Risk Management Lessons Learnt in 2012

For risk managers 2012 was an eventful year. The frequency of ethical breaches, regulatory failures, operational disasters and natural calamities ensured that risk managers have their hands full and are not going to run out of work in 2013. In effect, risk management function is at a strategic inflection point and is facing disruption risks. Globalization, rapidly changing technology, economic recession in Europe, political turmoil in Middle East, growth of emerging markets and global warming has changed the risk landscape. Throw out of the window the old stance of managing risks by implementing controls and focusing just on financial processes and operational risks. The 21st century demands risk managers to focus on strategic, cultural, leadership and human resource risks. This is a bold statement to make, so here are my reasons for making the same. Do you think I am on the right track?

1.      Banking Sector Culture Needs Overhauling

Though I have not done a tally of regulatory fines paid by banks during the year, the numbers are awesome. It the status quo remains the same, paying billion dollar fines will soon become fashionable. The way bankers are behaving, if culture does not change, they will start a competition on who pays the biggest fine and gets away with it. It is clear that bankers gave a lot of lip service of changing to the public after the financial crises. Nothing much changed and they remained complacent with their ability to escape any personal loss due to reckless behaviour. Even with fines, it is investor loss with hardly any personal responsibility. 2013 will determine whether bankers can do the right thing for the right reasons in the right way.

2.      No One is Too Big to Go to Jail

2012 showed that breaking the law isn’t an option for top guns. Big names, for instance, Rajat Gupta and Rebecca Brooks realized the arms of law are long enough to reach them. The psychology that it only is a crime if one gets caught needs to change. A connection even with the Prime Minister doesn’t insulate a person from being held legally accountable.

The downside of capitalism is that business ethics are put on a back burner in pursuit of profitability. 2013 will see the trend of businesses focusing on building ethical cultures.

3.  Senior Management Fails At A Higher Rate

Throughout the year, one heard senior managers being fired for poor performance, regulatory breaches, criminal acts or inability to keep their pants zipped. Tragic but true, that senior managers are failing to walk the talk and assume leadership is about playing power games. They ignore everything in pursuit of a bigger pay packet. It isn’t that leaders didn’t fail previously, but now they make headlines at global level.

Additionally, social media and increasing percentage of women in the workforce has made old management and leadership styles redundant. Flatter organization structures are replacinghierarchical styles. Collaboration is in focus rather than competition. Boomers are leading most organizations, and their style of leadership is passé. Hence, in 2013 we are going to witness higher leadership failures unless organizations start managing leadership risks.

 4. Regulators Take A Tougher Stance

Worldwide regulators have changed their stance. Be it Comptroller and Auditor General of India, Department of Justice of USA or Financial Services Authority of UK, regulators are beating the drums for better compliance. From asking the biggest names in banking to give explanations to holding government accountable for incorrect decisions, they are leaving nothing out of the ambit. They are leading the path for risk managers to follow. In 2013, we are going to see a spate of disclosures from regulators.

Closing Thoughts

Whether we see the banking failure reports, or other aspects of business, risk managers knew and understood the risks. However, they decided to play it safe and not bell the cat. Challenging and confronting business leaders at the expense of ruining ones career can be a tough decision. One avoids the decision, especially when, the lines of accountability state that final responsibility of managing risks lies with the business leaders. However, in the times ahead risk managers won’t have this luxury. They will have to stick their neck out to ensure organization stays legally compliant and manages risks optimally.  I don’t know whether this makes risk managers happy. In my view, in 2013 we should take it up as a challenge and change the dynamics of the risk management function.

Wish you and your loved ones a very Happy New Year.

Manipulating Purchasing Decisions

I read “Influenced Decisions” on Philos blog. It talks about Dan Ariely’s experiment on rationality of decision-making. According to the experiment, though we think we are making rational decisions, we can get easily influenced in making the wrong decisions. He experimented students for subscribing for a magazine with the following results.

As per Philos blog, 100 MIT students tested for Economist.com gave the following preferences:

Ariley1

Interestingly, 84% chose the third option and no one subscribed for second option.

Ariely, then conducted the experiment with just two choices and removed the dummy choice.

ariely2

Students preference changed. While in the first experiment they preferred the third option, in the second experiment, majority chose  the first option. The dummy option played a major role in the first experiment as students thought they were getting a better deal.

