Author Archives: Ruadhán Glover

The Greatest Governance Failings of the 21st Century

Corporate governance has catapulted from the fringes to the fore since the turn of the millennium, with numerous scandals dominating headlines in recent years. Essentially, corporate governance is the system by which companies are directed and controlled. When governed well, companies can achieve an optimal balance of all their stakeholder’s interests. However, when corporate governance goes wrong, even the most large-scale businesses can suffer its destructive consequences. Outlined below are three of the most momentous governance scandals since the beginning of the 21st century.

Enron – 2001

It is impossible to list the most notorious governance scandals of recent years without beginning with the grandfather of corporate failings. Enron, a former giant of the energy sector and darling of Wall Street, suffered a collapse that shook the business world to its core in 2001. In August 2000, Enron had a market capitalization of $70 billion and was outperforming the S&P by more than 200%. By November 2001, the company was bankrupt.

The situation began in early 2001 when institutional analysts monitoring Enron questioned irregular accounting practices employed in the company’s latest Annual Report. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) subsequently began an investigation which uncovered that Enron was concealing liabilities and toxic assets to the value of billions of dollars through mark-to-market accounting and special purpose vehicles.

The company’s senior executives basically measured the value of their securities based on its current market value instead of its book value. This allowed the company to build an asset and instantly claim its forecasted profits on their books even if the company had not yet generated any revenue from the project. If it transpired that actual revenues were inferior to those forecast, Enron simply transferred the asset to an off-books entity where the loss wouldn’t be reported, thereby having no negative consequences on Enron’s accounts. Furthermore, Enron were able to impose significant pressure on their auditor, Arthur Andersen, to overlook the irregularities. This allowed Enron to appear very profitable when in fact it was bleeding cash.

The fallout from the scandal was immense. Enron’s share price plummeted from $90.75 at its apex to $0.26 in a matter of months, leading to the filing of a $40 billion lawsuit from the company shareholders. The scandal is also believed to have been the prime motivation behind the introduction of the Sarbanese Oxley Act in 2002, which helps to protect investors from fraudulent financial reporting. Enron ultimately filed for bankruptcy on December 1st 2001 with $63.4 billion in assets, the single largest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history at the time.

Lehman Brothers – 2008

On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy having fallen victim to the subprime mortgage crisis. Images showing hundreds of smartly dressed workers, exiting the bank’s offices with their belongings in small cardboard boxes is the quintessential portrayal of the subprime mortgage crisis’ climax.

As the housing bubble began to accelerate in the early 2000’s, Lehman Brothers directed their attentions firmly on mortgage-backed securities and collateral debt obligations in order to provide those seeking to purchase real estate with loans. By 2007, Lehman Brothers had underwritten more mortgage-backed securities than any other firm, garnering a portfolio to the value of $85 billion, four times the firms shareholder value.

Being so highly geared meant that the firm was extremely sensitive to the housing market, leaving it at significant risk of collapse in the occurrence of a housing downturn. In order to disguise this fact, Lehman Brothers made repurchase agreements with banks in the Cayman Islands, effectively agreeing to sell them the firms liabilities with an agreement to repurchase them at a later date. Lehman Brothers then manipulated accounting standards to record these repurchase agreements as sales, allowing the firm to acquire cash in the short run without recording any liabilities.

However, when real estate values began to fall and the credit market began to tighten, Lehman Brothers found themselves in the fatal position of being unable to repay their repurchase agreements, as their own clients were defaulting on their loans. Despite ‘Hail Mary’ attempts at the final minute to agree a takeover with Barclays PLC and Bank of America, in September 2008 Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy with $639 billion in assets and $619 billion in debt.

The Lehman Brothers bankruptcy was a seminal governance failure that sent financial markets reeling in its wake and effectively marked the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis. It acts as a stark reminder that no company nor market is too big to fail.

Volkswagen – 2015

‘Dieselgate’ rocked the automotive world in in September 2015 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its belief that Volkswagen had installed software devices in diesel cars to defeat emissions testing. The announcement triggered a staggering fall from grace for the German firm famed for its precision engineering and drive to become the world’s best-selling car manufacturer.

