Thursday, May 10, 2012

The case of the fraudulent frauleins

Financial fraud is becoming more salient in China. Interestingly, of late, we have witnessed a number of "fraudster frauleins" – a few women entrepreneurs who scooted (or tried unsuccessfully to scoot) after relieving a number of gullible lenders of rather large sums of money. Ms. Zhang Hong, boss of a medical devices company in Nanjing in Jiangsu province, went missing with her son a few weeks ago. Along with her went a sum of RMB 500 million which she owes to several hundred private lenders. In another case of the "most beautiful boss", Ms. Gu Chunfang was apprehended in Shanghai, having earlier tried to make herself scarce with an equally large sum of money. While the temptation for these skilful and attractive operators is strong, the punishment in China is disproportionately severe. Ms. Wu Ying, another comely entrepreneur from neighbouring Zhejiang Province, is facing a death sentence for crimes involving similar fund raising.

In China it is not easy for small and medium enterprises to borrow from banks to finance their operations. Most banks are state-owned and they tend to favour lending to state-owned enterprises. On the other hand, China's large body of savers are finding it difficult to find attractive returns, as interest rates are low, the stock market has been sluggish, and the property market is on a strong leash. The lure of double-digit returns through private lending, therefore, is not insignificant. Hence there is a healthy demand as well as supply for private lending.

The effect of pulchritude on human emotions and behaviour is a complex subject. Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas, has been frequently writing about “pulchronomics” or the linkage of looks and economics. In a recent book called “Beauty Pays” he professes that, over a lifetime, a good looking worker in America might on average make $230,000 (in terms of today’s wages) more than a relatively plain one.   Beauty generates the confidence of competence and trust. Research has shown looks of the candidates play a significant role in voters’ choice. And  given the number of cases of fraudulent frauleins in China, one can possibly at least raise the hypothesis that Chinese men of substance find themselves reaching more readily for their wallets when confronted with a woman of grace.

In the meanwhile the Supreme People’s Court of China has overturned the death sentence for Wu Ying and ordered a retrial. It is not known whether the defendant’s good looks and youth were a part of the factors which led the judges to overrule the severe punishment.  But research does show that good looking offenders do get away with lighter punishments.