Effects of Culture on Firm Risk-Taking: A Cross-Country and Cross-Industry Analysis. By Roxana Mihet
IMF Working Paper No. 12/210
Summary: This paper investigates the effects of national culture on firm risk-taking, using a comprehensive dataset covering 50,000 firms in 400 industries in 51 countries. Risk-taking is found to be higher for domestic firms in countries with low uncertainty aversion, low tolerance for hierarchical relationships, and high individualism. Domestic firms in such countries tend to take substantially more risk in industries which are more informationally opaque (e.g. finance, mining, IT). Risk-taking by foreign firms is best explained by the cultural norms of their country of origin. These cultural norms do not proxy for legal constraints, insurance safety nets, or economic development.
Understanding whether national culture affects a society‟s likelihood to generate risk-seeking firms is important for effective policy-making and for improving corporate governance. It can enrich discussions on government policies that encourage entrepreneurship and innovation. A grasp of the impact of cultural influences on corporate risk-taking would allow policy-makers to better customize their policies for firms with different risk appetites, thus promoting more competitive business environments. Understanding the impact of culture on corporate risk-taking decisions is also important to the internal conduct of multinational firms. Internal decisions in multinational firms, such as the decision to pursue a risky R&D project, require well-orchestrated responses from executives with diverse cultural backgrounds. Even in firms with standardized operating procedures, the interpretation of various financial decisions can vary among executives from different societies as a result of their cultural differences (Tse et al. 1988). Accounting for the impact of cultural influences on decision-making allows the firms themselves to accommodate and adapt to such differences, hence diminishing “noisy” interactions among executives and errors in decision-making.
This study employs four dimensions of national culture identified by Hofstede (2001) and an international sample of 50,000 firms spread across 400 industries in 51 countries to analyze the effects of cultural differences on corporate risk-taking. More specifically, it tries to identify the channels through which cultural values can influence corporate risk-taking. Culture can affect the institutional and economic development at the macro level, the industrial diversification and industry concentration at the market structure level, as well as the corporate and individual decision-making at the micro level, all of which may in turn influence firm risk-taking decisions.
Previous literature has shown that national culture does in fact predict cross-country differences in the degree of institutional and economic development. Culture has been linked with creditor rights and investor protection (Stulz and Williamson 2003), with judicial efficiency (Radenbaugh et al. 2006), with corporate governance (Doidge et al. 2007), with bankruptcy protection and insolvency management (Beraho and Elisu 2010) and with overall levels of transparency and corruption (Husted 1999). Research has further established that national culture has an impact on the composition and leadership structure of boards of directors (Li and Harrison 2008) and also on individual decision-making at the micro level (Hilary and Hui 2009; Halek and Eisenhauer 2001; and Graham et al. 2009). On the other hand, attitudes towards risk are likely to be indirectly affected by culture through many of the factors listed above, as well as directly by national cultural norms, which may encourage or deter risk-taking.
This paper is not the first to study the impact of cultural values on corporate risk-taking. The extant literature has briefly studied the relation between culture and risk-taking, but has mostly focused on firms in the banking and the financial sectors (Houston et al. 2010; Kanagaretnam et al. 2011; Lehnert et al. 2011; Li and Zahra 2012). For example, Kanagaretnam et al. (2011) show that aggressive risk-taking activities by banks are more likely in societies with low uncertainty avoidance and high individualism. They show that cultural differences between societies have a profound influence on the level of bank risk-taking, and the ability to explain bank financial troubles during the recent financial crisis. On the other hand, Griffin et al. (2012) show that uncertainty avoidance is negatively and individualism is positively associated with firm-level riskiness in the non-financial sector (in the manufacturing sector).
