Corporate social responsibility: The halo effect

This week, I am writing in The Economist about a phenomenon that should at least be of interest (if not of concern) to lawyers and law professors. A new paper finds that prosecutors tend to be influenced by firms’ corporate giving when they investigate businesses for corruption. An excerpt:

Do-gooding policies help firms when they get prosecuted

Jun 27th 2015 | From the print edition

“THERE is one and only one social responsibility of business,” wrote Milton Friedman, a Nobel prize-winning economist. “To use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” Plenty of climate-change campaigners would argue with that (see article). But even if you accept Friedman’s premise and regard corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies as a waste of shareholders’ money, things may not be absolutely clear-cut. New research suggests that CSR may create monetary value for companies—at least when they are prosecuted for corruption.

The largest firms in America and Britain together spend more than $15 billion a year on CSR, according to an estimate last year by EPG, a consulting firm. This could add value to their businesses in three ways. First, consumers may take CSR spending as a “signal” that a company’s products are of high quality. Second, customers may be willing to buy a company’s products as an indirect way to donate to the good causes it helps. And third, through a more diffuse “halo effect”, whereby its good deeds earn it greater consideration from consumers and others.

Previous studies on CSR have had trouble disentangling these effects because consumers can be affected by all three. A recent paper by Harrison Hong of Princeton University and Inessa Liskovich of the University of Texas attempts to separate them by looking at bribery prosecutions under America’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The authors argue that since prosecutors do not consume a company’s products as part of their investigations, they could be influenced only by the halo effect.

The study found that, among prosecuted firms, those with the most comprehensive CSR programmes (as measured by MSCI ESG, a provider of corporate indices) tended to get more lenient penalties. Their analysis ruled out the possibility that it was firms’ political influence, rather than their CSR stance, that accounted for the leniency: companies that contributed more to political campaigns did not receive lower fines.

Read the full article here.

Simon Hedlin

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