In London at the CRSA Forum last week (25th March 2015), once again speakers talked about the importance of the ethical foundation of leaders and companies, and as usual rubbished the need for or importance of "rules based systems" of governance or regulation . Implicit in the comments was the importance of ethics as the foundation of any successful business. Explicit were the statements "ethics are better than regulation" and "rule based systems are less effective than moral or ethics based systems".
Unfortunately, that is bollocks. There is simply too much weight placed on the idea that ethics and morals actually deliver more effective governance than rules. On the one hand, absolutely, effective corporate (and personal) governance for long term benefit needs a moral and ethical foundation. On the other, remove the rules and only the ethical or moral will comply.
Rules do not exist to stop ethical behaviour, nor to make companies profitable or unprofitable, or to ensure that a manager "earns" a bonus. Rules and regulations are enacted by governments to promote what the government of the day has determined to be desirable behaviours, and to discourage or punish those that are undesirable.
While the good news is that only 4% of CEOs may be psychopaths (Forbes "Why some psychopaths make great CEOs") that is four times the average in society as a whole. And while only a small percentage of CEOs may be psychopaths, their CFOs and FDs are under pressures of their own to ensure the numbers are right. The penalties for missing the quarterly numbers can be decidedly unpleasant (CFO.com).
"Comply or Explain", the UK reporting mantra, is held up as the alternative to rules based systems of reporting and governance. IFRS is a wonderful example of principles based reporting, yet the IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standard) still runs to over 2700 pages, excluding various national GAAP extensions to IFRS. Still, this is better than the 17,000 pages of US GAAP (Moss Adams LLP, 2009). Yet anyone who has attempted to use IFRS will find that it is as mired in rules as any GAAP. This also overlooks that so much of US GAAP is based on permutations of tax law specific to the US or to individual states. Oh, and US GAAP has been around a little longer than IFRS.
A victory for principles based reporting? Or, as a friends says "If self-reporting was the only requirement, there would be no murder".
Rules exist for a reason. They provide the boundaries beyond which behaviours are unacceptable in law and regulation, if not in culture and society. Yet to point out that principles based systems are inadequate is all it takes to be branded in favour of a rules based system, as if that is something bad.
There are good rules, and there are bad rules. Don't eat your soup with a fork is a good rule. Allowing companies to discriminate against any minority based on the presumed religion of the company is NOT a good law (and is not religious freedom).
Allowing the CEO and Chairman to be the same person in a public company is not a good principle, but it would be a good rule. Because as a principle, it can be applied or not, it is only a principle. Make it a rule, and there is no weasling around it, it is worse than bad practice (and a fine indicator that the company is being run for the enrichment of the managers and now the owners) and it would not be permitted.
Independent directors are a sound principle, and I see no need for a rule on this. An independent Audit Committee chair is a very sound principle. So sound that maybe it should be a rule.
Board effectiveness reviews? Great principle, but no, I wouldn't make them mandatory.
After all, the purpose of rules is not to over-ride good principles, sound ethics and strong morals. The purpose of rules is to limit the flexibility of those that pay lip services to good principles, or those that are not ethical or moral. Fraudsters, or just those under pressure to produces the target numbers by any means, can more easily justify bending principles, but they cannot justify bending the rules.
Indeed, I continue to say "Principles and ethical standards only apply to principled and ethical people".