The timing may not have been the best. Just last week, Hollywood released the hot new movie of the season, "Wall Street," a seamy, cynical account of mores in the financial markets. Today, in a New York courtroom, speculator Ivan F. Boesky is to be sentenced in the biggest insider-trading case in history.
So along comes the Touche Ross and Co. accounting firm with a survey showing that American business ethics are the best in the world -- at least according to American business leaders.
Indeed, that viewpoint appears to be nearly unanimous, Touche Ross said yesterday. Out of 1,082 respondents to its questionnaire, 97 percent said the United States is the most ethical country, with Britain, Canada, Switzerland and West Germany ranked far behind.
Foreigners were not polled. In fact, the survey was restricted to the corporate elite -- chief executives and other top officials of U.S. companies with $500 million or more in annual sales -- along with deans of business schools and members of Congress. Thirteen percent of the questionnaires drew responses, Touche Ross said.
"The timing was a coincidence," said Amy Levin, a Touche Ross spokeswoman. "We weren't thinking about Boesky when we released this. ... We weren't thinking about the movie, either."
Levin also said the survey could be read other ways. For example, 68 percent of the respondents said they do not think the issue of business ethics has been overblown in the current public debate. This holds true for leaders of all business groups except aerospace and defense contractors, 63 percent of whom said they think too much has been made of the issue.
Touche Ross managing partner Edward A. Kangas said that "perhaps the most striking finding" was that 63 percent of the respondents believed a business enterprise strengthens its competitive position by maintaining high ethical standards. Only 41 percent of the members of Congress who responded shared that belief.
The survey also found that the Midwest, the Northwest and New England were rated as having the highest ethical standards in the world, while the East -- home of Wall Street -- was rated the lowest.
The respondents ranked commercial banking, utilities and drugs and pharmaceuticals as the three most ethical industries in the nation. Touche Ross wouldn't reveal which ranked the lowest. "We weren't trying to flesh out the worst," said Levin. "We were trying to find the role models."