About Haggai Porat

LL.M. (Law) Candidate, Harvard Law School M.A. (Economics) Candidate, Tel Aviv University

Implicit Corruption in the Chinese Consumer Debt Industry? A Close Look at Recent Evidence

While many country’s bribery laws require an express quid pro quo—an agreement to exchange a specific benefit for a specific exercise of government power—in practice many corrupt relationships involve implicit quid pro quos, in which the private party provides something of value to government officials, and the government officials use their power to help their private benefactors, but there is never any express agreement, or even any direct connection between any individual official act and a particular benefit conferred by the private party. The context in which such implicit quid pro quos are most widely suspected and discussed is perhaps campaign finance in democracies, but such implicit quid pro quos can occur in many other contexts as well. It is often very difficult—not only for law enforcement agencies, but also for empirical researchers—to find sufficiently clear evidence of an implicit corrupt deal. Yet quantitative empirical researchers have been making important strides in using available data to detect evidence of hidden or implicit wrongdoing—an approach sometimes dubbed “forensic economics.”

A fascinating recent paper by Sumit Agarwal, Wenlan Qian, Amit Seru, and Jian Zhang (forthcoming in the Journal of Financial Economics) illustrates both the potential and limitations of this approach. The paper, entitled “Disguised Corruption: Evidence from Consumer Credit in China,” presents quantitative evidence of an implicit quid pro quo between a large Chinese bank and government officials who wield regulatory authority over the bank. The paper finds that the bank offers unusually favorable lending terms to government employees (the “quid”) and that in those provinces where this practice is more widespread, the bank receives more favorable treatment from governments (the “quo”). While this evidence alone cannot establish that there was an implicit exchange (the “pro”), the authors suggest that this is the most plausible explanation of the data.

The data is certainly susceptible to that interpretation, but there are other, more benign possibilities. I’ll first say a bit more about the main evidence the paper offers for an implicit quid pro quo, and then suggest (though not necessarily urge) a possible alternative explanation.

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The Bribery Trial of Sitting Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu Poses Unprecedented Challenges

The criminal trial of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, on multiple corruption charges, opened yesterday, only ten days after the formation of a new government, and after years of police investigations, indictment procedures, and three rounds of early general elections. The trial is an unprecedented event in Israel, and one of the few examples anywhere in the world where a sitting head of government has stood trial on criminal charges in his own country. This situation poses unique challenges. On the one hand, the court must ensure that Netanyahu’s rights, as a criminal defendant, are respected. That said, though, some adjustments will have to be made to secure both the fairness of the trial and the integrity of Israeli executive and judicial branches, given that as the trial unfolds, Netanyahu will continue to serve as Prime Minister.

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Adapting Anticorruption Enforcement to an Age of Populism and Polarization

Shortly after the U.S. Senate acquitted President Clinton in 1999, he apologized for triggering the impeachment process. President Trump, in contrast, declared that his acquittal called for “a day of celebration,” and immediately started firing White House employees who had testified before the House of Representatives. In 2008, then-Israeli Prime Minister Olmert resigned shortly after the police recommended that he should be indicted on corruption charges. In contrast, after Prime Minister Netanyahu was indicted on multiple bribery charges, he infamously said that Israeli citizens should “investigate the investigators,” and even with the trial approaching, Netanyahu shows no signs of considering resignation. Instead, he is currently fiercely promoting legislation to amend several of the Israeli Constitutional Basic Laws in ways that will allow him to remain in office for years to come. These troubling examples illustrate how the resurgence of populism, coupled with increasing polarization, are making it easier for corrupt politicians to evade accountability, even in countries with functional legal and judicial systems. Deep political divisions and strong partisan loyalty are not new, but in the past, it seems there was a degree of overlapping consensus on minimum standards of integrity and propriety, and enough citizens were willing to enforce these standards on a non-partisan basis that leaders would be restrained by political checks—enforced through things like elections and internal party discipline—that could complement judicial processes.

