Mending the Trust Divide

September 18, 2016

Good evening. President Rivkin, Dr. Ellis – thank you for your kind introduction.

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests: I am delighted to be here tonight, in the company of so many from my own profession. I still felt safe at the French Finance Ministry, but at the IMF, we attorneys are just hopelessly outnumbered. So it is great to see so many of us together, even if only for a short while!

Of course, as members of the IBA you are not only lawyers, you are also “internationalists.” A group that understands the importance of coming together across countries and expertise to share experiences and forge solutions to common challenges. You have a lot in common with the IMF.

An oft overlooked fact is that the IMF is a creature of public international law. Its Articles of Agreement are a formal treaty concluded at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire in 1944. They entered into force in December 1945 with the support of 44 members.

Today, we are a truly global institution with 189 members. And we have a unique mandate: promoting economic prosperity and financial stability – through international cooperation and an open system for the free flow of goods and investments.

Over the past few decades, this open and integrated architecture has worked well – for the most part. Globalization brought large welfare gains to developing and emerging economies. [1] But it has been a double-edged sword—the shift in global production has also meant job losses or environmental damage for millions of people.

In fact, while inequality across countries has fallen in recent years, it has generally increased within countries. [2] We have recently seen some good news in the United States – an uptick in median household incomes in 2015. [3] Longer term trends, however, have been less favorable, especially for middle-income families, who have seen their income shares in total income shrink – from 47 percent in 1970 to 35 percent in 2014. The loss in income share was almost fully offset by the increase in the share of high-income families. [4]

In these circumstances, it is not surprising to see a growing backlash against globalization, especially in industrialized economies. Coming on the heels of the financial crisis, this backlash has evolved into a deeper problem – a growing gap in trust in institutions.

According to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust among the broader public in institutions is well below 50 percent – hardly budging from its lows in 2008. It is also lowest for government institutions and the financial services industry. Trust among the elites in all institutions, on the other hand, is at an all-time high, at 60 percent. [5]

A key factor fueling this distrust is corrupt and unethical behavior, actual or perceived – and in both the public and private sector. Think not only of Bernie Madoff or the Libor rigging. But also the FIFA scandal that shook the sports world, or the travails of Petrobras that almost engulfed a whole political system.

Both the actual behavior and the perception that there is corruption can be highly corrosive to society. This has contributed to the growing support for populist policies.

Addressing corruption and unethical behavior involves not only improving the quality of the legal framework but also the quality of the individuals who implement this framework.

Indeed, more than 2000 years ago, Aristotle believed that the central preoccupation of political science should be about “ forming its citizens to be of good character and capable of noble acts.”

So today I would like to focus my remarks on the macroeconomic consequences of corruption, in its many forms – why it matters, and what the IMF is doing about it.

1. Corruption in the Public Sector – Costs and Mitigating Strategies

One might ask: why should the IMF care about corruption? For a simple reason. Public corruption – defined as the abuse of public office for private gain – afflicts economies at all stages of development.

It is hard to measure; yet its economic and social costs are substantial. The annual costs of bribery alone – a subset of corruption – is estimated at a massive US$1.5–2.0 trillion– roughly 2 percent of global GDP. [6]

And the impact goes well beyond these direct costs. Corruption undercuts countries’ efforts to deliver sustainable and inclusive growth. How? Think about the following three channels.

First, by weakening fiscal capacity . When citizens feel that wealthy individuals are able to avoid paying taxes through bribes, it delegitimizes the whole system. And not surprisingly, other people decide not to comply, which undermines the ability of the state to raise revenue

At the same time, government spending becomes skewed toward areas with greater opportunity for graft – such as public procurement for construction projects. One study has found that in eight European countries, public projects were on average 13 percent higher because of corruption. [7]

In extreme situations, the combination of depressed tax revenues and inefficient public spending can result in large fiscal deficits and critical debt situations.

Second channel: corruption discourages investment and perpetuates inefficiency . Uncertainty and the cost of doing business increase with corruption, which acts as a tax on investment. Government borrowing costs can also be affected. For example, evidence of corruption in Petrobras contributed to a series of credit downgrades for Brazil in the past year and a widening in market spreads.

Third channel: corruption entrenches poverty and inequality . By lowering spending on sectors like education and health, corruption disproportionately affects the poor who rely more on social services. The consequences are grave and long-lasting. By some estimates, child mortality rates are one third higher in countries with high corruption, and infant mortality rates are almost twice as high.

Clearly, as Pope Francis has said: “corruption is a cancer on society.” So what is the IMF doing about it, within the confines of its mandate?

Mitigating strategies

For the past two decades, we have been actively engaged with our member countries in addressing corruption. Our experience has shown that mitigating corruption requires a holistic and multifaceted approach, tailored to the specifics of each country.

A first strategy is to strengthen the rule of law. A case in point is our recent engagement in Ukraine. It is a particularly instructive case because of the openness with which the authorities have approached the corruption issue.

