Few Americans had ever heard of B. Ramalinga Raju before last week, but most people think they know what to expect of PriceWaterhouse. Raju’s Indian firm, Satyam (from the ancient Sanskrit word for “truth”), built a sterling reputation in providing consulting and outsourcing services to Indians and clients around the world. Ironically, Satyam was no truth-teller. It juiced the value of its shares by inventing assets, including a billion dollars of non-existent cash, and inflating its profits by a factor of nine. As it turns out, Satyam’s fabulous rise was just one more fraud, and Raju, his brother, and the company’s CFO are now under arrest. By contrast, PriceWaterhouse, Satyam’s auditor, insists it’s done nothing wrong.
Thanks to this latest scandal, we can see more clearly than ever that:
--No country has a monopoly on financial fraud. It’s a global problem.
--Even adults need adult supervision, especially when money’s involved. Self-regulation is all too often no regulation at all. When self-regulators fail to adhere to high standards, abuses can go on long enough before being detected that the consequences are dire, widespread and difficult if not impossible to remedy.
--It takes more than one person or a small group of unscrupulous conspirators to perpetrate a fraud such as Raju’s, Madoff’s or the others that keep coming to light. It requires gullible investors in search of the highest possible return, otherwise savvy institutional investors who willingly suspend their disbelief in financial results that sound too good to be true, auditors who don’t audit, and regulators who don’t regulate. These frauds are little more than genteel gangsterism or refined racketeering, not the work of mavericks on the make.
PriceWaterhouse in particular should be ashamed. If it failed to apply the most rigorous accounting standards to Satyam, the culprits within the accounting firm should be prosecuted with the full force of the law. If, as it claims, PriceWaterhouse did it by the book, then the book needs to rewritten – fast.
--In the US and around the world, more than a mere recovery is needed. Our aim must not be to reinflate the bubbles that have been bursting and reward the reckless and irresponsible with an intravenous drip of new capital . Rather, we need simultaneously to restart economic growth, restructure our economies to eliminate the sources of imbalance and excess, and rebuild confidence in our institutions. These goals are interactive and mutually supportive. The bottom line is that a sustainable recovery is probably unattainable unless we get on urgently with the work of restoring confidence in our banks, stock markets, auditors, and governments.
Satyam shows that the truth can hurt. But confronting the truth can set you free, opening up new possibilities for progress and growth with the highest standards of integrity.