Sayeth the Doctor:
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 [which yours truly has a cameo in, thank you very much]– 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 [my trailer had a sign that said 'if this economist is a rockin' don't come a knockin'], triggering the worst financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression [The extras. My god, the extras. I thought I had it good with my NYU groupies]. The “Greed is good” mentality is a regular feature of financial crises [These Hollywood chicks are, like, crazy horny]. But were the traders and bankers of the sub-prime saga more greedy, arrogant, and immoral than the Gekkos of the 1980’s? [Oliver told me stories but nothing really prepares you.] Not really, because greed and amorality in financial markets have been common throughout the ages. [Seriously, though, everybody buy a ticket so they make a third one of these. I need this.]
[What was I saying? Oh right.] 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.
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;
· 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;
· CEOs and boards are themselves subject to major conflicts of interest, because they don’t represent the true interest of their firms’ ultimate shareholders.