As Daniel Henninger noted in the Journal today, moral hazard is hot right now. This is the stick that commentators of all political affiliations use to beat the Fannie/Freddie bailout, the Paulson rescue plan, any proposal to restructure mortgages, or any other government action that has the effect of protecting someone from his bad decisions.
The concept of moral hazard originated in the insurance industry, and describes the problem that people who are well insured are more likely to take unwise risks. (For example, if you have comprehensive insurance on your car with no deductible, you may not bother locking the doors.) In the current context, the argument is that if the government bails out financial institutions by taking troubled assets off their hands, they will not have an incentive to be more careful in the future. In this usage, moral hazard becomes suspiciously similar to moral indignation pure and simple: many people feel instinctively that banks that took excessive risks deserve to go bankrupt, and the bankers who made lots of money on the way up should lose their jobs. (These people often also believe that homeowners who can’t pay their mortgages should lose their houses).
The problem of moral hazard is real. And moral hazard should be taken into account when designing any rescue packages and, more importantly, when the time comes to rewrite the regulation of the financial sector. But there are several reasons why it should not be allowed to simply veto any government action.
- Moral hazard is most important in a repeated or continuous context. When you buy an insurance policy at the beginning of the year, you know if you are fully covered, or if you will be responsible for some proportion of the losses you incur, and you behave accordingly. It applies less clearly to retrospective bailouts like the current plan, where it is not clear that a similar situation will ever arise again. For example, perhaps one of the behaviors we want to discourage is leverage ratios of 30 to 1, like those at Bear Stearns and Lehman. Well, there are no more investment banks, and commercial banks have much lower leverage limits. Besides, there is another way to discourage undesirable behavior: regulation.
- As Martin Wolf argued in the FT in the long-gone days of the Fannie/Freddie bailout, the moral-hazard argument to punish the shareholders has the perverse effect of discouraging private capital. Given widespread fears that many banks are undercapitalized, it would be a good thing if they could raise capital in the private markets rather than from the government, like Goldman Sachs did with Warren Buffett. But if the government is planning to take the moral high ground and let banks collapse, then no one will step up with the capital.
- Most importantly, there is something fundamentally illogical about the moral hazard argument. If we bail out the banks now, it goes, then they will behave in harmful ways in the future. But right now we are facing the greatest danger to the financial system since the Great Depression. What future harm are we worried about that is more serious than the potential harm we are facing right now?
“While I find helping these banks highly distasteful, moral hazard concerns should be put aside temporarily when the whole short term credit system is close to a complete collapse.” Those words were written by no less a free-market advocate than Nobel Laureate Gary Becker.