Epiphanyblog

All about ideas…

Four ways to stop “Gorden Gekko.”

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I’m not an economist, but I enjoy reading what good economists and financial experts write…as long as they don’t fall into the Chicago economics neo-classical school of thought. The Milton Friedman-Ayn Rand school of thought has led to nothing but disaster for society as a whole.

I’m constantly surprised by growing number of well respected economists, financial experts and financial writers who have begun speaking out against the Wall St. culture of “me first and to heck with everyone else.”

Nouriel RoubiniNouriel Roubini provides his prescription to stop the “Gordon Gekko” syndrome that infects Wall St:

First, compensation schemes must be radically altered through regulation, as banks will not do it themselves for fear of losing talented people to competitors. In particular, bonuses based on medium-term results of risky trades and investments must supplant bonuses based on short-term outcomes.

Second, repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial and investment banking, was a mistake. The old model of private partnerships – in which partners had an incentive to monitor each other to avoid reckless investments – gave way to one of public companies aggressively competing with each other and with commercial banks to achieve ever-rising profitability, which was achievable only with reckless levels of leverage.

Similarly, the move from a lending model of “originate and hold” to one of “originate and distribute” based on securitization led to a massive transfer of risk. No player but the last in the securitization chain was exposed to the ultimate credit risk; the rest simply raked in high fees and commissions.

Third, financial markets and financial firms have become a nexus of conflicts of interest that must be unwound. These conflicts are inbuilt, because firms that engage in commercial banking, investment banking, proprietary trading, market making and dealing, insurance, asset management, private equity, hedge-fund activities, and other services are on every side of every deal (the recent case of Goldman Sachs was just the tip of the iceberg).

There are also massive agency problems in the financial system, because principals (such as shareholders) cannot properly monitor the actions of agents (CEOs, managers, traders, bankers) that pursue their own interest. Moreover, the problem is not just that long-term shareholders are shafted by greedy short-term agents; even the shareholders have agency problems. If financial institutions do not have enough capital, and shareholders don’t have enough of their own skin in the game, they will push CEOs and bankers to take on too much leverage and risks, because their own net worth is not at stake.

At the same time, there is a double agency problem, as the ultimate shareholders – individual shareholders – don’t directly control boards and CEOs. These shareholders are represented by institutional investors (pension funds, etc.) whose interests, agendas, and cozy relationships often align them more closely with firms’ CEOs and managers. Thus, repeated financial crises are also the result of a failed system of corporate governance.

Fourth, greed cannot be controlled by any appeal to morality and values. Greed has to be controlled by fear of loss, which derives from knowledge that the reckless institutions and agents will not be bailed out. The systematic bailouts of the latest crisis – however necessary to avoid a global meltdown – worsened this moral-hazard problem. Not only were “too big to fail” financial institutions bailed out, but the distortion has become worse as these institutions have become – via financial-sector consolidation – even bigger. If an institution is too big to fail, it is too big and should be broken up. [Emphasis mine]

Of course, Wall St. apologists and their Congressional supporters disagree, but they always will as their first concern is self-interest, not national interest or the interest of the Republic. As Roubini writes,

The “Greed is good” mentality is a regular feature of financial crises. But were the traders and bankers of the sub-prime saga more greedy, arrogant, and immoral than the Gekkos of the 1980’s? Not really, because greed and amorality in financial markets have been common throughout the ages.

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Written by Valerie Curl

August 16, 2010 at 7:14 PM

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