Multinational Monitor has released its annual list of the ten worst corporations of the year. This year, when the financial crisis is on the minds of many, the list includes AIG, a company which rose to prominence for its role in the financial crisis, alongside others such as Cargill, Chevron, and General Electric (GE).
The magazine writes that the financial crisis is in many ways emblematic of the worst of the corporate-dominated political and economic system. The financial crisis highlights many of the problems that Multinational Monitor has sought to expose, including improper political influence, non-enforcement of regulations and deregulation, and short-term thinking. Additionally, the crisis shows how much the US economy shifted towards the financial sector with an emphasis on profit over social use. However, Multinational Monitor says:
“What is most revealing about the financial meltdown and economic crisis, however, is that it illustrates that corporations — if left to their own worst instincts — will destroy themselves and the system that nurtures them. It is rare that this lesson is so graphically illustrated.”
Of course, it wasn’t just the financial companies that were misbehaving. Multinational Monitor’s list–reprinted here–includes a broad range of companies:
There’s surely no one party responsible for the ongoing global financial crisis.
But if you had to pick a single responsible corporation, there’s a very strong case to make for American International Group (AIG).
Credit default swaps are effectively a kind of insurance policy on debt securities. Companies contracted with AIG to provide insurance on a wide range of securities. The insurance policy provided that, if a bond didn’t pay, AIG would make up the loss.
AIG’s eventual problem was rooted in its entering a very risky business but treating it as safe. First, AIG Financial Products, the small London-based unit handling credit default swaps, decided to insure “collateralized debt obligations” (CDOs). CDOs are pools of mortgage loans, but often only a portion of the underlying loans — perhaps involving the most risky part of each loan. Ratings agencies graded many of these CDOs as highest quality, though subsequent events would show these ratings to have been profoundly flawed. Based on the blue-chip ratings, AIG treated its insurance on the CDOs as low risk. Then, because AIG was highly rated, it did not have to post collateral.
Through credit default swaps, AIG was basically collecting insurance premiums and assuming it would never pay out on a failure — let alone a collapse of the entire market it was insuring. It was a scheme that couldn’t be beat: money for nothing.
The decline of developing country agriculture means that developing countries are dependent on the vagaries of the global market. When prices spike — as they did in late 2007 and through the beginning of 2008 — countries and poor consumers are at the mercy of the global market and the giant trading companies that dominate it. In the first quarter of 2008, the price of rice in Asia doubled, and commodity prices overall rose 40 percent. People in rich countries felt this pinch, but the problem was much more severe in the developing world. Not only do consumers in poor countries have less money, they spend a much higher proportion of their household budget on food — often half or more — and they buy much less processed food, so commodity increases affect them much more directly. In poor countries, higher prices don’t just pinch, they mean people go hungry. Food riots broke out around the world in early 2008.
But not everyone was feeling pain. For Cargill, spiking prices was an opportunity to get rich. In the second quarter of 2008, the company reported profits of more than $1 billion, with profits from continuing operations soaring 18 percent from the previous year. Cargill’s 2007 profits totaled more than $2.3 billion, up more than a third from 2006.
One of the inherited legacies from Chevron’s 2001 acquisition of Texaco is litigation in Ecuador over the company’s alleged decimation of the Ecuadorian Amazon over a 20-year period of operation. In 1993, 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians filed a class action suit in U.S. courts, alleging that Texaco had poisoned the land where they live and the waterways on which they rely, allowing billions of gallons of oil to spill and leaving hundreds of waste pits unlined and uncovered. They sought billions in compensation for the harm to their land and livelihood, and for alleged health harms. The Ecuadorians and their lawyers filed the case in U.S. courts because U.S. courts have more capacity to handle complex litigation, and procedures (including jury trials) that offer plaintiffs a better chance to challenge big corporations. Texaco, and later Chevron, deployed massive legal resources to defeat the lawsuit. Ultimately, a Chevron legal maneuver prevailed: At Chevron’s instigation, U.S. courts held that the case should be litigated in Ecuador, closer to where the alleged harms occurred.
