Treating Wall Street and the financial industry like professional sports brings a new perspective to the motivation of traders and financers
In the midst of our financial crisis it was inevitable that there would be references to the 1987 film Wall Street, in which Michael Douglas’s character Gordon Gekko explains what really drives market capitalism: “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed — you mark my words — will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”
Is greed good? Bad? Consider an analogy. Would sports’ writers say that Lance Armstrong, Michael Phelps, and Kobe Bryant are greedy in the same way that pundits describe financial officers, professional traders, and home flippers? Of course not. The whole point of competing in sports is to do the best you can and to win within the rules established by the governing sports organizations. In fact, if you are not greedy in the sense of wanting to succeed in your sport, you will likely be cut from the team. It is in the nature of sports for athletes to greedily desire to succeed and win.
The analogy holds for everyone in the marketplace — from you and I as shoppers and home-buyers looking for the best bargain we can find, to corporate CEOs and Wall Street traders looking for the largest profit they can attain. The whole point of shopping and investing, in fact, is to do your best to succeed and win — defined by finding better deals and making more money — within the rules established by the organizations governing the marketplace. We should no more blame greedy home buyers, loan officers, and stock traders for the current financial crisis than we should blame individual athletes for making so much money playing sports.
Who should we blame? The organization governing the marketplace — the government — for interfering with the normal signals of risk. Let me explain.
People and corporations are normally risk averse. Behavioral economists who study risk aversion have discovered that most people will reject the prospect of a 50/50 probability of gaining or losing money, unless the amount that can be gained is at least double the amount that can be lost. That is, people feel worse about the pain of a loss than they feel better about the pleasure of a gain. Twice as worse in fact.
Since corporations and financial institutions are run by people, they should show the normal risk aversion when investing money and granting loans. Why didn’t they? In short, the risks were removed or delayed by government intervention. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for example, do not make loans directly to customers — they buy loans from banks who make those loans directly. The more removed the direct risk is from the brains of those granting the risk, the less risk averse they will be.
Well, a remarkably prescient September 30, 1999 article in the New York Times, entitled “Fannie Mae Eases Credit To Aid Mortgage Lending,” reported that the Fannie Mae Corporation began a program that spring to encourage banks “to extend home mortgages to individuals whose credit is generally not good enough to qualify for conventional loans.” Why? According to the Times, “Fannie Mae, the nation’s biggest underwriter of home mortgages, has been under increasing pressure from the Clinton Administration to expand mortgage loans among low and moderate income people and felt pressure from stock holders to maintain its phenomenal growth in profits.” In point of fact, in July of 1999 the Department of Housing and Urban Development insisted that Fannie and Freddie increase their portfolio of loans made to lower and moderate-income borrowers from 44 percent to 50 percent by 2001.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with corporations taking higher risks — whether under political or profit pressure — as long as they adjust for it by charging more. The higher price acts as a risk signal to keep the market in balance. This is what Fannie Mae was doing by only purchasing loans that banks made charging three to four percentage points higher than conventional loans. But under the new program implemented in 1999, higher-risk people with lower incomes, negligible savings, and poorer credit ratings could now qualify for a mortgage that was only one point above a conventional 30-year fixed rate mortgage (and that added point was dropped after two years of steady payments). In other words, the normal risk signal sent to high risk consumers — you can have the loan but it’s going to cost you a lot more — was removed. Lower the risk signal and you lower risk aversion.
When sports governing bodies either relax the rules or fail to enforce them (think of steroids in baseball or doping in cycling), it signals to the athletes that there is little risk in pushing the boundaries of the sport. Lowering the risk aversion encourages gaming the system, and once the top competitors do it, everyone else in the sport has to do it just to compete. The result is a catastrophic collapse in the integrity of the sport.
Analogously, when the government encourages corporations to relax the rules of financial transactions, and then signals to them that if the system fails it will bail them out (as the government did when it rescued the savings and loan industry in the 1980s), it signals to the players in the marketplace that there is little risk in pushing the boundaries of the market. Lowering financial risk aversion encourages gaming the system, and once the top corporations do it, everyone else has to do it just to compete. The result is what we have today.