Moreover, leaders like Trump and Netanyahu have acted aggressively to undermine the institutions of justice in order to protect themselves. Both leaders have cavalierly attacked the professionalism and integrity of their country’s law enforcement agencies by suggesting that investigations targeting the leader or his associates are politically motivated “witch hunts.” And both have taken more concrete action to undermine the ordinary operation of the machinery of justice. In the U.S., after his Senate trial acquittal, President Trump intervened to help allies who had been found guilty in cases related to investigations of impropriety by Trump’s 2016 campaign. For example, Trump’s Attorney General ordered the Department of Justice to seek a more lenient sentence for Trump’s former consultant Roger Stone, and Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of several others in a short and unorthodox process. Netanyahu has been even more aggressive in trying to weaken legal institutions in order to protect himself. After being indicted, Netanyahu fired the Minister of Justice and appointed in her place a low-ranking member of his party with no prior ministerial experience. The new Minister’s first action was to appoint a new Solicitor General—the immediate superior of the prosecution team in Netanyahu’s case–through an irregular process and against the recommendation of the non-partisan Attorney General. (Due to the political deadlock, the Minister is part of a caretaker government and could therefore appoint an interim Solicitor General without the approval of the public committee that the law would otherwise require.) On the eve of Israel’s third round of elections, the new Solicitor General decided—against the opinion of the Attorney General and many others—to launch a police investigation into a firm in which Netanyahu’s chief rival Benny Gantz served as a director (obscuring the fact that Gantz himself is not a suspect). More recently, the Minister of Justice gave the unprecedented order to freeze all non-urgent judicial procedures due to the Covid-19 outbreak—a move that indefinitely postpones Netanyahu’s trial. While the Covid-19 outbreak has disrupted or delayed judicial proceedings in many countries, there was no expert opinion supporting such drastic measures in Israel, especially given that Israel has more per capita testing and ventilators capacity than nearly any country on earth. Even now, when newly detected cases are close to zero, a new date for the trial has yet to be set. Moreover, to avoid a fourth round of elections, given the continued deadlock, Netanyahu is now fiercely and unprecedently promoting legislative amendments to Israel’s Constitutional Basic Laws that would allow him to hold onto office for years to come.

When professional, and traditionally non-partisan, law enforcement agencies find themselves under attack by corrupt populists, these agencies often do not respond, presumably due to the belief that the only way to maintain integrity, legitimacy, and professionalism in the face of such attacks is to refrain from commenting on unfounded claims meant to disparage state attorneys and police investigators. There is much to be said for that approach, but at the same time, the institutions of justice can and should do more to counter the attempts of corrupt populists to undermine those institutions in order to remain in power.

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Heightened Transparency of Stock Trading by Public Officials Could Help Convey Reliable Information in Crises that the Public Deserves to Know

On February 7, 2020, there were 34,876 confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide, but none in the United States. On that day, Fox News published a reassuring opinion piece co-authored by Republican Senator Richard Burr, arguing that the US is prepared to face any outbreak. Around February 13, a couple of days before the first confirmed cases in the US were discovered and before the stock markets began to plunge, Burr sold hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stocks, many of which were in the hotel industry. Senator Burr’s stock sale was not public at the time; the sales were first reported by ProPublica only a month later.

We do not yet know whether Senator Burr’s decision to dump his stocks was based on confidential government information to which he had special access. On the one hand, new information on the Covid-19 pandemic was coming out every day, and perhaps Senator Burr was simply one of many investors who changed their minds regarding the outbreak and were lucky to exit the market in time. On the other hand, Senator Burr is the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which was receiving regular briefings on the coronavirus situation, so the suspicions towards him are understandable. (It also didn’t help matters that a few weeks after the publication of his op-ed Senator Burr told wealthy donors in a closed-door meeting that the Covid-19 outbreak “is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic,” but never revised his previous public reassurances.) Whether justifiably or not, Senator Burr was harshly criticized (including on this blog), with many calling for his resignation, and he has been sued for insider trading by a shareholder of one of the companies whose stocks he dumped. In addition to the criticism leveled at Senator Burr, several commentaries, including Cristina’s post on this blog, have argued that this incident demonstrates the need to amend the 2012 STOCK Act to impose stricter limitations on the freedom of senior US government officials, including Members of Congress, to trade in stocks.

My perspective is somewhat different. While I acknowledge the legitimate concerns that motivated calls to strengthen prohibitions on stock trading by government officials, in my view regulation should be more focused on ensuring the transparency of those trades, rather than on further limiting or blocking stock trading.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Flawed and Irrelevant Defense to Bribery Allegations

After three years of investigations, it’s likely that Benjamin Netanyahu will soon become Israel’s first sitting prime minister to be indicted. The indictment, which has already been published by the Attorney General though not yet submitted to the court, accuses Netanyahu of several crimes of corruption. One of the most serious allegations (commonly referred to as “Case 4000”) is that when Netanyahu served as both Prime Minister and the Minister of Communications, he took steps to promote a deregulation of the telecom sector that would greatly benefit Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, one of Israel’s largest telecom firms. In particular, Netanyahu is alleged to have pushed for a decision allowing Bezeq to merge with another Israeli telecom giant. In return, Netanyahu allegedly received favorable media coverage from a news company controlled by Mr. Elovitch during two general elections.

