Now, with big banks dropping like flies and Wall Street vaporizing amid a mortgage meltdown, every corner bar and hair salon is filled with experts on the perils of moral hazard. Everyone gets it: Cut risk down to next to nothing and some people do crazy things.
Borrowers across America took a dive for low- or no-down-payment mortgages buoyed by the Federal Reserve's low-risk interest rates. Wall Street sliced the mortgages thinner than prosciutto ham, "spreading risk," and sold pieces all over the world, where, like magic, they seemed to fatten balance sheets. The deal was so win-win that Bear Stearns, Lehman, Merrill and the rest of the world's mega-banks engorged on their own product. It was as if foie gras geese forced corn and fat down their own throats. The risk of exploding seemed to be nil.
For behind it all sat Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, running mortgage liquidity into the nation's neighborhoods like an open fire hydrant. Several years ago, when the Journal's editorial board met with Fannie Mae's top executives and pressed the issue of financial risks, we were told by way of ending the conversation that Fannie was merely fulfilling the "mandate of Congress" to spread home ownership across the land. Congress, of course, is a temple to moral hazard.
"Moral hazard" is an odd phrase. Its meaning isn't obvious though it does sound like something one ought to avoid. "Moral hazard" dates back hundreds of years in obscurity, but its use eventually settled inside the insurance business in the 19th century. The French call it risque moral.
Back then, it really was taken to mean that reducing risk too much exposed people to the hazard of poor moral judgments. If an insurer charged too little for a policy to replace farms in the English countryside, Farmer Brown might be less careful about cows knocking over oil lamps in the barn.
In time, the economists got their hands on "moral hazard," and the first thing they did was strip out the heavy moral freight to make the concept value-neutral. Now moral hazard became less about judgment and more about the economic "inefficiencies" that occur in riskless environments.
We're back to the original meaning. Losing tons of money for an institution is an economic inefficiency. Lose the nation's financial structure, however, and moral fingers get wagged.
Thursday, October 02, 2008
and the Wall Street Journal plunks one in my lap:
Posted by Al at 9:24 AM