Volkswagen allowed their lofty ambitions to blind them from their responsibilities towards their customers, shareholders, the environment, and society in general.

The EPA discovered that the company had installed illegal software, dubbed ‘defeat devices’, in polluting vehicles that could recognise when it was undergoing an emissions test and subsequently change its performance in order to pass. Volkswagen had intentionally set emissions controls in their diesel engines to turn on during laboratory emissions testing only. This allowed vehicles’ outputs of Nitric oxide output to conform with U.S. standards during testing, but actually emit up to 40 times more Nitric oxide when driving on the road.

In total, Volkswagen installed defeat devices in 11 million cars across the globe between 2009 and 2015, 500,000 of which were in the U.S. Volkswagen were forced to pay a heavy price for their governance failures in the aftermath of the scandal, most notably a mammoth $18 billion fine from the EPA. Volkswagen’s share value plunged 30% in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, constituting a loss of over $26 billion in shareholder value. As of writing, the fallout from the controversy has cost Volkswagen over $33 billion, taking into account fines, financial settlements and recall/ repurchase costs, a substantial figure when you consider that the GDP of many small nations is less.

The greatest price of Volkswagen’s actions, however, are the 59 estimated premature deaths that will occur as a direct result from excess pollution of illegal Volkswagen cars in the United States alone.

Lessons to be Learned

Enron, Lehman Brothers, and Volkswagen teach us that the absence of a sound corporate governance structure can hold disastrous consequences for any company, regardless of their size and revenues. Corruption, lost profits, reputational damages, and in extreme cases bankruptcy, are just some of the potential consequences for a company chooses to ignore its governance responsibilities. On a grander scale too, governance neglect can have large-scale ramifications. Lives can be lost and economies unbalanced through neglect of even a single company. Therefore, it is clear that businesses must remember their corporate governance duties if they, and society, are to thrive and succeed into the future. If not, they may just be the next name to join this list.

Marijuana – Heading For a High?

As the push for legalisation increases around the world, the legal marijuana industry is experiencing a period of substantial growth for both medical and recreational use. Investors, manufacturers, and researchers agree that the market holds the potential to be one of the most lucrative in the world, but questions still remain as to what form the industry will take. Forecasts predict that the industry could produce up to $200 billion in revenue per annum by 2030, but with a large element of this hinging on the US market’s ability to overcome stern legal barriers, the future is still uncertain. Consequently, there may never again be a more critical juncture for the domestic US industry than the 2020 US elections.

State and Federal Split

For the citizens of New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota, Montana and Mississippi, the November 3rd ballot presents not only the chance to support their preferred presidential candidate, but also the opportunity to shape marijuana policies in their states. Already, marijuana is legal either recreationally or medically in 33 U.S. states. Combined with the plausible passage of the upcoming referendums, the message to Washington is clear; states and their constituencies want to see marijuana legalization at a central government level.

Federally, the use of marijuana has been outlawed in the US since 1970 under the Controlled Substances Act. Despite an evolving social acceptance of marijuana at state level and a greater understanding of its medical advantages, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I Drug, reserved only for substances deemed to be prone to abuse and without medical benefits. Strict categorisation as a controlled substance acts as a major growth inhibitor for both legal dispensaries and the domestic industry as a whole.

Classification Consequences

In the first instance, cannabis firms that turn a profit are being subject to Section 280E of the U.S. tax code which deprives firms selling federally illicit substances of corporate tax breaks, effectively subjecting businesses in the marijuana industry to extremely high corporate tax rates.

Additionally, Schedule I classification impedes firms from vertically integrating their operations in multiple states in an economically efficient manner. Multistate marijuana operators are prevented from carrying their products across state borders under federal law, meaning that processing facilities are required in any state in which a business hopes to establish a retail presence.

However, the biggest impediment on the domestic industry’s growth proliferation lies in the limited banking opportunities available to US based businesses. Technically, marijuana operations in legalised states are committing a federal crime, leaving large federally backed financial institutions fearful of potentially facing money laundering charges as a result of dealing with such businesses. Besides the huge financing difficulties that businesses therefore face, this also leaves many companies bearing the huge risks of operating strictly in cash. The clash between state and federal law has prompted financial institutions to be trapped between satisfying the needs of their local marijuana enterprises and the threat of federal enforcement action, with the marijuana industry frequently coming out second best.

Political Party Positions

When Donald Trump was elected US president in 2016, there was optimism among marijuana industry stakeholders that industry deregulation would be one of the many rollbacks introduced by the seemingly pro-small government president. However, what has occurred over the course of his tenure in the Oval Office thus far has proved nothing but disappointing for industry insiders. Trump has taken a standoffish approach to the subject, supporting states in deciding their own marijuana regulations but side stepping the issue at a federal level. Furthermore, the appointment of Mitch McConnell, an outspoken critic of the marijuana cause, as leader of the Republican senate majority threw cold water on any industry hope for deregulation.

On the opposite side of the table, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris have confirmed their commitment to decriminalising marijuana at a federal level; a commitment that follows earlier suggestions of democratic intentions to deregulate the industry. Last Autumn, the Democratically controlled House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow banks to serve legitimate marijuana businesses in legalised states. Ultimately, however, the bill suffered a swift death when it appeared before the Republican senate.

The Blue Wave

The re-election of Donald Trump and the maintenance of Senate control by the Republican party will, in all likelihood, dash industry hopes of deregulation. This will continue to enable states to determine their own laws on medical and recreational marijuana legalisation, while the drug remains Schedule I classified at a federal level. If the industry is to achieve its immense domestic growth potential in the US, a Blue Wave must reach across all aspects of the election. While a Biden victory is pivotal, his presidency is effectively worthless to US marijuana businesses without the legislative support of the Senate. A Mitch McConnell led Republican Senate will undoubtedly maintain the status quo, shattering any policy reform hopes for the next presidential term at least.

To be clear, will a blue wave entail legalisation for the marijuana industry at federal level? – In all likelihood, no. Will it signify decriminalisation? – Very possibly. But, will a Democratic sweep of the Senate and the White House result in a much simpler regulatory environment for legitimate marijuana operations? – Absolutely! And therein lies the opportunity for scale and big returns in the domestic industry. When marijuana companies can begin to bank legitimately and pay tax on par with other multi-billion dollar industries, that is when institutional investment will begin to flood into the industry, no longer fearful of the sectors ferocious volatility.

Lows of the High

The opportunities borne out of deregulation don’t come without their downsides, however. Currently, growing marijuana in the US is extremely profitable because of the fact that it is federally illegal, yet tightly regulated. High risk is simply borne in the nature of its production. But, as was recently evident in Canada, deregulation will give rise to widespread production across the board and, ultimately a plunge in retail prices. Furthermore, marijuana will maintain the inherent risks associated with all commodities, regardless of their regulatory status. These risks may even grow in the short run with the emergence of new poorly disciplined producers in the sector with no industry experience.

Decision Time

At the end of the day, it is the US voters that will dictate the future of the world’s largest legal marijuana market. A vote for the Republican party is a vote for the status quo, maintaining the industries position on the backburner for the foreseeable future. Alternatively, a Democrat vote clears the pathway for federal legalization and massive growth potential across the sector. Regardless of the outcome, the forthcoming elections will at least provide institutional investors with a clearer impression of the tumultuous industry’s future.

Ireland’s K-Shaped Recovery: Will The Rising Tide Really Lift All Boats?

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity”.

John F. Kennedy famously drew on this aphorism throughout his presidential campaign in 1959 and 1960. In an era of great uncertainty, the US of the 60’s faced the ominous dangers presented by war and nuclear threat. Comparatively, modern-day Ireland faces the daunting prospects of economic collapse and widespread poverty in the wake of COVID-19. Despite early hopes for a V or U- shaped recovery, a dual-track K-shape is emerging as the most likely recovery path from the current pandemic-driven recession, if recent Central Bank reports are anything to go by. Just like the Chinese writing of the word crisis, the diagonal strokes of the letter K represent two parts of the economy which are experiencing vast performance differences in the current climate. On the upward brush stroke lies well educated and skilled people employed in those industries emerging relatively unscathed, if not stronger, from the opportunities presented by COVID. Conversely, on the downward brush stroke of the K sit less-educated workers generally employed in old-line industries, such as tourism and hospitality, which will likely experience the repercussions of the crisis for years to come. Here’s what the K shaped recovery means for Ireland, how it will shape economic inequality, and how the government may try to counteract the economic and societal divides which it causes.

Constitution of a K-shaped Recovery

A K-shaped recovery takes place in the aftermath of a recession when different sectors of the economy begin to recover at different speeds, in different periods, or to different extents. What differentiates a K-shaped recovery from others is that it represents the track of separate disaggregated economic variables in relation to each other, such employment in different sectors or various income levels across society. In contrast, traditionally shaped economic recoveries, generally the distinct shapes of V, U, W, I, and L, detail economy-wide aggregate macroeconomic variables such as Gross Domestic Product, national employment rates, and inflation.

Ireland’s Twofold Recovery

On the surface, it seems as if Ireland could have one of the most exaggerated K-shaped recoveries globally. The recent Central Bank report highlights that the export-led sectors of the economy, spearheaded by IT and Pharma, are recovering at a quick rate, if not booming, while others such as hospitality and aviation continue to contract and bear the brunt of the crisis. This divide is reflected in the contrasting disaggregated economic variables we are currently seeing across different sections of society. The general shape of such differing performance levels across various sectors of the economy echoes the branches of a letter “K” when drawn together, with one declining and the other rising.

Outwardly, it appears that Irelands’ current economic outlook is not as bleak as was predicted in the pandemic’s early stages. On Friday, the Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe announced that a general government deficit of roughly €21 billion is now forecast for this year: a gloomy number no doubt, but one which has exceedingly improved upon earlier forecasts of €30 billion. However, under further inspection, it is clear to see that Irish multinational exports are not only shielding the economy from the worst of the crisis, but also masking the growth in societal inequality which increases with every day passing day of the pandemic. As Gerard Brady, the chief economist with Ibec, said; “It’s not just a K-shaped recovery for businesses but households as well,”.

Fuelling an Unequal Society?

The Labour Force Survey or Quarter Two 2020, released by the CSO in the final week of August, revealed that employment in Professional Occupations had grown by 7% in July 2020 in comparison to July of last year. Furthermore, employment in Technical and Associate Professional roles grew by 10% in the year to Q2 2020, while Financial, Insurance, and Real Estate occupations increased by 17% in the same period. In comparison, employment in the blue and pink collar sectors has experienced vastly different fortunes during the same period. Employment in the Accommodation and Food Services sector fell by 30% in the year following July 2019, and by 12% in the Construction sector in the same period. Factory work and Skilled Trade employment also fell by 10%, while Sales and Customer service positions decreased by 11%. As Brady remarks, “People who have worked remotely tend to be higher educated professionals. The people who are going to lose or have lost in terms of employment are lower paid, younger workers and workers with fewer skills, training and education.”

Shrinking the Disparities

Ultimately, the government’s ability to bridge the divides presented by COVID depends largely on forces that lie outside the realm of their control. The longer the crisis continues without an adequate vaccine, the more businesses that will close their doors. An increasing number of workers will be left redundant with only their savings and social welfare to rely upon, likely to result in large scale debt across segments of society. With the prospects of an emigration safety net mostly limited in the current international climate, profound societal scar tissue will likely be felt for years to come. If the government hope to have any chance of combatting the two-speed recovery through export-led growth, they must ensure that those workers on the upward brush stroke of the K recovery dispose of their incomes in local economies which have taken the brunt of the downturn. However, to achieve this, Budget 2021 must utilise the correct channels to get these economies and their resources back in motion. A treacherous few months await the government if they are to ensure that the pandemic doesn’t split society in the same way it has divided the economy.

Are The Days Of The Traditional Workweek Numbered?

