How transparent are the world's biggest listed companies?
Clear envelopes have yet to catch on
ARE you cheating on your spouse?
If so, please stand up and declare it.
Total silence? What virtuous readers The Economist has.
Trying to measure corruption is a bit like surveying adultery.
Those who indulge in it are unlikely to admit it.
So when surveying big companies, Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog, asks a different question:
how transparent are you?
Its latest survey, “Transparency in Corporate Reporting”, looks at the world's 105 biggest listed firms.
It measures three things.
First, a company's internal rules and procedures to prevent corruption.
Second, the transparency of its organisational structure.
Third, TI asks whether a firm publishes detailed financial information about its activities in every country where it operates,
including how much it pays in taxes and royalties to each government.
Most firms in the sample have strict rules barring bribery.
The average score on this count was 69%, up from 47% in 2009, the last time TI conducted a similar exercise.
Many firms also disclose ample details about which holding company owns which subsidiary, and so forth.
Of the 105 companies, 45 scored a perfect 100% for organisational transparency.
On the third measure, however, most firms remained tight-lipped.
This does not mean they have done anything illegal.
Suppose a mining firm pays 10m to a government for a licence to dig.
The fee may be legitimate, but the government may wish to keep it secret, to make it easier to embezzle.
A company that is completely transparent may find it hard to win any more contracts from dodgy governments, which, alas, control a lot of the world's natural resources.
Statoil, Norway's state-controlled oil-and-gas firm, was by far the best performer, yet it scored only 50% on this measure.
More than a third of firms scored zero; the average was a meagre 4%.
Campaigners have long complained that money from oil and minerals props up predatory governments, and lobbied firms to publish what they pay.
Big Western miners and drillers have taken heed: the top five on TI's list are all involved in natural resources.
Many firms, however, are reluctant to answer probing questions from Western busybodies: Gazprom, Russia's state-owned gas giant, scores zero on the first and third measures.
TI's calculations are open to challenge.
Do Amazon, Google and Berkshire Hathaway deserve to be ranked near the bottom?
These firms may not disclose as much as TI would like,
but they are not in businesses where one is ever asked to bribe a cabinet minister to win a mining concession.
TI does a good job of focusing attention on a serious problem.
But like The Economist's adultery survey, its results should be taken with a handful of salt.