Bank Bailouts and other Moral Hazards

In the previous post on Moral Hazard, we learnt that Moral Hazard refers to any situation where a person is not fully responsible for the consequences of their actions. As a result, they may take greater risks than they would have otherwise.

Here are 6 examples of situations where Moral Hazards arise in practice.

1. Insurance

The provision of insurance is the most common example of Moral Hazard.

For example, if you have comprehensive private health insurance you’ll be more likely to visit the doctor. You may also engage in more risk taking activities because you are not responsible for paying the medical costs if things go badly e.g. you go bungy jumping and throw your back out.

Malcolm Gladwell provides the amusing example of Universal Pepsi Insurance:

“Moral hazard” is the term economists use to describe the fact that insurance can change the behavior of the person being insured. If your office gives you and your co-workers all the free Pepsi you want—if your employer, in effect, offers universal Pepsi insurance—you’ll drink more Pepsi than you would have otherwise.

2. Mortgage Securitisation

Mortgage securitisation is an insidious and often misunderstood example of Moral Hazard.

The US government, motivated by a desire to expand home ownership, has for many years actively encouraged bankers to make loans to people with poor credit ratings. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two large government sponsored enterprises, have carried out this policy through a process known as “mortgage securitisation”. Mortgage securitisation involves:

  1. purchasing mortgages from banks and mortgage brokers;
  2. grouping these mortgages together into large pools; and then
  3. selling “shares” in these mortgage pools to investors.

Moral Hazard exists because the banks and mortgage brokers who originate the loans do not pay the cost if lenders default. As a result, they have an incentive to make as many loans as possible, even to people with extremely poor credit ratings. These loans are often referred to as NINJA loans because they are made to people with No Income, No Job and No Assets.

3. The Greenspan Put

The Greenspan Put is another example of Moral Hazard.

Since the late 1980’s the Federal Reserve has followed a policy of significantly lowering interest rates in the wake each financial crisis (this policy is often referred to as the Greenspan Put). Lowering interest rates has the effect of increasing the amount of money available to the economy which prevents the economy from deteriorating further and stops asset prices from falling. As a result, this policy encourages investors to take excessive risks because they know that the Fed will lower interest rates if things go badly.

4. Bank Bailouts

Following on from mortgage securitisation and the Greenspan Put, we arrive at bank bailouts.

The provision of bank bailouts by government is perhaps the most topical example of Moral Hazard. In 2008, in the wake of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the US government created a US$700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (known as TARP) to buy financial assets from banks and other financial institutions. The bailout was intended to stabilise financial markets, make sure that credit markets remained liquid and to prevent a repeat of the great depression. A worthy goal, however one small problem with TARP is that it creates a big Moral Hazard. If banks know that government will bail them out, then they will continue to engage in excessive risk taking.

Bailouts are now even being provided to sovereign states. In May 2010, the EU and IMF agreed to provide Greece with bailout money to the tune of €110 billion.

We can expect more financial instability to come.

5. Private Equity

Private equity vehicles, popular until around mid-2007, are another example of Moral Hazard.

Let’s assume that investors give a private equity firm $100 million to invest. If the private equity fund makes a profit of $20 million after one year then the fund managers might take 20%, or $4 million. If the fund loses $20 million after one year then the investors lose $20 million and the fund managers pay nothing. Since the managers are not fully responsible for the consequences of their investment decisions they have an incentive to take excessive risk.

6. The Limited Liability Company

The limited liability company presents an often overlooked form of Moral Hazard (props to Stella Szeto for pointing this out).

A company will often link the amount that its executives get paid with the company’s performance on the stock market. The reason for doing this is to align the interests of the executives with the interests of shareholders, which makes sense on one level (see Principal-Agent problem).

If the company performs well and its stock price rises strongly then shareholders are happy and executives will get a bonus in the form of cash, shares and/or options. However, if the company performs poorly then shareholders lose, while executives still receive their base salary and are not required to compensate shareholders. As a result, executives have an incentive to take excessive risks in an attempt to inflate the company’s short term stock price.

Moral Hazard

Moral hazard is when they take your money and then are not responsible for what they do with it.
~ Gordon Gekko

1. Relevance of Moral Hazard

THE unemployment rate in the United States is now around 9%. Over 13% of all US mortgages are either delinquent or in foreclosure (Mortgage Bankers Association). Total loses resulting from the sub-prime mortgage crisis are expected to run into the trillions of dollars.

At the heart of this global financial meltdown is a concept known as “moral hazard”.

2. What is Moral Hazard?

Moral Hazard is a concept that is often misunderstood, or at least badly explained, by people who should know what they are talking about; business writers, politicians, most online business dictionaries and sometimes even economists … And so we turn to Hollywood for clarity.

Gordon Gekko captured the nature of Moral Hazard very concisely when he explained that “moral hazard is when they take your money and then are not responsible for what they do with it.”

Gekko may well have borrowed his definition from Paul Krugman; Professor of Economics at Princeton University, 2008 Nobel Prize winner, and New York Times columnist. Krugman describes Moral Hazard as “…any situation in which one person makes the decision about how much risk to take, while someone else bears the cost if things go badly.”

To summarise these two iconic figures, we might simply think of Moral Hazard as any situation where a person or organisation is not fully responsible for the consequences of its actions. As a result, the person or organisation may take greater risks than it otherwise would because it is not responsible for paying the full cost if things go badly.

It is worth noting that “Moral Hazard” is an economic concept and does not necessarily imply that there is any immorality or unscrupulous dealing involved, not necessarily.