This paper innovated in at least four ways. First, this paper takes a more holistic approach to the study of cultural influences on corporate risk-taking by studying not only the banking and the financial sectors, but all industries in a market economy. We take this approach in order to capture cross-industrial differences in risk-taking. The influence of cultural factors, such as national uncertainty aversion, may be of greater importance for firms in more informationally opaque industries such as information technologies, financial services, oil extraction, and chemicals, where information uncertainty is higher relative to manufacturing and industrial firms, because of the greater complexity of operations and the difficulty of assessing and managing risk. Thus, we test whether corporate risk-taking in informationally more opaque industries is more sensitive to a country‟s national cultural norms. Second, we differentiate between the direct and indirect effects of national culture on firm risk-taking. We specifically test whether cultural norms remain important in determining corporate risk-taking behaviors even after taking into account their impact on the institutional, economic and industrial environments. Third, unlike previous research which has used standard ordinary least squares analyses, we model both the direct and indirect effects of culture on risk-taking by employing a hierarchical linear mixed model. The hierarchical linear mixed model allows testing multi-level theories, simultaneously modeling variables at the firm, industry and country level without having to recourse to data aggregation or disaggregation as previous cultural economics studies have had to do. Fourth, by using a hierarchical linear model in explaining firm-level risk-taking, we can model not only the firm, industry and country-level influences on risk-taking, but also their cross-level interactions.
This paper finds that:
Culture impacts corporate risk-taking directly and not merely though indirect channels such as the legal and regulatory frameworks.
Corporate risk-taking is higher in societies with low uncertainty avoidance, low tolerance for hierarchical relationships and in societies which value individualism over collectivism, with these effects even more accentuated in societies with better formal institutions.
Additionally, firms in countries ranking high in uncertainty-aversion and low in individualism take significantly less risk in industrial sectors which are more informationally opaque (e.g. finance, IT, oil refinery and mining), compared to firms in countries lower in uncertainty-aversion and higher in individualism.
Risk-taking by foreign firms is best explained by the cultural norms of their country of origin.
These cultural dimensions are not proxying for legal constraints, economic development, bankruptcy costs, insurance safety nets, or many other factors.
The results of this study inform both theory and policy in several ways. First, these findings strengthen the argument that the same institutional rules can produce different economic outcomes in culturally-different societies. Second, they imply that policy-makers should take into account cross-cultural values and norms when drafting policies that promote competitive business environments. Third, they enrich governmental discussions on policies that address risk-taking in informationally opaque sectors.
Several research studies in the financial, accounting, and management literatures have explored the importance of cultural values in decision-making. These studies find that culture can explain the institutional, legal and economic environments of a country at the macro level which can influence corporate risk-taking decisions, and offer evidence of the impact of culture on financial decision-making by individuals at the micro level beyond traditional economic arguments.
At the micro level, culture has (unsurprisingly) been shown to affect individual risk-taking behaviors. Breuer et al. (2011) find that individualism is linked to overconfidence and overoptimism and has a significantly positive effect on individual financial risk-taking and the decision to own stocks. Tse et al. (1988) show that home culture has predictable, significant effects on the decision-making of executives. Two decades later, Graham et al. (2010), using survey data in the U.S., also show that CEOs are not immune to the effects of culture. They find that CEOs‟ decision-making is strongly influenced by cultural values such as uncertainty-aversion.
At the macro level, cultural heritage has been linked to corporate governance, investor protection, creditor rights, bankruptcy protection, judicial efficiency, accounting transparency, and corruption. Doidge et al. (2007) find that cross-cultural differences explain much more of the variance in corporate governance than observable firm characteristics. Hope (2003a) shows evidence that both legal origin and culture (as proxied by Hofstede‟s cultural dimensions) are important in explaining firms‟ disclosure practices and investor protection. In fact, he finds that although legal origin is a key determinant of disclosure levels, its importance decreases with the richness of a firm‟s information environment, while culture still remains a significant determinant. Licht et al. (2005) find that social norms of governance correlate strongly and systematically with high individualism and low power distance. Stulz et al. (2003) find that cultural heritage, proxied by religion and language, predicts the cross-sectional variation in creditor rights better than a country‟s trade openness, economic development, legal origin, or language. Other studies find that culture predicts judicial efficiency and the transparency of accounting systems. Radenbaugh et al. (2006) find that countries in the Anglo cluster have an accounting system which is more transparent and less conservative than either the Germanic or the Latin accounting systems. Beraho et al. (2010) show that cross-cultural variables have a direct influence on the propensity to file for bankruptcy and on insolvency laws. Lastly, both Getz and Volkema (2001) and Robertson and Watson (2004) link cultural differences to corruption levels.
