Grant Thornton: Tackling corruption

In our roundtable debate, Grant Thornton partners from Brazil and India discuss how businesses can behave in an ethical manner and thrive, in spite of corrupt practices.

At the G20 summit in Australia in November 2014, global leaders reaffirmed a commitment they made in 2010 to tackle the negative impact of corruption on economic growth, trade and development.They agreed to take action on bribery, public- and private-sector transparency, integrity and international cooperation on anti-corruption.

“At the end of 2014, corruption continues to represent a significant threat to global growth and financial stability,” the G20 said. “It destroys public trust, undermines the rule of law, skews competition, impedes cross-border investment and trade, and distorts resource allocation.

“As a group of the world’s largest economies, the G20 remains committed to reducing the incidence of corruption and building a global culture of intolerance towards corruption.”

GrowthiQ brought together Grant Thornton partners from Brazil and India – key G20 economies that are no strangers to corrupt practices – to discuss how businesses can grow ethically in an environment where corruption is rife.

The impact of corruption

Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index scores countries on the perceived level of public-sector corruption, with zero being highly corrupt and 100 being very clean. In 2014 the scores were as follows: India - 38; Brazil - 43. Is this an accurate reflection of the reality on the ground?

Vidya Rajarao: The index reflects the perception of corruption and I think it’s an accurate perception if you link it to the ease of doing business in India. Whether you’re a small-business owner, a mid-sized company or a multinational, the complexity involved in starting a business in India is a real challenge and at every step of the way there are bureaucratic hurdles, and either demands made for payment or monies offered just to jump the queue.

Daniel Maranhão: For the past few years Brazil has seen some very large corruption scandals involving both public officials and the private sector but our corruption perception score has barely moved. I think this discrepancy between the reality and perception is primarily because Brazilians are used to it and believe that it has always been that way.

What impact do these instances of corruption have on economic growth?

VR: They create an added cost to doing business in India. There’s never a guarantee that a corrupt payment will result in the desired outcome so you could end up increasing costs tremendously without any benefit. That’s very acute in large government contracts. And these costs are not legitimate under local regulations so it leads to an entire parallel economy of shadow payments. A recent study by the OECD showed that India’s GDP would be significantly increased if all these corrupt payments were brought into the real economy.

DM: In Brazil, this is a very timely moment for us to be talking about corruption. The nation is in the middle of investigating its largest-ever corruption scandal involving the state-run oil firm (Petrobras) and several other companies. The investigation may bankrupt many companies and halt major infrastructure projects, leading to hundreds of lay-offs. The scandal has also led to reputational damage for the Brazilian economy and heightened the risk of doing business in the country.

How does this affect businesses that are trying to enter the market for the first time or that are already on the ground and trying to expand?

VR: Domestic companies that do not have any overseas operations would likely consider it as a normal cost of doing business. Indian companies that have overseas operations, typically in North America and Europe, are subject to the stringent regulations of these countries, as are foreign multinationals investing in India. Those companies cannot afford to be complacent because they would expose themselves to severe penalties running into billions of dollars, prison time and perhaps even losing customers. Companies might lose out on government contracts but they are just not interested because the risks outweigh the rewards.

Dealing with corrupt practices

How can businesses avoid exposing themselves to instances of corruption?

VR: The only way to stay clear of corrupt practices is to have some realistic expectations about doing business in India. If you follow the rules and don’t make corrupt payments, it could take up to 12 months to incorporate a company. If you have a business plan to produce revenue in the first year of operation, you’re likely to take shortcuts, which could lead to making corrupt payments. The C-suite has to really support their management team in India. If it takes 12 months so be it, but let’s do it properly and legally, without making corrupt payments. That requires tremendous staying power and cash flow, but time and time again it has been shown that if you stand your ground first time round, the second time round, you won't be asked to make a corrupt payment.

If business leaders do find themselves having to deal with corrupt practices, what is the best way to handle this situation without damaging prospects for business growth?

VR: If you have a situation where you have made an inadvertent corrupt payment, it’s best to stop the practice immediately and take steps to ensure it does not happen again. Report it to your own internal compliance and legal team so that someone is aware of it and record it properly in your books and financial statements. Don’t disguise it as a payment for something else.

Changing corrupt cultures

How would you assess your respective governments’ records on tackling corruption?

VR: Since the new Indian government came to power in 2014, the perception on the ground is that it has taken steps to curb transactional and institutional corruption, but that it still has a long way to go. India is very decentralised through its 30 states; each has significant power and they are not always in tune with what happens in the centre. But from the centre the message has been clear: it’s focused on growth and governance, and implementing e-governance in particular – meaning you don’t have to interact with government officials, where the incidence of corruption is highest.

DM: At the start of 2014, the Brazilian government approved  its anti-money-laundering laws. Since then, I think, indictments have quadrupled. The commitment is growing but there is a long way to go, especially because of the acceptance of the corruption culture, which makes things harder to change. But companies are scared. With the introduction of anti-corruption laws we have seen – perhaps for the first time in history – very wealthy people arrested. So I think Brazil is in a much better place than it was previously.

Is there anything the business community can do to demand more transparency?

VR: Many companies have started adopting what’s known as an ‘integrity pact’ that Transparency International devised many years ago. In its simplest form, if you’re a company and you’re dealing with a government agency or state-owned entity, the two parties sign an integrity pact committing to not engage in corrupt practices during the lifetime of the contract. Both parties would agree to an independent monitor to ensure that they comply with the terms of the integrity pact.

DM: Companies in Brazil are now required to invest more in software changes to adapt to internal revenue service information system requirements, which will monitor conversations between clients, vendors and tax compliance authorities. We’ve also seen an increase in staff training on anti-corruption and law compliance. We get invited to about 10 to 15 events a month to talk about compliance and how to build a culture of zero tolerance. I think the business community is trying to raise the bar, or at the very least to have practices that are as good as the rest of the world with regards to tackling corruption.

How would you rate the prospects of your respective countries for improving their Transparency International scores?

VR: I think India has a good chance of improving its score but it requires political will to change the current system, combined with companies committing not to make corrupt payments. But the score itself is just an end result. The aim should be to reduce corruption, improve compliance with laws and regulation, and re-establish faith in institutions like the judiciary and other agencies. Our score will improve if perceptions on the ground improve.

DM: I’ve been analysing the index for the past few years. Despite politicians going to jail for corruption scandals and the passing of strong anti-money laundering and anti-corruption laws, Brazil has stayed in the same place, just two to three positions higher or lower. This suggests other countries are taking action too, so we clearly need to do more.