What's the Difference Between U.S., Chinese Corruption?

Jonathan Weil joined Bloomberg News as a columnist in 2007, and his columns on finance and accounting won Best in the Business awards from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers in 2009 and 2010.
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Forming opinions in the absence of facts is a dangerous business, which is why it's premature to draw conclusions about whether the government is on the right track with its investigation of JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s hiring practices in China. That said, if the feds are going to make a case, they will need a lot more evidence on the bank than what the New York Times offered today in its latest article on the subject. Maybe they will find it.

Thearticle relies on information from people whom the Times didn't identify. So it's sometimes hard to tell whose version of events we're getting -- the government's or JPMorgan's. The article does refer to a "confidential government document" as a key source, although it obviously isn't very confidential because the Times said the document was sent to JPMorgan.

The bank is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bans companies from bribing foreign officials to win business. In short, JPMorgan hired a lot of powerful people's kids in China. The bank even had a name for this -- the "Sons and Daughters" program.

The Times said the program started in 2006, citing interviews with former bank employees. "Friends and family of China's ruling elite were clamoring for jobs at the bank," the article said. The program supposedly started as a way to ensure that JPMorgan didn't improperly hire the children of Chinese officials to land business. It wound up fostering questionable hiring practices rather than preventing them, according to the Times, which cited the SEC letter and interviews with former bank employees.

"It is unclear why and when the 'Sons and Daughters' program shifted from a safeguard into a liability," the Times article said. "But the results were clear: Children with elite pedigrees faced lower standards."

Imagine that. As an example, the Times cited the 2010 hiring of Tang Xiaoning, son of the chairman of China Everbright Group, a state-controlled financial conglomerate that later hired JPMorgan as a financial adviser.

The article went on: "According to the interviews, an internal JPMorgan investigation into its hiring practices across the globe has so far identified more than 250 well-connected hires in Asia alone. That number included the sons and daughters of private Chinese companies, a hiring practice that would not violate United States law but could cause regulatory problems overseas."

Here's where I start to wonder. On the one hand, the government may have dug up information that's far worse than anything described in the article. Still, barring definitive evidence that shows JPMorgan intentionally hiring people's kids as a form of bribery, it's hard to tell where this probe is heading.

In the U.S., companies hire powerful people's children all the time for reasons beyond their obvious skill set. (Chelsea Clinton working at a hedge fund?) And they don't just bother with the kids -- they hire the powerful people themselves. (Do you think Larry Summers got a high-paying job at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw because of his skills as a trader?)

If the feds are going to target wheel-greasing in China -- where it can be difficult to get business done without bribing somebody -- does this mean we need a Domestic Corrupt Practices Act, too? In Colorado, JPMorgan used to employ Chris Romer as a banker. His father, Roy Romer, was the state's governor for 12 years. Did that help Chris Romer get hired? It couldn't have hurt. Do we need a law against this? Of course not.

There are certainfacts of life that aren't worth bringing in the FBI to check out. When rich people with teenage children give millions of dollars to elite universities, there's a good chance they want special attention from the admissions office for their kids, if not an outright guarantee they will get in. And when owners of companies hire senators' kids for internships, they probably would like to meet the parents someday.

Perhaps what JPMorgan did in China was worse. We don't know yet. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The decision of whether to hire someone often has less to do with that person's qualifications than it does with who they are. Life isn't fair -- not in the U.S. and not in China.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Weil at jweil16@bloomberg.net