Furthermore, recent research has also linked cultural variables to economic and market development, although the evidence is mixed. Guiso et al. (2006) find that national culture impacts economic outcomes, by influencing national savings rates and income redistributions. Kwok and Tadesse (2006) find that culture explains cross-country variations in financial systems, with higher uncertainty-avoidance countries dominated by bank-based financial systems, rather than by stock-markets. Kirca et al. (2009) show that national culture impacts the implementation of market-oriented practices (i.e., generation, dissemination, and utilization of market intelligence) and the internalization of market-oriented values and norms (i.e., innovativeness, flexibility, openness of internal communication, speed, quality emphasis, competence emphasis, inter-functional cooperation, and responsibility). Lee and Peterson (2000) show that only countries with specific cultural tendencies (i.e., countries which emphasize individualism) tend to engender a strong entrepreneurial orientation, hence experiencing more entrepreneurship and global competitiveness. On the other hand, Pryor (2005) argues that cultural variables do not seem related to the level of economic development and are not useful in understanding economic growth or differences in levels of economic performance across countries. Additionally, Herger et al. (2008) also argue that cultural beliefs do not seem to support or impede financial development. This mixed evidence points to the idea that national culture might only indirectly influence economic and market development through its effects on the legal and institutional contexts.
The institutional and economic environments have been shown to affect corporate risk-taking decisions. There is a small strand of literature which has explored corporate risk-taking around the world which reflects countries‟ institutional and economic environments. For example, Laeven and Levine (2009) show that risk-taking by banks varies positively with the comparative power of shareholders within each bank. Moreover, they show that the relations between bank risk-taking and capital regulation, deposit insurance mechanisms, and bank activities restrictiveness, depend critically on the bank‟s ownership structure. Claessens et al. (2000) show that corporations in common law countries and market-based financial systems have less risky financing patterns, and that the stronger protection of equity and creditor rights is also associated with less financial risk. Overall, while the literature is relatively small, national culture has been indirectly linked with corporate risk-taking decisions in formal studies, although most of them only analyze the banking sector.
Culture has also been directly linked with corporate risk-taking, although again, most studies have focused on either the financial or the manufacturing sectors separately. Kanagaretnam et al. (2011) show that banks in high uncertainty avoidance societies tend to take less risk, whereas banks in high individualism societies take more risk. However, they do not control for institutional variables such as corporate governance, bankruptcy protection, judicial efficiency, transparency, and corruption, which have shown to be affected by national cultural norms and which could at their turn affect corporate risk-taking. Griffin et al. (2012) study the impact of culture on firms in the manufacturing sector in the period 1997-2006. To the best of our knowledge, they are the only ones who use a hierarchical linear mixed model to analyze the impact of culture on corporate risk-taking. They show that individualism has positive and significant direct effects, while uncertainty avoidance has negative and significant direct effects on corporate risk-taking.
This paper contributes to the literature on the impact of culture on firm risk-taking in several ways. While previous studies have studied either the direct or the indirect effects of culture on risk-taking, this paper tries to reconcile the two strands of literature and assess them simultaneously by using a hierarchical linear mixed model. This allow to test whether cultural norms remain important in determining corporate risk-taking behaviors even after taking into account their impact on the institutional, economic and industrial environments. Moreover, this paper extends the analyses of Griffin et al. (2012) and Kanagaretnam et al. (2011) to capture cross-industrial differences in risk-taking. Given the importance to national and global economies of the highly leveraged sector of finance, or the highly innovative sector of IT, or the highly risky commodity industries1, and given that firms in these industries are markedly different from manufacturing firms and have been more adversely affected by the recent global economic crisis, it is very important to understand the role of culture on cross-industrial variation in corporate risk-taking.