People don’t trust corporations

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Luigi Zingales had a friend who worked as a consultant for the now-infamous insurance giant American International Group:

To prevent him from starting his own hedge fund, AIG offered him a non-compete agreement: a sum of money meant to compensate him for the opportunity forgone. It is a perfectly standard and well-regarded practice — but unfortunately for my friend, his payment under this agreement was to be made at the end of 2008. So he spent the early months of 2009 living in terror: His contract was classified as one of the notorious AIG retention bonuses.

At the height of the fury against those bonuses, he received several death threats. Though he had no legal obligation to do so, he returned the money to the company, hoping that the gesture might keep his name from being published in the papers. In case that failed to protect him, he prepared a plan to evacuate his wife and children. It was the responsible thing to do; after all, angry protestors had staked out the homes of several AIG executives whose names appeared in print — and only luck had prevented someone from getting hurt.

People don’t trust large corporations anymore:

In one recent survey, 65% of Americans said the government should cap executive compensation by large corporations, while 60% wanted the government to intervene to improve the way corporations are run. And those views hardly reflect confidence in the government: Only 5% of Americans in the same poll said they trust the government a lot, while 30% said they do not trust it at all. It is just that, at the moment, Americans trust large corporations even less: Fewer than one out of every 30 Americans say they trust them a lot, while one of every three Americans claims not to trust large corporations at all.

Such attitudes are common — outside the US:

In a recent study, Rafael Di Tella and Robert MacCulloch showed that public support for capitalism in any given country is positively associated with the perception that hard work, not luck, determines success, and is negatively correlated with the perception of corruption. These correlations go a long way toward explaining public support for ? America’s capitalist system. According to one recent study, only 40% of Americans think that luck rather than hard work plays a major role in income differences. Compare that with the 75% of Brazilians who think that income disparities are mostly a matter of luck, or the 66% of Danes and 54% of Germans who do, and you begin to get a sense of why American attitudes toward the free-market system stand out.
In most of the world, the best way to make money is not to come up with brilliant ideas and work hard at implementing them, but to cultivate a government connection. Such cronyism is bound to shape public attitudes about a country’s economic system. When asked in a recent study to name the most important determinants of financial success, Italian managers put “knowledge of influential people” in first place (80% considered it “important” or “very important”). “Competence and experience” ranked fifth, behind characteristics such as “loyalty and obedience.”

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