Tomorrow, March 15 is enshrined as one of the most famous days of all-time, the “Ides of March”. On this day in 44 BC, the “Dictator for Life” Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of Roman nobleman who did not want Caesar alone to hold power in the Roman Empire. It was however, this event, which sealed the doom of the Roman Republic as his adopted son Octavian first defeated the Republic’s supporters and then his rival Dictator Marc Anthony and became the first Emperor of the new Roman Empire, taking the name Augustus.
One of the more interesting questions in any anti-corruption compliance regime is to what extent your policies and procedures might apply in your dealings with customers. Clearly customers are third parties and in the sales chain but most compliance programs do not focus their efforts on customers. However, some businesses only want to engage with reputable and ethical counter-parties so some companies do put such an analysis into their compliance decision calculus.
However, companies in the US, UK and other countries who do not consider the corruption risk with a customer may need to rethink their position after the recent announcements made by Citigroup Inc. regarding its Mexico operations.
In an article in the New York Times (NYT), entitled “Fraud Exposes Challenges for Citi in Mexico”, reporters Michael Corkery and Jessica Silver-Greenberg wrote about the troubles which have befallen “the bank’s “crown jewel” – a sprawling retail lender called Banamex.” Citigroup recognized there was risk in Banamex, even having, what the reporters said was, a “little black book” which was stated by one un-named top executive to be the “book of redlined clients” and was also described as “an informal tally of Mexican companies” that could imperil the company’s Mexican operations. The bank has come to grief with its involvement in a $400MM fraud “that was discovered last month highlights the limitations of that kind of culling, and more broadly points to the challenges of finding solid lending clients in a country where the line between big business and political cronyism can become blurred.”
While Citigroup blamed this problem on “bad luck and bad actors” the article revealed a more complicated picture. The picture was one where “the bank had been placing large bets on a few risky corporate borrowers”. The $400MM loss involved an oil services company, Oceanografía SA de CV. But the bank also sustained other losses where loans were made to building contractors, which after a Mexican government a policy shift it “effectively killed the developers’ suburban projects” and they were not able to repay the loans.
Moreover, with regard to Oceanografía, the bank itself recognized the inherent danger of doing business with the entity. The article noted that Banamex has extended $585MM in short-term credit to a company that Citigroup itself had warned its own bond investors was “from time to time subject to various accusations, including accusations of corrupt practices.” Oceanografía is a company that provided construction, maintenance and vessel-chartering services to Pemex’s exploration and production subsidiary. However, as the article noted, “Oceanografía’s fortunes, however, changed sharply last month after it became the subject of a new government review that resulted in a suspension of government contracts to Oceanografía for the next 20 months. Banamex had advanced as much $585 million to Oceanografía through an accounts receivable program. The program was supposed to work like this: Banamex would advance money to Oceanografía to provide services to Pemex. The oil giant would then pay back Banamex, verifying invoices provided by Oceanografía to confirm that the work had been completed. In theory, Banamex was relying on Pemex’s ability to pay back the bank.”
Unfortunately for Banamex, much like the developers “which relied on government subsidies to finance their suburban developments, Oceanografía’s business relied on government contracts from Pemex. But when those ties were cut, the problems quickly surfaced. Shortly after the suspension of government contracts to the oil services company, Citigroup said it discovered the fraud at its Mexican unit, involving Oceanografía.”
These losses were coupled with the semi-autonomous relationship that Banamex had with its parent, Citigroup. The article stated, “the bank he [Mr. Medina-Mora] built has been considered something of a “black box” — a highly profitable but not especially transparent unit that was run with great autonomy by its leader, according to current and former bank executives. Sometimes, though, that autonomy rankled other executives in New York, the people said.” Citigroup denied that Banamex was semi-autonomous and in a statement in the article said, “We dispute assertions that the management team is autonomous,” Further, “While Banamex is a subsidiary of Citigroup, it is absolutely subject to the same risk, control, anti-money laundering and technology standards and oversight which are required throughout the company.”
For the compliance practitioner there are several lessons to be garnered from Citigroup’s reported problems and Julius Caesar’s demise on the Ides of March. In Caesar’s case, he wholly ignored the resentment that had been welling up in the Roman aristocracy for his high-handed action in becoming a Dictator. Even on the day in question, he dismissed his personal guard detail as he was going to the Roman Senate and finally, although he allegedly was handed a written communication warning him of his impending doom, he never took the time to read it. In other words, not only did he miss the red flags, he ignored specific warning signs and reduced his risk management capabilities by dismissing his security detail.
Similarly, as reported by the NYT, Citigroup would seem to have missed the warning signs about Oceanografía and if the NYT article is correct, might have actually internally ignored red flags while broadcasting them to bond holding investors. Lastly, whether the Banamex unit was semi-autonomous, as alleged in the article, or not as claimed by Citigroup’s statement, the point is that there must always be oversight. More than simply a ‘second set of eyes’ there should be internal controls which can be reviewed and vetted.
Finally, as noted in the article, the loans in question involved businesses that relied on government contracts, payments or some other form of support. While that may be of some comfort in developing countries, it can also be a source of risk. It also points to another analysis, which is not always considered, that being if a proposition is high reward, it is probably because it is also high risk in some area. While many companies can evaluate high financial risk and hope for attendant high financial reward, they also need to consider how a high corruption risk might factor into their analysis.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2014