Many of the world’s most brutal regimes have a common characteristic: Although subject to economic sanctions and politically isolated, they are able to maintain power thanks to multinational oil company enablers. Case in point: Sudan, and the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).
Oil money has fueled violence in Darfur. “The profitability of Sudan’s oil sector has developed in close chronological step with the violence in Darfur,” notes Human Rights First. “In 2000, before the crisis, Sudan’s oil revenue was $1.2 billion. By 2006, with the crisis well underway, that total had shot up by 291 percent, to $4.7 billion. How does Sudan use that windfall? Its finance minister has said that at least 70 percent of the oil profits go to the Sudanese armed forces, linked with its militia allies to the crimes in Darfur.”
Although it is too dangerous, too expensive and too centralized to make sense as an energy source, nuclear power won’t go away, thanks to equipment makers and utilities that find ways to make the public pay and pay.
Case in point: Constellation Energy Group, the operator of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland. When Maryland deregulated its electricity market in 1999, Constellation — like other energy generators in other states — was able to cut a deal to recover its “stranded costs” and nuclear decommissioning fees.
Starting in 1988, the Philippines undertook what was to be a bold initiative to redress the historically high concentration of land ownership that has impoverished millions of rural Filipinos and undermined the country’s development. The Comprehensive Agricultural Reform Program (CARP) promised to deliver land to the landless.
It didn’t work out that way.
Plantation owners helped draft the law and invented ways to circumvent its purported purpose.
Dole pineapple workers are among those paying the price.
General Electric (GE) has appeared on Multinational Monitor’s annual 10 Worst Corporations list for defense contractor fraud, labor rights abuses, toxic and radioactive pollution, manufacturing nuclear weaponry, workplace safety violations and media conflicts of interest (GE owns television network NBC).
This year, the company returns to the list for new reasons: alleged tax cheating and the firing of a whistleblower.
On February 7, an explosion rocked the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia, near Savannah.
Days later, when the fire was finally extinguished and search-and-rescue operations completed, the horrible human toll was finally known: 13 dead, dozens badly burned and injured.
As with almost every industrial disaster, it turns out the tragedy was preventable. The cause was accumulated sugar dust, which like other forms of dust, is highly combustible.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the government workplace safety regulator, had not visited Imperial Sugar’s Port Wentworth facility since 2000.
The old Philip Morris no longer exists. In March, the company formally divided itself into two separate entities: Philip Morris USA, which remains a part of the parent company Altria, and Philip Morris International.
Philip Morris USA sells Marlboro and other cigarettes in the United States. Philip Morris International tramples over the rest of the world.
The world is just starting to come to grips with a Philip Morris International even more predatory in pushing its toxic products worldwide.
The new Philip Morris International is unconstrained by public opinion in the United States — the home country and largest market of the old, unified Philip Morris — and will no longer fear lawsuits in the United States.
As a result, Thomas Russo of the investment fund Gardner Russo & Gardner told Bloomberg, the company “won’t have to worry about getting pre-approval from the U.S. for things that are perfectly acceptable in foreign markets.” Russo’s firm owns 5.7 million shares of Altria and now Philip Morris International.
Monopoly control over life-saving medicines gives enormous power to drug companies. And, to paraphrase Lord Acton, enormous power corrupts enormously.
The Swiss company Roche makes a range of HIV-related drugs. One of them is enfuvirtid, sold under the brand-name Fuzeon. Fuzeon is the first of a new class of AIDS drugs, working through a novel mechanism. It is primarily used as a “salvage” therapy — a treatment for people for whom other therapies no longer work. Fuzeon brought in $266 million to Roche in 2007, though sales are declining.
Roche charges $25,000 a year for Fuzeon. It does not offer a discount price for developing countries.