Now think of the impact this has from fraud perspective. Either a purchasing manager to get approval for a favoured supplier can insert fictitious proposals or have real suppliers submit dummy-like proposal

Submission of a fictitious proposal will be a clear case of fraud. Auditors might detect in regular course of audit and definitely during investigation. However, a dummy-like proposal will appear completely normal in the course of business and will be far more difficult to detect.

The question is whether on detection the purchasing manager’s behavior will be considering unethical or fraudulent? As the intent was to defraud the company, it should be considered fraudulent. However, it will be more difficult to  pursue legally. A small twist changes the whole picture.

Closing thoughts

Think carefully when doing your Christmas shopping. Check out whether the pricing is done to influence your decision towards certain product choices.

Wish you and your loved ones a Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays!

christmad

Do corporate awards misguide public?

I want to ask you a few questions. Have you ever thought of a company as a good investment prospect after seeing the awards it has received? Do you form a favorable opinion when a business leader receives an award for best CEO or Entrepreneur? What about when a company receives an award for corporate governance, innovation or great place to work? We assume the selection was unbiased and evaluation criteria were stringent. Hence, we form a positive image of the winner. Nothing succeeds like success.

Now what happens when we discover that the leaders whom we have put on a pulpit have feet of clay? Recently, a Miami businessman, Mr Claudio Osorio, former president of Inno Vida Holdings was arrested for a $40 million fraud. In 1997, Ernst & Young had awarded Mr Osorio “Entrepreneur of the Year” title for CHS Electronics, a company he owned. Amazingly, in 1999 CHS Electronics settled a class action lawsuit brought by its shareholders. The next year the company became bankrupt. Doesn’t this raise questions on jury’s decision and selection criteria for giving the award?

Closure home, the story is the same. Ramalinga Raju, previously the CEO of Satyam responsible for conducting the biggest corporate fraud in India, was awarded Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Services Award in 1999 & 2007 (which was withdrawn later). Other awards received by him were – Dataquest IT Man of the Year Award 2000, CNBC’s Asian Business Leader – Corporate Citizen of the Year award in 2002 and Golden Peacock Award for Corporate Governance 2008 (withdrawn later).

According to my understanding, the Indian scene for corporate leadership awards is quite easy to understand. There is a group of 25 prominent business leaders from whom the 6-7 jury members are selected. During the year, in the 5-6 corporate award functions at least 2-3 jury members are common. The same group of 50 companies receive the awards year on year. Each function distributes 9-10 awards. Around 7-8 awards are given to this group and just a couple of new names are added. In the newspapers, a detailed write-up is given of the jury interactions for selecting the awardees.

One might say that these are the top performing companies and CEOs; hence, they deserve the awards.  The other could be that these CEOs have excellent public relations teams working to get the business leaders and companies nominate. However, in my cynical view it appears as a game of corporate musical chairs where business leaders pat each other on the back and allow entry to a few in the exclusive club. I am not joking; a recent award function separated the members of the exclusive club from the non-exclusive business leaders by demarcating the area with a red rope.

Giving an award may not be big deal. However, it becomes serious when awards of corporate governance excellence or best entrepreneurs are given. People assume that after being evaluated by peers and benchmarked against best practices, these leaders and companies are best in the pack. A small individual investor relies on this information when making an investment decision. Can we count the number of investors who traded in Satyam shares believing it to be an excellent company? These investors lose money and sometimes their whole savings. Hence, the ethics and integrity of these awards must be maintained at all cost.

The corporate award functions should not become similar to the Bollywood award functions. The common perception of Bollywood awards is that whichever hero or heroine performs on the award function gets an award. Just a few awards are given on actual box office performance. I don’t have any information of behind the scene activities of corporate award functions. However, investors will lose faith if the Bollywood method is followed.

Closing thoughts

In my view a government body, something like SEBI should evaluate the criteria of the bodies giving awards. It shouldn’t become a brand building and sales exercise to get clients and investors. Hence, only a few select organizations should be allowed to distribute awards. Periodically, the government body should conduct a review. Moreover, the government body should evaluate the cases of awards given incorrectly and recommend legal action where required. What do you think?

