otherwise) difficult to understand the bar to such participation gets raised.   And, given the crucial role that experts play in helping others try to understand such issues, the related ethical bar – by which I mean the need for experts involved in a public dialogue to be either conflict free or conflict transparent – is raised as well.

Take the example of “fracking,” an area of considerable complexity, and my own attempts – as a citizen who wants to be reasonably informed – to understand it.   Initially, I was skeptical about the wisdom of the fracking but the more I read the more it seemed, on balance, like a good idea (assuming strong environmental safety measures are put in place and that the embrace of fracking does not diminish the development and deployment of renewable energy sources).

But now I’m a bit less sure – given recent stories like this piece   and this one   about undisclosed ties to the energy industry by those publicly opining on various aspects of fracking.  These and similar pieces make me wonder, if fracking really is a good thing, why do its proponents need to pursue unethical means to promote it?

From the perspective of a citizen seeking to be informed, it can be hard to avoid drawing an “adverse inference” from these sorts of undisclosed conflicts, by which I mean suspecting that the reason a conflicted expert is playing a key role in opining/researching a given matter is because a conflicts-free one would view the merits of a matter differently.  Note that adverse inferences based on wrongdoing are not always logical. (In this connection, here’s a law review article on “adverse inferences about adverse inferences” ).  However, they have long played a powerful role in our thinking and, in addition to having a force born of habit, they have enough logic to be attractive.

Further, as the issues of the day become more complex and difficult to address on their merits, the adverse inference becomes a more attractive – if not necessarily more logical – way to resolve issues.   This is a possibly non-obvious reason why, in my view, the ethical bar for disclosing COIs in research is, in effect, raised as the need of the public to be able to trust experts in understanding significant public policy issues grows.  (But, of course, the main reason is to  prevent the public from being misled by undisclosed COIs. )

Finally, for more information on the danger of overreactions to COIs see this post on “reverse conflicts of interest.”

 

Compensation consultants and conflicts of interest

An analysis published this week in The Guardian  found of the “50 most valuable UK public companies, 33 hired pay consultants who also sold services to other parts of the same company during 2011. The list includes businesses that attracted some of the greatest attention during the shareholder spring, in which investors began rebelling against pay awards.” Both the consultants and companies involved denied any conflicts but, as the paper reported: “the High Pay Commission was ‘concerned at the extent to which remuneration consultants are encouraging the ratcheting up of executive pay. In particular we are concerned that remuneration consultants have a direct conflict of interest where they provide executive pay advice and cross-selling for other business.’ [The Commission] added: ‘While the voluntary code for remuneration consultants specifies that they should not cross-sell services, anecdotal evidence and interviewees the High Pay Commission met during this research suggest this practice is widespread.’ ”

But is there truly harm in these sorts of COIs? The research in this paper  –  Compensation Consultant Independence and CEO Pay – published last year suggests that  there is. As described by the authors: “Using a unique data set of compensation consultant service fee in U.S. S& P 500 firms in 2009, we find strong evidence that compensation consultant’s conflicts of interest is associated with higher CEO pay…evidence shows that that CEO receives 7% more salary, 22.9% more bonus and 15.6% more total compensation in firms where compensation consultants provide other services than that of firms where the consultants do not provide other service. In addition, we also document that CEO’s pay-for-performance-sensitivity (PPS) is lower in firms where the consultants have potential conflicts of interest.”