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Roubini on Greed and Amorality

Posted by Larry Doyle on August 26, 2010 5:38 AM |

Nouriel Roubini is both revered and derided. While he gains huge credit for having forecasted our economic meltdown, he is equally maligned for having missed the 2009 rally in the markets. I am less concerned with Roubini’s market calls, but I am very interested in his views on the inner workings of our economy and market structures. To this end I was thrilled to review Roubini’s recent Project Syndicate commentary, Gordon Gekko Reborn.

As you read Roubini’s commentary, I encourage you to think whether the recently enacted Financial Regulatory Reform package will fully address and implement the changes Roubini deems necessary. I will add my take as we navigate. On that note, Roubini writes:

In the 1987 film Wall Street, the character Gordon Gekko famously declared, “Greed is good.” His creed became the ethos of a decade of corporate and financial-sector excesses that ended in the late 1980’s collapse of the junk-bond market and the Savings & Loan crisis. Gekko himself was packed off to prison.

A generation later, the sequel to Wall Street – to be released next month – sees Gekko released from jail and returned to the financial world. His reappearance comes just as the credit bubble fueled by the sub-prime mortgage boom is about to burst, triggering the worst financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression.

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.

Teaching morality and values in business schools will not tame such behavior, but changing the incentives that reward short-term profits and lead bankers and traders to take excessive risks will. The bankers and traders of the latest crisis responded rationally to compensation and bonus schemes that allowed them to assume a lot of leverage and ensured large bonuses, but that were almost guaranteed to bankrupt a large number of financial institutions in the end.

If we believe morality and values can be taught in business schools, we have real problems. These virtues start at home at very early ages. It’s called parenting.

To avoid such excesses, it is not enough to rely on better regulation and supervision, for three reasons:

·        Smart and greedy bankers and traders will always find ways to circumvent new rules;

I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. In fact, selected Wall Street business units focus almost solely on ‘arbitraging’ or circumventing new rules and regulations. What a way to make a living.

·        CEOs and boards of directors of financial firms – let alone regulators and supervisors – cannot effectively monitor the risks and behaviors of thousands of separate profit and loss centers in a firm, as each trader and banker is a separate P&L with its own capital at risk;

I disagree. CEOs have managers in place who have responsibility to manage risk. Within a few management layers, the risk on trading floors should be understood in the executive offices.

·        CEOs and boards are themselves subject to major conflicts of interest, because they don’t represent the true interest of their firms’ ultimate shareholders.

Agreed.

As a result, any reform of regulation and supervision will fail to control bubbles and excesses unless several other fundamental aspects of the financial system are changed.

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.

I have not seen or heard of truly meaningful change on this front on Wall Street.

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.

You think Jamie Dimon is willing to break up JP Morgan at this point? Not happening.

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.

Hard to disagree with this.

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.

Agreed. Nor do I see real change happening on these fronts. The simple fact is Wall Street management and regulators jointly failed our nation in their charge to protect the system.

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.

I WHOLEHEARTEDLY AGREE!!!

Unless we make these radical reforms, new Gordon Gekkos – and Charles Ponzis – will emerge. For each chastised and born-again Gekko – as the Gekko in the new Wall Street is – hundreds of meaner and greedier ones will be born.

Not a question of if, but when. I do not think it is greed that made our country great. Is greed really good? Really?

Larry Doyle

I have no affiliation or business interest with any entity referenced in this commentary. As President of Greenwich Investment Management, an SEC regulated privately held registered investment adviser, I am merely a proponent of real transparency within our markets so that investor confidence and investor protection can be achieved.

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  • Jack Polidori

    Your post of Roubini’s column is commendable. Roubini’s points are contained in his recent book, “Crisis Economics”. Your review of that book would be a welcome addition to the discourse about out lingering economic malaise.

  • Lou

    Who does Blue Horseshoe like now?

    • fred

      AIG, B of A, Citi and GM when issued.

  • fred

    In my opinion, double agency is a very real issue. Over the years, the individual investor has unknowingly given up his/her rights to fiduciaries at mutual funds, insurance companies and pension plans that don’t always act in the ultimate shareholders best interest.

    Very often these institutions are among the largest shareholder and “voting rights” are often critical in establishing policy and policy changes within a company.

    As an example, as an ultimate shareholder I might be interested in receiving a dividend whereas my fiduciary may be in favor of reinvestment for capital gains.

    I would not at all be surprised if voting rights are used as bargaining chips for executive access, insider information or other perks as well.

    This is an area of oversite and regulation that may have a significant impact on our society and markets that is now being grossly underestimated. Consider issues such as CEO compensation, election of Board members, etc.

    Why can’t fiduciaries at least poll their constituents (individual investors) for there input, if not for all the stocks held in their portfolio at least for major holdings.

    • LD

      Fred,

      SPECTACULAR point. Another form of hidden leverage and control for management at the expense of the ultimate shareholder.






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