Does Change Obstruct Ethics?

The media regularly reports that organizations are paying huge fines for ethical breaches. Politicians, defence officers and CEOs are getting exposed in illicit sexual relationships. It appears that present day leaders don’t feel obligated to show professional and personal ethics. One is forced to contemplate did the world always lack ethical discipline? Alternatively, is it that the volatile and dynamic business and political environment has contributed to the decline in ethical values?

In my view, history has shown that during times of massive change in social and political environment ethical values fall. As the environment stabilizes, ethical behaviour increases. I will give you the reason why I think so. Before that let me share with you this beautiful verse from “The Lines of Experience” written by Je Tsongkhapa over 2000 years back.

Ethical discipline is the water to cleanse the stains of wrongdoing,

And the moonlight to cool the painful heat of the kleshas (disturbing/ angry thoughts),

It makes you stand out from the crowd like a great mountain.

By its force, you can tame all beings without intimidation.

Knowing this, great beings guard like their very eyes

The ethical discipline to which they are committed.

I, the yogi, have practised in this way.

You, who aspire to liberation, do the same!

1. Income Inequality

In the present day, corruption levels are so high that a person who stands up for ethics is considered an idealistic fool. Whistle blowers face high level of retaliation and social isolation. Instead of society valuing an ethical person, it stigmatizes the person. However, if you notice carefully, the corruption scams are bigger in the emerging markets than the developed world. Transparency International Corruption Index shows increasing corruption trend in the emerging countries and decreasing trend in the developed world. In the last decade, population of the emerging countries suddenly enjoyed a better standard of living of which they were deprived of earlier. Hence, the changing business environment has inclined them to pursue financial goals at the expense of everything else.

2. Gender Inequality

Look at the impact of change from another lens. Worldwide women are facing higher levels of physical and psychological violence from men. A recent survey showed that working women face twice the level of abuse than housewives. Why is that so? Reason being that working women are challenging the male domination and supremacy established for centuries. Previously, women were doing as they were told and the housewives are still doing so. However, the working women are torchbearers for change and demanding equality. Hence, they are paying the price. The bias is so clear. Half the world population consists of women and the organizations call hiring women a “gender diversity” initiative.

3. Social Inequality

If you look at racial, social and political equality movements, the picture is the same. The Arab world reported increased violence during  revolutions. In India, the under privileged and lower caste people face dire situations and prosecutions for demanding equality. Even seeing the American history, whites increased violence against blacks after abolition of slavery. Hence, even when the conflict is initially non-violent, violence increases when the existing world order is threatened. Those holding beneficial positions in the old order get combative to continue the status quo and compromise human rights. Corporate sector reflects the same problems. White males ruled the business world. Now women and men of different racial communities are challenging their established supremacy. Can we really expect competitive business leaders to give up a superior position without a fight for the goodness of humanity?

In all the three examples, I have highlighted the compromise of human values when social changes occur. Presently, the world population is facing change at all levels. Global economy is in recession, China is threatening US supremacy, emerging markets will become economic leaders, people revolutions has shaken autocratic rules in many countries, technology has connected the global population and women are taking important roles in society. With the political, social and economic dynamics changing the world, can we really expect higher level of ethical behavior in this decade?

Closing thoughts

Change brings conflict. Unfortunately, human psychology is such that a person holding a different opinion, from a mere opponent becomes a tough adversary to enemy number one whenever our self-interest is threatened. Hence, in this dynamic environment expecting high level of ethics from business leaders is somewhat unrealistic. We tend to isolate business and expect organizations to have higher level of ethical disciple than the society around them. When business is a subset of society, how can business leaders portray values different from society.

Until the new world order establishes, ethics and principles would be put on a back-burner.   This viewpoint is definitely not what the regulators wish to hear. What do you think?

