Business View: Greed, secrecy, scandals and court cases. Is this the new American dream?

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The Independent Online

Where are Paul Sarbanes and Michael Oxley when you need them? The two sheriffs who rode into the wild west of Wall Street in the wake of the Enron, WorldCom, Qwest, Xerox, GE and other scandals too numerous to mention, now seem as distant to us as Alan Ladd in Shane as America deals out a new hand of corporate shenanigans.

In the last few weeks we have had:

Boeing. An icon like Coca-Cola or Ford which once dominated its industry, it is now shamed by a series of scandals involving the theft of corporate secrets and the importuning of government officials, until it was forced to accept the resignation of its chief executive officer;

Hollinger International. Though technically run by Canadians, it is a New York headquartered and New York listed company which boasts some heroes of the American right - Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle - on its board (Mr Perle, incidentally, is a good friend of Boeing). I do not need to detail what has gone on at Hollinger, but it is fair to say it will not be featuring in many textbooks of good corporate governance;

Mutual funds. The scandal, which has caught up some of America's best-known money managers, including the UK-owned Invesco, has also thrown a sharp focus on the sharp practices of Wall Street hedge funds trying to make a fast buck at the expense of small investors;

Disney. The battle to oust Michael Eisner has highlighted the autocratic leadership of the mousemeister, as well as boardroom cronyism and curious remuneration policies;

And last but not least, Chrysler whose merger with Daimler is being challenged in a court case brought by billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian (who voted in favour of the deal, by the way). This is either an example of terrible corporate fraud by the board of Chrysler or a classic American technique of using the courts as a weapon in corporate infighting. Or it could even be both, because we have seen ex-Chrysler executives saying that if they hadn't merged with the Germans, the Detroit icon would have gone bust. How come its dire situation was hidden from its and Daimler's shareholders (and shouldn't it be German investors who want to sue)?

In the warm glow of the passing of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act last year, American business leaders, bankers, lawyers and accountants went around being caring and sharing and talking about "restoring public trust". But it does not take long for the bile to rise back to the surface.

I am left wondering whether a fundamental cancer lies at the heart of American capitalism - the results-driven, hard-edged, winner-takes-all culture in which executives are paid hundreds of times more than employees while showing ethical standards that would have a middle manager sacked without a by-your-leave. It should be recognised that lapses in ethical standards are unacceptable.

President George Bush may preach this message, but by his actions he is judged. The way his cronies in business have been favoured since he came to power testified to that. The way he blatantly said that the illegal steel tariffs he imposed had done a job for the US economy shows the moral vacuum at the heart his leadership.

Miles from long-term mortgages

It was always going to be a smokescreen. Amid the volumes of guff produced to support the Chancellor's assertion that the British economy had not met the five economic tests for joining the euro was a discussion about long-term mortgages. Gordon Brown seemed to be sold on the idea that it was better to have 25-year, fixed-rate mortgages - like they have in Europe and the US - than the more variable mix in the UK.

David Miles, a professor of finance at Imperial College, will tell the Chancellor this week what anyone in the lending industry could have told him months ago: the UK consumer does not want long-term mortgages. The British homebuyer is a little more savvy than politicians credit, with the result that, despite the US having lower general interest rates than the UK, American mortgages are more expensive than those in Britain.

Opponents of joining the euro will use the Miles report as more ammunition for our isolationist stance. Stuff and nonsense. The report is merely another delaying tactic from a Chancellor who wants to keep the euro on the back-burner until it suits him to deploy it.

j.nisse@independent.co.uk

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