本周，多家美国公司爆出为拓展海外市场行贿的丑闻。除了沃尔玛（Wal-Mart）的墨西哥贿赂门，美国证券交易委员会（Securities and Exchange Commission）周三又指控摩根士丹利（Morgan Stanley）一位前高管通过行贿中国某国企官员为摩根士丹利赢得业务。另外，证交会还要求好莱坞的四家影视制作公司提供它们在中国获得的交易信息。实际上，目前至少有81家美国公司正面临贿赂调查。
《纽约时报》（New York Times）的报道称，沃尔玛通过行贿获得了土地审批、降低建筑商费用等一切，快速地开设了数百家新店，将竞争对手轻松地甩在了后面。如果这些说法属实，似乎沃尔玛通过行贿获得了大量的好处。位于伦敦的研究公司Planet Retail掌握的数据显示，沃尔玛最大的海外市场、英国2000-2010年间销售额平均增长8%，同期欠发达的墨西哥市场年均增长却达到了12%。
另外，据彭博社（Bloomberg）援引商业协调委员会（Business Coordinating Council）旗下私有领域经济研究中心（Private Sector Economic Studies Center）上周发布的研究报告称，企业把约10%的收益付给了腐败官员。腐败最终会滋生出更多腐败，因为贿赂让官僚们更有动力搞出更多的官样文章、提高监管障碍，而这反过来，又会促使公司拿出更多的钱用于贿赂。
确实，近来外界对贿赂问题的关注度进一步提高，但是我们也有必要从更宏观的层面来看待这个问题。世界银行学院（World Bank Institute）前治理局局长、布鲁金斯学会（Brookings Institution）高级研究员考夫曼表示，全球行贿案件数量多年来一直相对平稳。2003年，全球行贿总额约1万亿美元，占全球经济的2-3%。虽然占据媒体头条位置的是雅芳（Avon）、惠普（Hewlett-Packard）这些公司的行贿风波，但考夫曼估计全球仅20%的行贿来自英国、美国等富裕国家的跨国公司。
This week, a spate of U.S. companies have been accused of unscrupulously bribing their way into foreign markets. Adding to Wal-Mart's debacle in Mexico, the Securities and Exchange Commission on Wednesday charged a former Morgan Stanley (MS) executive of bribing an official of a state-owned Chinese company to secure business for the firm. The SEC is also asking four Hollywood studios for information on deals they procured in China. In fact, at least 81 U.S. companies currently face bribery investigations.
The ethical case against bribery is a no brainer. Cheating is obviously wrong. But given the spate of companies embroiled bribery cases recently, the business case doesn't seem quite as clear.
For many companies, bribery is simply the price paid to enter some of the world's toughest markets -- markets that can be lucrative. It's easy to see how paying off governments might speed up an otherwise slow and complex bureaucratic process. But even if executives never get caught, bribery actually ends up costing companies, studies show.
For Wal-Mart (WMT), bribes allegedly bought the retail giant everything from zoning approvals to reductions in builder fees, helping it build hundreds of new stores at a pace where competitors struggle to catch up, according to the New York Times. If the allegations are true, Wal-Mart appears to have gained plenty from the strategy. Whereas the U.K. is the chain's biggest overseas market , generating an average of 8% sales growth in 2000 to 2010, Mexico's lesser-developed market averaged 12% growth over the same period, according to London-based research firm Planet Retail.
Indeed, the gains are impressive. But it becomes less so once the hidden costs are factored in, according to a World Bank study by Daniel Kaufmann and Shang-Jin Wei. Companies that pay bribes actually end up spending more time negotiating with bureaucrats since the hopes of a pay-off give officials an incentive to haggle over regulations. For instance, in a separate study looking solely at the Ukraine, Kaufmann found firms that paid excessive bribes spent about 30% more time with government officials than firms that didn't.
What's more, companies pay about 10% of their earnings to corrupt officials, according Bloomberg, citing a study released last week by the Business Coordinating Council's Private Sector Economic Studies Center. Corruption ultimately breeds more corruption, as bribes give bureaucrats more incentive to raise red tape and regulatory hurdles, which in turn opens companies up to pay even more.
Of course, the costs are much higher if companies get caught. In 2008, German engineering giant Siemens (SI) paid a record $1.6 billion to U.S. and European authorities to settle charges that it routinely used bribes to secure large contracts and infrastructure projects around the world. At the time, the sum was the large fine for bribery in modern corporate history.
To be sure, while bribery has received more attention recently, it's relevant to look at the broader trend. Globally, the number of cases of bribery has stayed relatively steady over the years, says Kaufmann, former director of the World Bank Institute who is now a senior fellow at Brookings Institution. In 2003, bribes worldwide totaled about $1 trillion, representing 2% to 3% of the global economy. Kaufmann says it's probably around that level today. And while Avon (AVP) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) make headlines, only about 20% of bribes from around the world come from multinationals of wealthy countries including the U.K. and U.S., he estimates.