"We've done turnarounds so many times, we're going in circles." --James M. Dollinger, a shareholder at GM's annual meeting, talking about GM's continued decline. GM lost $10.4 billion in 2005 and about $2 billion in 2006, as reported in The New York Times
Few companies have swathed themselves in green as enthusiastically as the world's biggest financial corporations. While not traditionally associated with antipollution or renewable-energy issues, Citigroup (C), HSBC Holdings (HBC), and a number of their rivals have made impressive promises about investing in green businesses and reducing their own greenhouse-gas emissions.
But a close look at recent corporate environmental reports reveals that, despite the rhetoric, certain financial giants are struggling with the first step: diminishing the CO2 and other gases discharged from their buildings and the jets on which their employees travel.
HSBC, which declared itself the first "carbon-neutral" bank in 2005, reported in late May that its greenhouse-gas emissions rose 23%, to 813,000 tons, in 2006. ABN Amro's (ABN) jumped 20%, to 414,720 tons. And Citigroup, UBS (UBS), and Barclays (BCS) each reported single-digit emissions growth for 2006, despite plans to curtail pollution.
Just a few banks, including Royal Bank of Canada (RY) and Australia's Westpac Banking, (WBIC) said they trimmed emissions in 2006. Reports from other major banks are expected in coming months.
Financial institutions say they're victims of success: Brisk business in their sector has meant more employees in well-lit offices working on more computers around the clock. This demands more electricity--created, often, by burning CO2 -spewing coal or natural gas. More deals, meanwhile, lead to more air travel, another key source of emissions linked to global warming. Reducing travel "is difficult in a rapidly expanding business," says Francis Sullivan, deputy head of group sustainable development at HSBC.
Still, at some banks, emissions seem to be growing faster than the rush of business. Emissions per full-time employee grew 7% at HSBC and 11% at ABN Amro.
The companies insist they're making progress. Citigroup has earmarked $10 billion over the next decade to develop eco-friendly offices and boost energy efficiency. And HSBC, UBS, and Barclays note that they offset some or all of their emissions by funding the reduction of greenhouse gases by others.
ABN Amro says its offsets will make it carbon-neutral by 2008. UBS says it's on track to meet its goal of reducing emissions 40% by 2012. Carbon offsets, though, have been under scrutiny these days because some have been shown to fund green activity that would have taken place even if offsets hadn't been purchased.
"I want to give companies credit for stepping forward" with their environmental information, says Dan Bakal, a director at Boston environmental investment group Ceres. "But it's not clear how much action they're actually taking."
The June 4 indictment of Representative William Jefferson (D-La.) includes the surprising allegation that he violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) by offering a bribe to a Nigerian official. It's the first time a U.S. official--let alone a congressman--has been charged with breaking that 1977 law. Jefferson's lawyer denies that he did anything wrong.
But the Jefferson case is just one in a fresh wave of prosecutions under the FCPA, which bars Americans from bribing foreigners. "There have been more cases in the last 4 1/2 years than in the previous 26 years combined," says Bill Steinman, head of the international anticorruption practice at law firm Powell Goldstein. So far this year three individuals and two companies have been indicted, sentenced, or have pleaded guilty under the law, including one case in which criminal penalties totaled $26 million.
Steinman and others say the activity is driven by the Justice Dept.'s post-Enron focus on corporate ethics and companies' increased reporting of violations under Sarbanes-Oxley.
U.S. companies have long grumbled that the FCPA hurts their competitiveness overseas, giving a freer hand to global rivals. But Justice says the crackdown is here to stay. "We should encourage public confidence in the free-market system," says Barry Sabin, deputy assistant attorney general of Justice's Criminal Division. "We want to have a deterrent effect."
O.K., so he's not a spellbinding speaker. Nevertheless, on June 1, Alan Greenspan drew a 1,000-plus audience at BookExpo America, the book industry's annual trade show, held this year in New York. Greenspan was there to plug The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, to be published on Sept. 17 by Penguin Group.
Interviewed by his wife, NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell, the ex-Fed chairman reflected on his frequent congressional testimony--including his obfuscations. "It was important not to answer certain questions," he said. "The markets were watching." (But in the book, he's "not holding back.") Greenspan also said that, under French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Britain's Gordon Brown, and Germany's Angela Merkel, Europe will begin to move forward "in a way that it hasn't."
It was left to Mitchell to mix the rational with a bit of exuberance. She warned Washington-area drivers to steer clear if they spotted the suddenly limo-less Greenspan at the wheel and got her husband to admit that he scribbled much of his book while in the bathtub. "O.K.," he said. "I'm another Archimedes."
A thirst for cachet continues in the bottled-water market. As annual sales trickle past the $10 billion mark in the U.S., Groupe Danone's (DA) Evian is introducing the Palace Bottle (an "elite hydration experience"), following last year's launch of Beverly Hills-based Bling H2O, whose Swarovski-crystal-studded bottles sell for $20 to $40.
Available only in clubs, hotels, and restaurants starting in late June, the 25-oz. Palace Bottle ($5 to $8) will hold Evian's usual water. But before presenting it, waiters are to replace the plastic cap with a curvy stainless steel spout and describe the qualities of French Alpine water to customers. "It's affordable luxury," says Marc Jacheet, marketing vice-president for Evian North America.
Will it sell? "It's a little farfetched," says Robert H. Frank, author of The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas. "But there are always people willing to spend money on frivolous things."
They're avidly pursued by marketers around the world, but many young Americans don't have a clue about the origins of their favorite brands. A survey of 1,000 undergraduates by market researcher Anderson Analytics found that students tend to mistakenly identify familiar brands as Japanese, American, or German. Many make assumptions based on countries' perceived strengths, assuming that electronics products are Japanese, for instance. Students who thought Nokia was Japanese gave it a high quality rating, says Jesse Chen, an Anderson consultant who oversaw the study, because 82% believe Japan makes quality products. Just 31% associated Finland with quality goods--no doubt because they didn't realize it produces Nokia phones.
Should volunteer work be calculated as an economic statistic? The U.N. has long thought so, citing the impact of volunteer projects on a country's social and economic development. But it lacked a systematic way to measure such work. Now the U.N.'s International Labour Organization, which oversees the gathering of labor data, is working with the Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins University to capture the information.
The plan is to get the agencies around the world that run labor force surveys --in the U.S., it's the Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics--to survey people about their volunteer work as well as their jobs. Only a handful of countries, including the U.S. and Canada, do this with any regularity, says Lester Salamon, director of the Johns Hopkins center. An earlier attempt to quantify volunteer work in 36 countries found that from 1995 to 2000, 52% of adults in Norway volunteered their time, followed by Britain (30%), Sweden (28%), and the U.S. (22%).
Shown the economic contribution of volunteerism, says Daphne Casey, chief of the U.N. Volunteer Office in New York, governments are more likely to plan for and promote such work. That, Casey says, is particularly important to the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals, which aim to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015.
Documentary filmmakers like to bash business--from fast food to the health-care system. What U.S. industry or institution might be the next target for the big screen?
"Investment bankers. They haul off a staggering chunk of America's wealth, and it's very hard to pinpoint what value they add. The title: A License to Steal."
Ben Stein, lawyer, writer, economist
"How about a hard look at the socially conscious documentary industry--the toxic chemicals used to develop the movies, the gallons of gas burned during production.... It'll be called Shot!"
Joe Garden, features editor, The Onion
"I'd like to see Hollywood do a searing expos? of overpriced movie theater concession stands. Bowling for Raisinettes?"
Andy Borowitz, publisher, borowitzreport.com;
author, most recently, of The Republican Playbook