EDITORIAL: Britain's stable isn't that filthy

EDITORIAL: Britain's stable isn't that filthy - If you're reading this in the office, just stop for a second to take a look around at your colleagues. How many of them do you think are dishonest?

by MATTHEW GWYTHER, editor
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

If you're reading this in the office, just stop for a second to take a look around at your colleagues. How many of them do you think are dishonest?

How many are so crooked as to be capable of outright villainy? How many would not give a second thought to selling you down the river by embroiling you, your livelihood and the rest of the company's in a dollars 3.8 billion fraud involving systematic booking of running costs in the accounts as capital expenditure? And what about you - are you a bit of a rule-bending, dodgy operator, too?

I suspect that, for the vast majority of people, the answer to all these questions is no. But our enquiry is not entirely frivolous. When George W Bush - the great champion of the American corporate way - starts declaiming that the business world needs sorting out by an elite unit that would 'function as a financial-crime Swat team', it is time to start worrying.

As everyone slopes off on holiday to try and forget about work, falling markets, and the recovery turning into a dead-cat bounce, global capitalism is in fairly bad odour. Business is looking more unsure of itself than it has for years. Furtive even.

After Enron, WorldCom, Qwest - and whichever other US skeletons clatter out from the closet in the coming weeks - we're all now dreading the arrival of the laundry van containing the dirty British linen. If you believe the doomsters, you'll be convinced that global business is one huge Augean stable: a midden in need of a thorough mucking out.

But wait a second. Although it cannot be denied that there is a considerable problem out there that needs tackling, any remedial action must be undertaken with care. There is a lot still to be learned from the excesses of recent years. Most companies are run in an ethical way in the UK, but in all that late-90s euphoria, greed became an unwholesome way of life. There's a need to get back on the straight and narrow path of genuine wealth creation rather than tricksy off-book financial engineering. At the same time, all those for whom day-trading of shares became a pleasurable way of life, especially in the States, need to remind themselves of the buyer beware maxim. There are no free lunches in bull or bear markets.

The fact remains that outright fraud in business is rare. Look around you - how much direct experience do you have of seriously underhand practice?

To give the impression that all executives, accountants and business-people are crooked and on the make is dangerous and corrosive. That goes not just for those legendary corpulent felines in the boardroom - whose inflated remuneration packages dependent on ramping up the share price have led us into this sorry mess - but for the rest of us, as well.

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