Sovereign Wealth Funds, Bribery, Corruption, Hospitality and the FCPA

The FCPA seems to be most closely associated with shady oil operations, mining, defense contractors and infrastructure transactions.  The image is a big company coming in and bribing an official for access to the country’s resources.

The other side to that investment is that the countries build up big supplies of capital. Many deploy some of that capital into funds for investing using sovereign wealth funds. During the credit crisis of 2008, some of the big Wall Street firms got injections of capital from sovereign wealth funds.

This is the flip side of the FCPA. Instead of a US company trying to get the rights to invest in the foreign country, it’s getting the foreign country to invest in the US company. And cash payments to foreign officials are still going to be considered bribes in violation of the FCPA, regardless of which direction the capital flows.

The problem is that the people running the sovereign wealth funds are going to be considered “foreign officials” under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. That should not come as surprise. In 2008 the Department of Justice said it was taking a look at “passive and active investments by U.S. securities firms into sovereign funds, and vice versa.” They clearly stated that a sovereign wealth fund is a “State-Owned Enterprise” and that securities firms should treat employees of sovereign wealth funds as government officials for purposes of the FCPA.

Dionne Searcey and Randall Smith published a big headline in the Wall Street Journal about the launch of a new investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission into whether US banks and private equity firms violated the FCPA in their dealings with sovereign wealth funds.

Clearly, under-the-table payments in exchange for the investment are going to be trouble. But even typical hospitality shown to investors will be under tighter scrutiny. If it’s too lavish, it could be considered a bribe.

There is an affirmative defense under the FCPA if

the payment, gift, offer, or promise of anything of value that was made, was a reasonable and bona fide expenditure, such as travel and lodging expenses, incurred by or on behalf of a foreign official, party, party official, or candidate and was directly related to the promotion, demonstration, or explanation of products or services [§ 78dd-1 (c)(A) and § 78dd-2 (c)(A)]

The investment officer for the SWF comes to your office, you put him (or her) up at a nearby hotel, shown him around the office to meet management, discuss investment strategies and take him out to dinner after a full day of diligence. The question will be whether the lodging expenses and dinner expenses were “reasonable” and “bona fide.”

I doubt that the DOJ and SEC would consider the cost of putting up the official at a Holiday Inn and dinner at Denny’s to be so excessive as to not be “reasonable” and “bona fide.” Then start increasing the quality of those offerings. Instead of the Holiday Inn, it’s the Ritz-Carlton, or the 1,900 s.f  Central Park Suite at the Ritz Carlton. Instead of Denny’s, it’s dinner at Le Bernadin, with a $500 bottle of wine. Now you you need to be concerned that the dinner and lodging are not “reasonable” and “bona fide.” Throw in a few party favors just to give your compliance officers ulcers and sleepless nights.

Wall Street is still an easy target. The excesses of Wall Street make great headlines. If there really is some wrongdoing it will be an interesting story.

However, some of those investments helped save those Wall Street firms from collapse. We would be much worse off today if Citibank or Morgan Stanley followed Lehman into bankruptcy. I’m not saying that corruption would be warranted in this situation. But we also need to be careful not to spook away foreign investors with a witch hunt. Otherwise, they may not be there for a legitimate investment when we need them.


Image of Wall Street is used under a creative commons license.