Pluralistic: Feb 01 2022

Today's links

A club-wielding thug whose off-hand is making a 'give me' gesture; he is wearing a green eyeshade and standing alongside a desk with a green-shaded lamp on it; in the background is the tri-color Italian flag.

The Mafia hires good accountants (permalink)

High-profile leaks like the Pandora Papers and financial collapses like Carillion have shone a spotlight on the role that "the professions" play in enabling international finance crimes, which include both money-laundering and the underlying (ghastly, violent) crimes that produce the money to be laundered.

For example, the Sackler family knowingly and deliberately created the opioid epidemic that has killed more than 800,000 Americans so far, and then used the best, most respectable, highest price bankruptcy lawyers in the country to secure a deal that let them keep billions and deny justice to their victims.

High-priced, ultra-respectable firms of economists generate millions in billing every year ginning up plausible-seeming, opaquely complex "analyses" that monopolistic firms use to bamboozle regulators into allowing them to undertake anticompetitive mergers that destroy the real economy, communities and jobs:

And then there are the auditors – four giant firms have gobbled up all their rivals and merged with one another, while "diversifying" into offering "consulting" services that leave them hopelessly conflicted and signing off on fraudulent books that lead to catastrophic collapses and billions in tax fraud:

The corruption of the audit industry is especially deadly, since auditors are meant to be the umpires of the world, providing oracular "ground truth" to claims about how companies conduct themselves and what they're making and spending:

The great finance capitals of the world, like London, are the epicenters of the enablers of global finance crime, where the great and the good have waxed fat on the massive fees they charge to post-Soviet kleptocrats who have colonized both the city and the nation's politics:

But for all the attention paid to consultancies, lawyers, economists and other elite enablers, the accounting profession itself is rarely named when scandals erupt. Which is a mystery, since the keeping and auditing of financial ledgers is so key to corrupt practices.

A late-2021 paper called "Does the Mafia Hire Good Accountants?" by a group of academic accountants in the US, Italy and Germany, offers a tantalizing explanation for the conspicuous absence of accountancy from the list of professions involved in global crime:

The paper uses a fascinating and robust methodology to examine the honesty of mafia accountants: they comb the national police's database of mafia-related persons for accountants, then examine the audit records, tax records and legal history of those accountants' non-mafia clients.

They conclude that if a business uses a mafia accountant, it has better, more honest finances than a business with a non-mafia accountant (!). Specifically: "private firms serviced by accountants with [organized crime] ties have higher quality audited financial statements, as evidenced by lower levels of abnormal working capital accruals, fewer small earnings, fewer tax restatements, and lower levels of discretionary revenues. Further, these firms receive more modified audit opinions, and pay higher fees."

The authors suggest that when the mafia chooses an accountant, they have to choose between two mutually exclusive strategies:

I. Hire a stupid accountant that you can trick into signing off on dirty books; or

II. Hire a smart accountant who can turn your dishonest business into one that is honest on paper, even if that erodes your profits.

The authors make a compelling case that the mafia choose the second strategy. What's more, they show that even accountants with known mob connections have no trouble finding non-criminal clients ("it is disheartening the Mafia can hire seemingly good accountants who appear to suffer no adverse reputation effects from their Mafia ties").

Perhaps that's because the mafia is so crucial to both the Italian and global business world: the authors quote a 2017 ISTAT study that says that 12% of Italian GDP is mafia activity and a 2011 UNODC study that attributes 3.6% of global GDP to Italian mafia groups.

But it would be a mistake to think that just because the mafia has clean books that it runs good businesses. Businesses that are run or colonized by mobsters aren't good firms – they pay poorly, produce low-quality goods and services, and engage in a variety of crimes and regulatory violations.

This is a fascinating and clever analysis, though it's short on recommendations. The most concrete policy proposal the authors advance is for police to maintain a public registry of accountants under investigation for mafia ties, and to bar those accountants from practicing until they are cleared.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Schoolkids “passing notes” by commenting on random blog-posts

#15yrsago 9/11 Commission Report hobbled by DRM

#10yrsago Too Big to Know: David Weinberger explains how knowledge works in the Internet age

#10yrsago WSJ publishes actual climate scientists’ letter on climate science

#10yrsago US trade rep and hotel caught lying about confidentiality of secret ACTA meeting in Hollywood

#5yrsago Sean Spicer defends handcuffing a 5-year-old American boy for hours at an airport immigration checkpoint

#5yrsago Trump’s war on science, a chronology (Week 1)

#5yrsago Suspecting arson, cops subpoena homeowner’s pacemaker logs, then charge him with multiple felonies

#5yrsago Federal judge orders emergency injunction and restraining order ending Trump’s #muslimban

#1yrago Unidirectional entryism

#1yrago The good news about vaccination bad news

Colophon (permalink)

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