Bribery and corruption are not just morally indefensible but bad for your business. That is the message Transparency International, the anti-graft campaigner, is determined business will internalise and, perforce, implement. But is it true?

TI’s report, launched on Monday, on the information disclosure practices of 42 leading oil companies, at first glance gives a mixed answer. Its research shows that only Royal Dutch Shell of the majors is in the pre­mier league for revenue and payments transparency, whereas BP, Chev­ron and Total are in the middle, and Exxon Mobil is playing in the bottom division, alongside China’s CNOOC and Russia’s Lu­koil. Yet these apparent differences do not seem to have had any effect on their profits or share prices.

TI’s approach is becoming more robust, naming companies, as opposed to countries, for the first time in this report. Still, its pitch to corporations is that they should start responding to its best-practice suggestions now or face more intrusive scrutiny later from investors and consumers, magistrates and civil society groups. In truth, both types of pressure are needed.

Sure, a company such as Siemens, which has purged its senior management after revelations of a vast slush fund, is responding to reputational risk as well as the courts.

But will western multinationals keep to the straight and narrow when faced with competition abroad from, say, Chinese or Russian companies, less constrained in the goodies they can offer their clients? As the big emerging economies grow, they should enter the mainstream and begin abiding by international norms. But that mainstream is still so murky that newcomers can argue their behaviour is no worse than their western counterparts.

Despite high-minded sermons from western capitals, the British government, for example, pulled the plug on the probe into kickbacks on the £43bn ($86bn) al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia on spurious “national security” grounds. The US has cracked down hard on foreign corruption but many American companies still do not practise abroad what they preach at home.

There is an urgent need to expand the reach and membership of international anti-bribery conventions to ensure all companies play by the same rules. Revised bank secrecy laws in offshore havens would make it more difficult for corrupt officials to salt away their bribes. But governments must do more to make the case against graft: like inflation it is a tax on the poor, robbing them of decent governance and development – and putting them on the road to societal failure and conflict.

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