Following the Maidan Revolution in 2014, the new government invited the IMF to assist them in conducting a comprehensive diagnostic study of corruption.

We found that corruption was pervasive and oppressive; that the business climate was severely hampered by an over-bearing and opaque regulatory framework; and that the judiciary was ineffective. In short, there was pervasive “state capture” – public policy and key economic sectors were controlled by “oligarchs” and elites.

Our report was candid and hard-hitting. And to their credit, the Ukrainian authorities agreed to publish it. It guided our engagement in fighting corruption in Ukraine along four key areas:

(i) First, legislative reforms to strengthen the laws on procurement, anti-corruption, asset disclosure by public officials, and anti-money laundering.    

(ii) Second, establishing a new anti-corruption agency with the active support of civil society.    

(iii) Third, strengthening the business climate by streamlining and simplifying the regulatory framework; and    

(iv) Last but not least, judicial reform, to enhance its independence and integrity.    

The process has not always been easy and the implementation record is mixed. But the key point here is that the authorities’ willingness to expose the extent of the problem allowed the IMF to work with them to make fighting corruption a key component of the reform program.

As well as the rule of law, a second strategy to combat corruption is increased fiscal transparency. After all, sunshine is the best disinfectant!

In this area, we have established international standards through a revised Fiscal Transparency Code. We use the code as the basis for evaluating practices of member countries against these standards upon request. For example, in Albania, the assessment found that over 250 public corporations with liabilities equivalent to 30 percent of GDP were not included in published fiscal reports.

Another area of transparency is in the area of anti-money laundering. For almost 15 years now, the IMF has provided advice to our members on the design of frameworks and institutions to combat money laundering. It has also helped to assess countries’ compliance with anti-money laundering standards issued by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).

These standards have taken on added significance given recent incidents such as the “Panama Papers.” These leaks gave us a window into the scale of global financial secrecy and the opportunities for illicit behavior.

They also reinforce the need to follow through on international initiatives to ensure adequate transparency on the beneficial ownership of accounts held in offshore jurisdictions. We have been recommending greater transparency in this area in a wide range of countries - including Belize, Cyprus, and the United States.

2. Beyond Corruption – Addressing Unethical Behavior in the Private Sector    

What about the private sector?

Clearly, the private sector plays an important role in public sector corruption. After all, for every bribe taken by a public official, there is a bribe given by the private sector.

However, even when the public sector is not involved, unethical behavior in the private sector can have devastating consequences. This is particularly the case for the financial industry. Few would disagree that unethical behavior and excessive risk-taking in the financial sector played a major role in precipitating the global financial crisis – from which many countries are still recovering.

It is not just a matter of fraud. As was emphasized by the Archbishop of Canterbury during a recent panel hosted by the IMF on the subject, because of the impact that the financial services industry can have on the economy, excessive risk taking is unethical even if it does not involve fraudulent behavior.

The goal of the financial industry must be not only to maximize the wealth of its shareholders, but also to serve society by supporting sustainable – and stable - economic activity. When the financial sector subordinates this core responsibility to its own self-interest, there is clearly high risk of ethical violation.

A further problem is the perception of impunity, think of the whistle blower who refused to accept his share of US$16.5 million award from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission – in protest for the lack of government action against illicit behavior of senior bank executives. [8]

Mitigating strategies

As with corruption in the public sector, addressing unethical behavior in the financial industry requires mutually reinforcing strategies.

A good place to start is better regulation and supervision. The Fund has been actively calling for more intrusive supervision following the crisis [9]-- and we support the excellent work done to improve both supervision and regulation internationally.

Our own work has also shown that changing incentives related to compensation practices can help realign financial rewards with long-term performance of the firm. [10] For example, financial authorities in the United Kingdom have issued regulations allowing remuneration to be clawed back in cases of misconduct by senior executives.

So in both areas – public corruption and unethical behavior – the rule of law plays a key role in creating incentives. A credible threat of prosecution is critical.

Regulation, however, is not enough. Indeed, excessive reliance on regulation allows people to feel that as long as they are “complying”, they are acting ethically. What we need is a culture of values, not just compliance.

In the public sector, this involves creating strong institutions – establishing a cadre of civil servants who take pride in their independence from private influence or public interference. In the private sector, it involves professionals who take pride in doing the right thing even when no-one is watching.

Now, as lawyers and experts in the Aristotelian tradition, we know that virtues are molded from habit. Good behavior is developed and nurtured over time. So how do we go about promoting individual integrity? Through good education and through strong leadership.

Good education means first looking at the training ground for finance professionals. Business schools should adopt a shift in paradigm about the meaning of individual success – placing more emphasis on professionalism and value to society, as opposed to high bonuses.

Many business schools around the world are updating their curricula to better prepare students for the variety of ethical situations they may face in their careers.

