Does Bribery Pay? For Whom? And How Much?

Anticorruption advocates—including those in the private sector who have taken the fight against corruption seriously—insist that bribery is bad for business. That’s likely true in the aggregate, and perhaps it’s true for some individual firms. But it’s probably not true for all firms—otherwise, why would so many of them pay bribes? But it’s hard to know how much firms benefit from bribery. Likewise, while would be useful to know more about the factors that affect the size and probability of bribery, figuring this out is a challenge because of the secrecy of corrupt transactions.

In a recent working paper, Yan Leung Cheung, P. Raghavendra Rau, and Aris Stouraitis try to get at these questions by looking at enforcement data for anti-bribery laws–both laws that apply domestically and those (like the U.S. FCPA and the UK Bribery Act) that prohibit foreign bribery. In particular, the study examines a subset of reported cases where (1) a bribe was (allegedly) paid for a particular, identifiable public contract, announced on a specific date, (2) there is stock and financial data for the firm, available on a day-to-day basis, and (3) the enforcement data contains information on the size of the bribe paid to secure the contract. Armed with that information, the authors reason that we can use the abnormal increase in firm market capitalization that coincides with the announcement of the contract as a measure of the gross benefit of the bribe to the firm (the authors assume that bribe-paying firms would not have gotten the contract without paying the bribe). We can then subtract the size of the bribe from that gross benefit to get the net benefit of bribery for the firm. On top of that, the authors reason that we can learn something about how the total gains from the bribe transaction are allocated between the firm and the corrupt public official by dividing the size of the bribe payment by the sum of the bribe payment plus the gross benefit of the bribe. The higher this ratio, the more the benefits of bribery go to the public official; the lower this ratio, the more the benefits of bribery accrue to the bribe-paying firm.

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