5 Things CFOs Should Do In Planning Process

In December, senior management focuses on formulating strategies. Department heads prepare business plans and budgets. Risk management departments define the next year’s agenda and plans. Everyone works hard at planning and preparing for the coming year. However, most of the efforts are in vain and result in failure. The problem is that generally people do these activities independently and make no attempt to align them. The ideal integrated sequence is below.

strategy

However, this does not happen. For instance, department heads do capital expenditures while ignoring the strategy. Business teams define performance indicators and risk managers establish risk indicators, without syncing the two indicators. Situations occur where desired performance is achieved at very high-risk levels. Business teams ignore the risk levels until disaster occurs. With the multitude of unsynchronized management information, boards make incorrect decisions with information overload. Hence, at the end of the year only a few organizations can claim that they achieved the strategy and targets.

The Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) can play a pivotal role in bringing the different facets together. CFOs sit on the board and participate in the strategy formation process. Department heads submit their plans and budgets to CFOs for review and consolidation. Generally, Chief Audit Executives (CAE) administrative reporting is to the CFO. Quite frequently, CFOs act as defacto Chief Risk Officers (CRO). Hence, CFOs can put the jigsaw puzzle together. The key things they need to look into to revamp the process are as follows:

 1.     Strategy Formulation

 The common misperception is that organizations have a proper strategy formation process. In reality, the ideas supported by the CEO and politically strong CXOs are adopted without much constructive discussion since no one wishes to rock the boat. Secondly, a formal strategy process is not in place in most organizations. Moreover, at the time of strategy formation upside and downside risks remain unidentified, as CXOs do not invite CRO to the discussion. The CFOs can influence the other CXOs to implement a formal strategy development process and conduct a strategic risk assessment in each phase of strategy formation.

2.     Business Plans

While strategies are for 3-5 year period, business plans are drawn annually. However, the changing business landscape makes business plans redundant on formation. Reason being that business plans are prepared on a set of assumptions on customer behavior  engagement and market situation. Real interaction with customers and entry into the market prove most of the assumptions incorrect. Additionally, department heads make independent business plans to show one up man ship. Hence, performance objectives are missed and risks remain unidentified. The need of the hour is for businesses to react fast and give cohesive messages in response to market changes. Therefore, CFOs must make the business planning process dynamic and integrated.

3.     Budgets

More than 60% of the organizations are unsatisfied with their ability to link strategy to operating budgets. Additionally, organizations spend 4 to 6 months in preparing budgets with numerous iterations back and forth between departments. Meanwhile the business plans change due to the volatility in the market. Hence, organizations are feeling the need of speed in the budgeting and forecasting process. CFOs must adopt rolling forecasts rather than static budgets to improve planning and control. Rather than doing post facto variance analysis they can collaborate with business teams to give real-time analysis.

4.     Performance Indicators

Performance indicators measure the reward side of the strategy. Without the risk indicators, they give an incomplete picture of business status. Another aspect is that performance indicators and risk indicators for the same strategy or plan are not aligned together and are reported at different periods. Organizations sometimes continue to measure redundant parts and do not update the indicators with change in strategy and objectives. A prime example is the financial crises. A few banks achieved performance targets without understanding the risk levels. Hence, CFOs must use technology to create relevant dashboards to monitor indicators to keep a firm grasp on the business.

5.     Risk Indicators

 Risk managers fail to address the twin shortcomings in process of identifying key risk indicators. Firstly, risk managers do not ascertain strategic risk indicators. Secondly, a lot of meaningless indicators are created which do not really find out the overall business risks. Hence, CXOs fail to separate the noise from the inflection points. Moreover, Nassim Taleb’s point of view that most significant risks are unpredictable needs to be thought over. There might be too much data available and organizations might look at risk indicators they are comfortable with, until the bubble bursts. CFOs can identify key risk indicators for strategy and business plans, and synchronize them to performance indicators. That will close the loop and move the business in the right direction.

Closing Thoughts

Synchronizing multiple factors between strategy and indicators influences a company’s capacity to achieve goals. With predictions of recession and volatile business environment, dropping the ball is highly probable. Understanding which economic predictions to rely on, which market trends will impact long-term and what are the strategic inflection points, spells the difference between success and failure. Hence, CFOs must play the vital role of coordinating and aligning various steps between strategy formation and identifying indicators.

Bharti Walmart India – Internal FCPA Investigation – Part II

The previous post raised more questions than gave answers. In light of the on-going investigation, it is difficult to predict results. However, I looked at the recently released FCPA Resource Guide to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Enforcement Division of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. It sets some clear guidelines and mentions earlier cases with similar issues. It is a good read for Indian managers working in multinationals dealing with FCPA compliance requirements. I am sharing below some insights about the implications of the case.