For example, at INSEAD in France and in Singapore, business ethics is part of the mandatory MBA program. Likewise, at ESADE in Spain, managing ethics and social responsibility is a core course.

In the United States, many top tier business schools have adopted the “Giving Voice to Values” curricula, which build practical skills in working through ethical issues that they may confront in the workplace. At Georgetown Business School here in Washington, a course has been introduced that focuses on how the individual integrity of executives can be enhanced through meditation. These are all positive developments,

If business schools can enhance the “values” component of their curricula, these principles can then be reinforced by the adoption of codes of conduct within the financial institutions. There has been significant progress in this area since the financial crisis.

Separately, from an industry perspective, Dutch financial industry, as of this year, has made mandatory an Ethics Oath for its executives and bankers, much like the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. Breaking this pledge of integrity exposes individuals to fines, suspensions, and blacklists.

Despite such efforts, a survey found that over 50 percent of executives within the financial services industry continue to feel that, in order to succeed, they will need to be “flexible’ on ethical standards. This is troubling.

Clearly, codes of conduct must become a reflection of the values and culture of the institution rather than just another set of rules. Otherwise, they will simply perpetuate the “compliance” mentality.

How can institutions make this shift in culture? While there are many intangibles, the key ingredient, in my view, is leadership. And this applies in both the public and private spheres.

All good principles and intentions on ethics and integrity will only be taken seriously if the top leaders act as role models and send a clear message of zero tolerance.

The G-30 report on Banking Conduct and Culture [11] revealed that banks which had successfully embedded an ethical culture were those where the executive team set a strong example – by sanctioning improper practices in a transparent and consistent manner.


To conclude, I would like to commend the IBA for its interest in the issue of corruption. The standing Anti-Corruption Committee and the Judicial Integrity Initiative are critical in upholding integrity within the legal profession.

I also applaud the IBA for issuing in 2011 its International Principles on Conduct for the Legal Profession. It is these kinds of codes that can help instill individual accountability and the culture of virtue and integrity that I just discussed.

The task before us is clear. Enhancing integrity in public and private sector governance is critical in mending the trust divide we see in societies today. Only then can we have enough confidence in the very institutions that are essential for sustained and inclusive growth.

I started my intervention by appealing to Aristotle’s ancient wisdom. Let me close by appealing to the wisdom of a founding father of modern day economics – Adam Smith.

To many of us, Adam Smith is perhaps best known for terms such as “self-interest”, “laissez-faire” and the famous “invisible hand.” Yet for Smith, the classical discipline of economics was always a branch of moral philosophy. Indeed, for him, the market would only work effectively if it was underpinned by trust: the baker that is featured in the Wealth of Nations would only be able to sell his goods if he or she was trusted.

In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1790, Smith elaborated on the importance of trust and good citizenry.

As noted by Smith: “ Concern for our own happiness recommends to us the virtue of prudence: concern for that of other people, the virtues of justice and beneficence…the one restrains us from hurting, the other prompts us to promote happiness .”[12]

These two great thinkers – Aristotle and Smith – millennia apart, cherished and upheld the value of good citizenry. This is no coincidence. Good citizenry is critical for nurturing trust. And that is the glue that holds economic systems, and ultimately societies, together.

Thank you.

[1] Based on $1.90 poverty line and 2011 PPP, the number of poor people fell from 1.96 billion in 1990 to 702 million in 2015. World Bank (2015). Ending Extreme Poverty and Sharing Prosperity: Progress and Policies .

[2] The global Gini coefficient, a common measure of income inequality, fell by almost 2 points between 1988 and 2008, from 72.2 to 70.5. For details, see Lakner and Milanovic (2014). Global Income Distribution: From the Fall of the Berlin Wall to the Great Recession .

[4] Middle-income households are defined as those whose real incomes are within 50 and 150 percent of the median income. See Ali Alichi (2016). Rising Income Polarization in the United States .

[5] See 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer . The four institutions include government, businesses, nongovernmental organizations and media. Broader public trust in institutions in 2016 stood at 48 percent versus 60 percent for the elite. The split between the two groups, 12 points, is the largest recorded.

[6] See IMF (2016). Corruption: Costs and Mitigating Strategies. Staff Discussion Note (16/05).

[7] PriceWaterhouseCoopers (2013). Identifying and Reducing Corruption in Public Procurement in the EU.

[9] See, Vinals et al (2010).“The Making of Good Supervision: Learning to Say “No”, IMF Staff Discussion Note .

[10] See International Monetary Fund, Global Financial Stability Report October 2014.

[11] Group of Thirty, Banking Conduct and Culture: A Call For Sustained and Comprehensive Reform, July 2015.

[12] Adam Smith (1790). Theory of Moral Sentiments. Part IV: Of the Character of Virtue, 6 th edition (VI.III.54).

IMF Communications Department


Phone: +1 202 623-7100Email: