Corruption Culture and Corporate Misconduct

Xiaoding Liu is Assistant Professor of Finance at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business. This post is based on a recent article by Professor Xiaoding.

A key question in corporate governance is how to control problems arising from conflicts of interest between agents and principals. The existing literature has extensively investigated traditional ways of dealing with agency problems such as hostile takeovers, the board of directors, and institutional investors, and has found mixed evidence regarding their effectiveness. Acknowledging the difficulty in designing effective governance rules to curb corporate scandals and bank failures, regulators and academics have recently turned their attention inward to the firm’s employees. In particular, they ask whether a firm’s inherent tendency to behave opportunistically is deeply rooted in its corporate culture, commonly defined as the shared values and beliefs of a firm’s employees.

In my article, Corruption Culture and Corporate Misconduct, recently published in the Journal of Financial Economics, I investigate this question by studying the role of corporate culture in influencing corporate misconduct. To do so, I create a measure of corporate corruption culture, which captures a firm’s general attitude toward opportunistic behavior. Specifically, corporate corruption culture is calculated as the average corruption attitudes of insiders (i.e., officers and directors) of a company. To measure corruption attitudes of insiders, I use a recently developed methodology from the economics literature that is generally described as the epidemiological approach (Fernández, 2011). It is based on the key idea that when individuals emigrate from their native country to a new country, their cultural beliefs and values travel with them, but their external environment is left behind. Moreover, these immigrants not only bring their beliefs and values to the new country, they also pass down these beliefs to their descendants. Thus, relevant economic outcomes at the country of ancestry are used as proxies of culture for immigrants and their descendants. Applying this approach, I use corruption in the insiders’ country of ancestry to capture corruption attitudes for insiders in the U.S., where the country of ancestry is identified based on surnames using U.S. Census data.

Using a sample of over 8,000 U.S. companies, I test the main prediction that firms with high corruption culture, which tend to be more tolerant toward corrupt behavior, are more likely to engage in corporate misconduct. Consistent with this prediction, I find that corporate corruption culture has a significant positive effect on various types of corporate misconduct such as earnings management, accounting fraud, option backdating, and opportunistic insider trading. The effects are also economically significant: a one standard deviation increase in a firm’s corruption culture is associated with an increase in the likelihood of corporate misconduct by about 2% to 7%, which are comparable to the effects of other governance measures such as board independence.

I further show that my findings are robust to controlling for time-varying local and industry factors, and traditional measures of corporate governance including the board size, the percentage of insider directors, the presence of institutional investors, and the threat of hostile takeovers. Van den Steen (2010) proposes a model of corporate culture and predicts that the appointment of a new CEO will lead to turnover through both selection and self-sorting. Thus, although corporate culture tends to be persistent over time, it is likely to change in a significant way around new CEO appointments. Motivated by this prediction, I examine corporate misconduct 5 years before and after the appointment of a new CEO while controlling for firm fixed effects. I continue to find a significant positive relation between corruption culture and corporate misconduct, which further alleviates endogeneity concerns.

The theoretical literature has predictions regarding the mechanisms through which corporate culture would affect opportunistic behavior. The first channel predicts that corruption culture acts as a selection mechanism by attracting or selecting individuals with similar corruption attitudes to the firm, where these individuals act according to their internal norms that are then reflected in corporate outcomes (Schneider, 1987). Consistent with this channel, I find that individuals with high corruption attitudes are more likely to join firms with high corruption culture and an insider is more likely to leave the firm if his corruption attitudes are more distant from the corruption attitudes of the other insiders in the firm. The second channel predicts that corruption culture can operate beyond internal norms and have a direct effect on individual behavior through group norms (Hackman, 1992). To test this channel, I examine misconduct at the insider level and focus on the sample of insiders that have moved across firms. Holding the individual constant, results show that when the same individual joins a firm with high corruption culture, his likelihood of engaging in personal misconduct increases compared to when he was at a firm with low corruption culture, consistent with corruption culture working through group norms.

In summary, I show that a firm’s corruption culture is an important determinant of the firm’s likelihood of engaging in corporate misconduct. This finding echoes the growing focus on corporate culture by regulators in an effort to curb corporate wrongdoing. Moreover, I provide evidence on the inner workings of corruption culture, showing that it influences corporate misconduct by both acting as a selection mechanism and having a direct influence on individual behavior. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first paper to construct a novel measure of corporate culture based on the ancestry origins of company insiders. By doing so, I contribute to a growing finance literature examining the influence of corporate culture on corporate behavior, where the main challenge is measurement.

The full article is available for download here.

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