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Investing in Emerging Markets with Consumer Protection in Mind

Investing in Emerging Markets with Consumer Protection in Mind

Demonstrators march in Sao Paulo against corruption and the government of president Dilma Rousseff. Photograph: Bosco Martin/EPA Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s Workers Party is on the defensive as the Petrobras case threatens to expose political corruption. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Bloomberg State-controlled oil giant Petrobras has racked up the corporate world’s biggest debt – estimated at around €137 billion by Moody’s. Photograph: Sergio Moraes/Reuters

The concept of the fair market and protection for consumers is based on the idea that inefficient and corrupt practices by large private companies and wayward government officials increases the cost to the consumers and the public. When the construction of a facility meant to benefit the public goes overbudget, the public ends up bearing most of the burden. The companies involved may also lose investment. Competitors, meanwhile, do not to benefit from a market fixed against their products or services, and the company that might have been able to do the job right in the first place may lose business or go bankrupt if unable to compete in a fair market. Consumer protection agencies, government-run officials, and ombudsmen defend the public’s interest, not to mention the interests of the consumer, in challenging corrupt practices in order to balance out the market and actors within it.

The Economist recently published an article on how necessary compliance measures have become such a large industry that the benefit of the enforcement action may cost the affected parties more than the offense itself. The author’s recommendations on how to streamline enforcement is rooted in a sound argument, but the example used, namely the fine given to the German company Siemens  for handing out bribes in emerging markets, should be discussed in further detail.

Often companies investing in foreign countries are not wholly limited their home country’s laws, in this case Germany, as they are subject to the laws of that jurisdiction. In some emerging economies, it is well known by local industry and foreign investors that some investment is limited by corruption. So, in order to do business in many emerging economies, companies like Siemens bribed local officials so as to crack into those growing markets. While entirely illegal in the EU and enforced by German officials, in some countries the lack of enforcement and acknowledgement of consumer protection goals leaves those who wish to play fair on the losing end of their investment.

Brazil is one of the best examples of an emerging market that has been trying to change the way business is conducted. The clearest example of this can be found in the country’s ongoing Petrobras scandal, which may even bring down the government because Brazilians are openly refusing to accept companies, not to mention a government, that wants to keep corrupt practices alive. It involves several high-ranking oil company officials, as well as other large Brazilian companies and the ruling PT party, and it illustrates how corruption and a complete lack of consideration for the public’s interests has driven an entire society into a downward economic spiral. (A detailed account in English can be read here.)

Brazilians were livid when they found out that government officials and kickbacks to Petrobras executives had raised the cost of national projects several times over. Protests broke out when investigators showed that the members of the governing PT party were profiting from the same scheme. The costs of living for the average Brazilian heavily outstripped their real wages and little action and investments were going towards improving this situation. With the revelations of corruption, Brazil’s legal community has gone not only after Petrobras, but also the other companies involved in the scandal, the country’s ruling party, and possibly the president herself.

Brazil’s burgeoning judicial independence will play a huge role in this case as resolving the Petrobas scandal is a matter of overturning a tradition of corruption in the country so that consumer protection and a respect for the public becomes a principle legal standard. Hopefully, once the culture is changed and consumer protection and public trust is achieved, the issues of an overbearing compliance industry can be addressed.



Richard Basas

Richard Basas, a Canadian Masters Level Law student educated in Spain, England, and Canada (U of London MA 2003 LL.M., 2007), has worked researching for CSIS and as a Reporter for the Latin America Advisor. He went on to study his MA in Latin American Political Economy in London with the University of London and LSE. Subsequently, Rich followed his career into Law focusing mostly on International Commerce and EU-Americas issues. He has worked for many commercial and legal organisations as well as within the Refugee Protection Community in Toronto, Canada, representing detained non-status indivduals residing in Canada. Rich will go on to study his PhD in International Law.

Areas of Focus:
Law; Economics and Commerce; Americas; Europe; Refugees; Immigration