By Ruadhán Glover

In recent months, COVID-19 has given rise to economic disaster for countless companies across the globe. Millions of people have lost their jobs, while those businesses who have managed to survive the economic crash thus far face the daunting challenge of controlling and mitigating the upset to all facets of their operations. However, amidst the huge disruptions to workplace and societal norms brought on by COVID-19, the potential for increasingly flexible models of work has been inadvertently highlighted. The idea of a four-day workweek is one such model which is currently shifting from the fringes to the mainstream with growing momentum. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently endorsed the idea of a shorter workweek as a method of increasing employee welfare and productivity in these trying times. Likewise, the results of a survey published by the Four Day Week Ireland campaign this week revealed that over three-quarters of people would support the government researching the potential of a four-day work week. But what exactly does a four-day workweek entail, and is it really possible to increase productivity by working less?

What is a four-day workweek?

Many common misconceptions surround the model of a four-day workweek, predominantly that it merely involves the compressing of a forty-hour workweek into four days rather than five. An authentic four-day workweek involves employees reducing, rather than compressing, their number of hours worked per week by approximately eight, in the hope of driving productivity out of such flexibility. Furthermore, progressive models of the shortened workweek should not include any reductions of salaries. If, as a result of greater productivity stemming from a shortened workweek, an employer’s bottom line is actually improving, then it is arguably unreasonable to cut the wages of those responsible for the increase in efficiency. A trial of the shorter workweek model by Microsoft in their Japan base in August 2019 reported a 40% increase in productivity during this period. With greater control over when and how they work, employees are more concentrated on the quality of their tasks, and less on how frequently they are working.
The recent momentum behind the concept of the four-day workweek has come on the back of workers need for flexible work arrangements during the Covid-19 crisis. However, this is not the first time in history that the length of a typical workweek has seen a drastic reduction.

In the final decade of the 19th century, it was estimated that an average factory floor employee in the US worked 100 hours per week. However, by the mid-20th century, a mere 60 years later, this had been reduced to the current standard 40-hour workweek. When put in such context, the reduction of our workweek by eight hours isn’t nearly as extreme as first seemed.


Additional Employer Benefits

Employees are not the only beneficiaries of a shortened workweek. In addition to the aforementioned increase in productivity that can be obtained through the model, a four-day workweek presents employers with the opportunity to diversify their pools of talent by attracting those who cannot, for various reasons, work the traditional five-day workweek. Furthermore, employers can safeguard their future talent through the provision of flexible work arrangements. Now, more than ever, young working professionals are placing great emphasis on their own wellbeing. Millennials are drawn to employment perks such as flexible working hours in addition to traditional pension and bonus benefits. The implementation of a four-day workweek can consequently greatly enhance an employer’s ability to attract and maintain the best and brightest workers in the industry.


Additional Societal Benefits

In addition to the aforementioned benefits to both productivity and employee wellbeing, a four-day workweek also has the positive effects of promoting both equality in the workplace and a more positive carbon footprint. The pressure to abide by gender roles and to take responsibility for household welfare sees many women excluded from the workplace. According to Gender Pay Gap research, the largest barrier for women in paid employment across the board is the struggle to balance work with family responsibilities. A four-day workweek would encourage the sharing of these responsibilities among partners, while allowing workers to balance their work commitments and family responsibilities. Furthermore, from an environmental perspective, a four-day workweek would have a more
positive effect on the national carbon footprint. The use of office spaces for shorter periods of time would result in a lower output of energy, while removing just one day of worker commutes could greatly assist in the reduction of damaging carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, Microsoft Japan’s one-month trial saw their electricity costs alone decrease by 25%.


Will we see any change?

It is quite feasible that when Covid-19 passes, we may plead to return to work five days a week in order to regain a sense of normality. However, if nothing else, this pandemic has presented employers with both the business reasons and the opportunity to transition to shorter work weeks. By creating a company that values employee wellbeing and productivity over hours put in, businesses can reap the rewards of working less hours. If we all finally give up on the idea that working longer will result in greater standards of business and life, the four-day work week could well become the latest shake up in a long list of changes to workplace and societal norms brought on by Covid-19. Indeed, maybe some good will finally come of this crisis.