1.      Liability of Indian Employees

As per reports, the CFO and the legal team were suspended during the course of the investigation. If the US Department of Justice decides to pursue a criminal case, these employees can be prosecuted.

Interestingly enough, the Indian managers consider their capability to bribe various government officials to get a job done as strength. One often hears them saying – “Oh, I have a contact; s/he will do the job for X amount of money. Don’t worry about the legal provisions, they can be circumvented.” Since one rarely hears any action being taken by regulators on the provisions of Prevention of Corruption Act of India, hardly anyone hesitates to take or accept a bribe.

However, Indian employees working in multinationals have to think twice about paying a bribe to get a job done. The FCPA guidelines are strict. It states – “The FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions can apply to conduct both inside and outside the United States. Issuers and domestic concerns—as well as their officers, directors, employees, agents, or stockholders—may be prosecuted for using the U.S. mails or any means or instrumentality of interstate commerce in furtherance of a corrupt payment to a foreign official.” Hence, even sending mails to US boss or colleague that involves a discussion of a bribe payment can make an Indian employee liable. Considering the provisions, the best policy for Indian employees is to keep their hands clean and follow the legal process diligently.

Another aspect to note is that a bribe does not need to be paid to hold an employee liable. The guidance note says – “Also, as long as the offer, promise, authorization, or payment is made corruptly, the actor need not know the identity of the recipient; the attempt is sufficient. Thus, an executive who authorizes others to pay “whoever you need to” in a foreign government to obtain a contract has violated the FCPA—even if no bribe is ultimately offered or paid.” Hence, Indian management and employees both can be prosecuted on this basis.

2.      Challenges for Licenses

With the opening of the retail sector, multinationals need to obtain various licenses to operate in India. The challenge is getting the licenses according to their business strategy and plan.

For instance, IKEA recently obtained from Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) to invest euros 1.5 billion to open 25 stores in India. However, IKEA was granted permission to open single brand stores for furniture only. It was denied permission to sell textiles, office supplies, food and drinks.

Now the question is, under these circumstances what options will the foreign investor consider? Will they agree to sell products according to permission? The permissions maybe denied for the most profitable lines of products. It may not make sense to sell products with low margins. Hence, they will have the difficult choice of either not entering the Indian market or attempt to influence the government agencies to grant permissions for selling other products. If the second option is chosen, there is a high probability of bribes being paid. More so, since Indian government officials know what will hurt the business venture of the foreign company, they might use denial tactics to coerce the organization into paying bribes. Hence, it is a vicious circle.

A LinkedIn member gave a useful suggestion to curb bribes in the licensing process. Rangarajan Gopalan, Investigator US Department of Homeland Securities in New Delhi,  suggested a single window concept for obtaining licenses in retail industry. If government implements the suggestion, the retail companies will not have to run around 32 different agencies to get licenses.

3.      Partner Liabilities  

In the event of the holding-subsidiary relationship or joint venture partnership, the Indian company can be charged jointly and/or separately.

The guidance note illustrated the implications with a previous case. For instance, “a four-company joint venture used two agents—a British lawyer and a Japanese trading company—to bribe Nigerian government officials in order to win a series of liquefied natural gas construction projects. Together, the four multi-national corporations and the Japanese trading company paid a combined $1.7 billion in civil and criminal sanctions for their decade-long bribery scheme. In addition, the subsidiary of one of the companies pleaded guilty and a number of individuals, including the British lawyer and the former CEO of one of the companies’ subsidiaries, received significant prison terms.”

Hence, if the US company is ignorant of the bribes being paid by Indian employees to conduct business, the Indian employees can face criminal charges and the Indian organization may have to pay hefty fines.

Closing Thoughts

The Indian organizations need to assess their FCPA compliance level and not take the issue lightly. The repercussions of ignoring the issue are huge. The legal and reputation risks can put the company to a great disadvantage. Moreover, the employees must follow the legal process rather than find ways to circumvent it.

 References: 

  1. FCPA Resource Guide to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Enforcement Division of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  2. FIPB clears IKEA retail store plan