Netanyahu has yet to submit a formal statement of defense to the charges, but given his countless press releases and interviews, it’s easy to predict what he will say. In particular, Netanyahu and his spokespersons have repeatedly argued that “decisions Netanyahu made regarding the telecom giant when he was communications minister were reasonable, had the support of the ministry’s professionals and were approved by the legal gatekeepers” (emphasis added). It’s not clear at this stage whether it is in fact true that the professionals in the Ministry of Communications also supported the merger. But suppose it were true. Why would it matter? Why would this be a defense to the bribery charges? Netanyahu and his supporters have remained vague, perhaps intentionally so, on this point. But there seem to be three possible arguments that he might advance as to why the Ministry professional staff’s (alleged) agreement with his position supplies a defense to the bribery allegation. None of these arguments has merit, and the court should dismiss all of them.

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What Is the Effect of Market Competition on Corruption? Some Surprising New Findings

How does market competition affect the prevalence of corruption? Some people think that increasing competition could decrease corruption (see here and here). The intuition is that increased competition lowers firms’ profits, meaning that public officials cannot extract as much money out of the firms through extortive threats (e.g., a threat to falsely report noncompliance with safety regulations unless the firm pays a bribe). As the saying goes, you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip. By contrast, the argument continues, in less competitive markets firms have higher profits, and officials, knowing this, can use threats to extract some or all of this surplus for themselves. However, others have argued that increased market competition may lead to more corruption. Those taking this position tend to emphasize collusive rather than extortive corruption (see here and here) and point out that increased market competition makes collusion—which is, of course, a risky proposition—more attractive to firms, because the firms have more to gain from a leg up on their competitors. For example, an importing firm that pays a bribe to avoid paying customs duty will receive greater benefit from this competitive advantage when competition is fierce, since it will allow the firm to reduce prices and increase its market share more extensively. A monopolistic importer, by contrast, has less of an interest in paying the bribe to avoid the import duty, since a monopolist can offset much of the duty by raising consumer prices without needing to worry about losing much market share.

So, one can construct plausible theoretical arguments in both directions. What does the empirical data say about which story is closer to the truth? There have been a handful of studies so far, but they provide contradictory or equivocal results—some studies find that more competitive markets are associated with less corruption (see here, here and here), but others have found the opposite. But these studies focus on “corruption” generally, while the theories sketched above suggest that the effect of market competition on corruption may differ depending on the type of corruption—coercive or collusive. One prominent study, by Alexeev and Song (2013), explicitly incorporates this distinction and finds—based on analysis of data from the World Bank Enterprise Surveys of manufacturing firms in different countries—that increased competition increases the prevalence of collusive corruption. While this is an important step in the right direction, the survey data used here is still not ideal: the measure of “collusive corruption” is based on the respondent firms’ answer to a question about the amount of money firms in their line of business typically need to pay to public officials each year “to get things done,” which seems both vague and potentially overinclusive.

Luckily, later on the World Bank Enterprise Surveys expanded the range of corruption measures collected as part of its Investment Climate surveys in developing countries, recently publishing the latest of these surveys (get the data here), that may shed new light on this debate. The attractive feature of this more comprehensive survey data is that, in contrast to the data used by Alxeev and Song, the new surveys ask not only about the one vague measure of corruption, but ask separately about four different kinds of informal payments: to tax officials (hereinafter tax bribe); to secure government contracts (hereinafter contract bribe); to secure an import license (hereinafter import bribe); and to secure an operating licensing (hereinafter operating bribe). The survey, both in its current and older version, further asked every firm to report the number of competitors that it faces in its market of operation, which provides a ready firm-specific measure of market competition.

A thorough analysis of the competition-corruption link using this new data will need to await future work, but as a first step, I conducted some preliminary, exploratory quantitative analysis of the Investment Climate survey data. The results were surprising, and suggest not only is asking whether “corruption” is positively or negatively correlated with market competition is too crude, but also that even the proposed collusive-coercive distinction does not adequately capture the nuances of the relationships between competition and various forms of corruption.

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