This month shareholders at Fluor Corporation and NiSource Inc. voted to approve resolutions that require the companies to disclose their political spending. Fluor is a global engineering and construction company and NiSource supplies natural gas and electricity to nearly 4 million customers in seven U.S. states. Support for corporate political spending transparency has been growing nationwide as more and more shareholders demand to know whether their companies are using their investments to engage in potentially risky political behavior or investing in issues that are not aligned with their corporate values.
In a great trend, some companies- more than half of the S&P 100– have moved to voluntarily increase transparency around their political spending, however many still prefer to hide their campaign and lobbying spending from public view. With the majority votes at Fluor and NiSource, shareholders are demanding transparency.
The recent majority votes at Flour and NiSource demonstrate the continued momentum for corporate transparency, but they are also significant because both companies are recipients of major government contracts. Fluor Corporation and its subsidiaries have been awarded over $470 million in federal contracts in fiscal year 2016 alone. NiSource was awarded almost one million dollars in government contracts in 2015 and 2016, and has been awarded almost $12 million since 2011.
About a month ago, the Panama Papers scandal broke onto the international news scene, shining sunlight on the vast numbers of shell companies the Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, used to hide assets for wealthy individuals and companies.
The leaker (hacker?) behind the Panama Papers revelations , dubbed John Doe , dumped a tsunami of data on German journalists, who then enlisted the assistance of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) to wade through the 11.5 million documents. Because of the vast amount of data, the ICIJ is now turning to crowd-sourcing analysis by publishing a searchable database to allow the public to access the trove of information on secret treasures hidden within shell companies.
Careers are already ending as the exposé shines a light on the dirty little secrets public figures have camouflaged through the use of anonymous shell companies. The Prime Minister of Iceland was forced to step down when his name was associated with the Panama Papers files. The surge of stories has yet to ebb and will likely continue to flood us with information as citizen sleuths uncover additional instances of the rich and famous using Mossack Fonseca’s services to arrange the harboring of their assets from tax authorities, journalists, and other probing eyes.
Many of the world’s elite stash their riches offshore in lush tropical locales like the Bahamas or the British Virgin Islands, but a large number are also buried in companies formed in the deserts of Nevada. The state ranks on the list of top 10 places used by the Panamanian law firm to create shell companies for their clients.
Though flush with famous foreigners’ names like Emma Watson, the actress that played Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger, Americans are conspicuously underrepresented in the 14,000 plus names on Mossack Fonseca client list. That shouldn’t be surprising, though, since the U.S. is already well-established as a tax haven.
It’s hard to believe that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) collects worker safety data with a system that is better suited for the Stone Age than the Information Age. Right now, OSHA relies on data sources that are too limited to allow the agency to effectively respond to hazardous workplace conditions. For example, data from the OSHA Data Initiative is typically two to three years old. That simply does not provide a clear picture of current threats to workers. To correct this problem, OSHA just released a rule that will require certain employers to submit workplace injury and illness records electronically on a quarterly basis, ensuring OSHA will have timely and systematic access to occupational hazard data. When the rule is implemented, workers and other members of the public will be able to access the information through a searchable database on OSHA’s website.
This rule is a big deal – it will significantly change the way OSHA monitors and responds to workplace hazards. Here are six reasons to celebrate this new rule:
- The rule helps government work more efficiently. With the most up-to-date injury and illness records, OSHA can use its resources to identify and target the hazards putting workers at the greatest risk.
- With greater efficiency in tracking injuries, we can expect to see improved results in preventing injuries. Once OSHA is able to analyze the greatest risks facing U.S. workers, it can take action to prevent and eliminate those hazards. Workers will inevitably reap the benefit of safer workplaces over time.
- Workers and the public can make informed decisions based on the information available. The more information, the better. Having access to injury and illness data on OSHA’s website will enable potential employees to make careful decisions about where to work. Likewise, customers and other members of the public can use this information to evaluate companies before doing business with them.
Note: Late Tuesday, The New York Times and other national outlets reported that hedge fund managers are living in “another Wall Street Universe” relative to the already-excessive annual pay and compensation packages of finance chief executives. Top executives at hedge funds took home almost $13 billion in compensation last year, even as some of the industry’s biggest names lost their investors billions of dollars.
Another year of outrageous hedge fund compensation. There’s a lot of noise in this year’s election, but if there’s one consistent theme, it’s that people are furious with a rigged system. And they are right to be angry. They are furious with a financial system that lets so few make so much, when so many are making so little. And they can’t begin to comprehend how people making more than $1 billion a year pay a lower tax rate than people struggling to get by. With voters rising up, the Gilded Age for the hedge fund gazillionaires should come to an end.
These million-dollar-an-hour elites aren’t creating value; they’re capturing the compensation that should be paid to working Americans who do create this value.
Robert Weissman is the President of Public Citizen
A stock option is to risk what air is to fire. That’s not exactly what James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers #10. (“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire”). But the nation’s fourth president would certainly agree were he to comment on Washington’s proposal to reform Wall Street pay.
Six federal agencies charged with overseeing Wall Street are proposing rules to implement Section 956 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. This section charged them to write rules that prevent “excessive” pay packages that lead to “inappropriate risk-taking.”
Americans for Financial Reform, a coalition where Public Citizen leads the task force on executive compensation issues, calls for the reduction of stock options in pay packages. Stock options are agreements providing the opportunity (but not obligation) to buy or sell stocks at fixed prices within certain time frames.
Yes, stock options can align managers’ interests with those of other shareholders. Yes, risk-taking is what companies including banks do when they make loans. This can make sense at a firm such as Apple. Managers could simply sit on the iPhone revenues and pay themselves huge sums in cash. But a shareholder prefer they develop the Next New Thing that generates increasing revenue and lifts the stock price. But just as air and fire are separately important, risk-taking can become volatile at a bank when mixed with stock options.
The problem with stock options is that they’re only valuable if the stock price rises above what’s called the strike price. Stock options are different than actual stock. If you own 1000 shares of Citigroup, which is trading at $50, you’ve got $50,000 worth of stock. If the price goes to $60/share, you’ve got $60,000, which is better. If the price sags to $40, you’ve got $40,000, which is worse.