Wall Street has quickly rediscovered the virtues of mammoth paychecks. Why hasn’t there been more financial reform?
I hear Gordon Gekko is making a comeback. So is greed.
They say markets are alternately ruled by greed and fear. Well, our panic-stricken financial markets have been ruled by fear for so long that a little greed might serve as an elixir. But everybody knows you can overdose on an elixir.
When economists first heard Gekko’s now-famous dictum, “Greed is good,” they thought it a crude expression of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”—which is one of history’s great ideas. But in Smith’s vision, greed is socially beneficial only when properly harnessed and channeled. The necessary conditions include, among other things: appropriate incentives (for risk taking, etc.), effective competition, safeguards against exploitation of what economists call “asymmetric information” (as when a deceitful seller unloads junk on an unsuspecting buyer), regulators to enforce the rules and keep participants honest, and—when relevant—protection of taxpayers against pilferage or malfeasance by others. When these conditions fail to hold, greed is not good.
Plainly, they all failed in the financial crisis. Compensation and other types of incentives for risk taking were badly skewed. Corporate boards were asleep at the switch. Opacity reduced effective competition. Financial regulation was shamefully lax. Predators roamed the financial landscape, looting both legally and illegally. And when the Treasury and Federal Reserve rushed in to contain the damage, taxpayers were forced to pay dearly for the mistakes and avarice of others. If you want to know why the public is enraged, that, in a nutshell, is why.
American democracy is alleged to respond to public opinion, and incumbents are quaking in their boots. Yet we stand here in January 2010 with virtually the same legal and regulatory system we had when the crisis struck in the summer of 2007, with only minor changes in Wall Street business practices, and with greed returning big time. That’s both amazing and scary. Without major financial reform, “it” can happen again.
Mr. Blinder, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University and vice chairman of the Promontory Interfinancial Network, is a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.