STATE OF THE UNION: Regulators are in. So are new corporate paragons: Procter & Gamble's AG Lafley is so unassuming he's been dubbed an un-CEO

STATE OF THE UNION: Regulators are in. So are new corporate paragons: Procter & Gamble's AG Lafley is so unassuming he's been dubbed an un-CEO - We live in dismal times. The US stock market has suffered its worst quarter since 1987. Hopes for a quick rebo

by NICK DENTON, is in New York, starting his third business;
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

We live in dismal times. The US stock market has suffered its worst quarter since 1987. Hopes for a quick rebound have evaporated. Deflation is a real risk, and the Federal Reserve has already shot most of its monetary stimulus. The accounting firms quietly de-fang proposed regulation. Respected businesspeople, fearing for their reputations, refuse to serve on boards.

Young professionals are back in entry-level jobs, or living with their parents - who realise that their 401k pension funds will not support an easy retirement.

Enough? The catalogue of disaster is familiar and, fortunately, it is misleading. US business is in a painful mess and the economy may well suffer prolonged stagnation, but the US economic system is demonstrating yet again its strength and adaptability. So here is the good news.

First, the downturn - most acute in technology and investment banking - may actually benefit traditional US industries. Investment banking bonuses and profits contributed to the cost of capital for their industrial customers.

And the profits of technology companies were predicated on their ability to charge over the odds for server computers and enterprise software.

CIOs are cutting their costs, by slowing down development, using cheap open-source Linux systems, and negotiating brutal discounts on software packages.

Second, US economic growth has been supported, above all, by an increase in the number of hours worked. The main driver has been the growing participation of women in the workforce, but in the 1990s there was a remorseless rise in the hours worked in industries such as technology and professions such as law and, enticed by stock options, many young professionals put their lives on hold. For those still in work, balance is returning.

Moreover, the received wisdom of the 1990s was that US business was inviolable, protected by politicians relying on corporate donations. Rubbish. US politicians care about votes more than money. With American voters still smarting from their stock market losses, there are more votes in taking on corporate corruption than can be bought by business contributions.

Take Eliot Spitzer, attorney general for New York, who is building a campaign for the Governor on the back of tough financial market reform; the front cover of Fortune, dubbed him The Enforcer: even the greatest fundraisers can't buy name recognition like that. Outsiders forget: US politicians are as entrepreneurial as US businesspeople, and the regulation of business is now a political opportunity.

The media has reshuffled its business heroes. Charismatic CEOs are automatically under suspicion. Even Jack Welch, the business hero of the 1990s, came under fire for his retirement perk deal with GE. Regulators are in. So are the new corporate paragons: executives such as AG Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble, so unassuming that he's been dubbed the un-CEO.

All in all, regulation, and self-regulation, is working: company evildoers are being punished. Few may have been dragged off in handcuffs, but the shaming has extended far wider. Martha Stewart, under investigation for insider trading, has become a punchline. And take Jerry Levin, the CEO who exchanged TimeWarner's independence for inflated AOL stock. Once the wise rabbi of media convergence, he is now the target of excoriation.

The reckoning is still under way. Credit Suisse First Boston, the bank that enriched friendly CEOs with IPO favours, thought it had escaped with a reprimand from the SEC and dollars 100 million in fines. But the state attorneys still have Frank Quattrone, head of the bank's technology practice, in their sights.

And why is this salutary? Because corporate executives and investment bankers have made their careers finessing regulation. It is only by painful example - the ruin of their fellows - that they learn the risk of bilking investors. Corporate America will have to calculate the downside of public humiliation against the upside of stock option plans and investment banking bonuses. That is a healthy balance.

Even more important: the punishment has been meted out, not just to top executives, but to all the employees at companies such as Arthur Andersen and Enron. This serves notice: it is not enough to claim ignorance; it is the responsibility of everyone in an organisation to ensure that it acts honestly; everyone's reputation is at stake.

There is the danger, of course, that overzealousness may paralyse business.

Also, that memories are short. And regulators, like generals in a war, always fight the previous scandal and rarely anticipate the next. Nevertheless, the downturn, and the malpractice it has revealed, will leave US business stronger; it has again shown the capacity to reform.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime