Five questions about the VW scandal

Now that that the initial revelations regarding the VW scandal have sunk in it’s time to begin assessing the larger significance of those revelations. While the case and, we predict, VW, will continue for years (we are only at the end of the beginning, and far from the beginning of the end), we are far enough along to see five large questions emerging. These questions will tell us much about the economic, corporate and cultural future of VW and German enterprise. 

1) VW was an integral component of Germany’s industrial reputation in Europe, across the Atlantic in the United States, and around the world. Now, that hard-won reputation is at risk. How broad will the damage be to German businesses’ reputation not just for quality, but for “premium quality?”

2) Turning from the German business sector to the German economy as a whole, the VW scandal has many ironies, not least of which is that the company was a key driver (so to speak) of the famous German Wirthschaftswunder. Economic health propelled a vanquished Germany to the forefront of Europe’s post-WWII recovery and then made post-Cold War reunification a success. Does the VW scandal have the potential to slow down the overall growth of the German economy, and what are the European and global implications of that at a time when the Chinese economy is also sputtering?

3) From a corporate governance perspective, the scandal represents some of the most boneheaded thinking ever. Following disclosure of the fraud, €14bn (£10bn; $15.6bn) was wiped off VW’s stock market value. Whoever knew/orchestrated the scheme thought they would get away with it, but did they really not foresee the consequences or even the likelihood of getting caught? We will long be studying the abnormal “fraud psychology” of this case.

4) Germany ranks among the top ten countries for low corruption according to Transparency International. Yet VW is not alone among German companies in making major headlines with massive ethics failures in recent years, joining Siemens, Bayer, Deutsche Bank, and many others. What does this mean for the future of Germany’s role as a force for anti-corruption at home and internationally?

5) Former VW CEO Winterkorn resigned but claimed he knew nothing about the scandal. What does this say about the structure and management culture of Germany’s largest companies? How widespread is “plausible deniability” in German business culture–and in all business culture everywhere? If so, what are the dangers of this going forward, and what should be done to address them?