When a religious fundamentalist suffers a “crisis of faith” it is a mournful incident to witness. Such was the occasion when Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve appeared before Congress in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. The man who had singlehandedly carried the faith of “the rational market” confessed that, “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in their firms.”
The revelations around the fraudulent LIBOR fix that are beginning to come forth have been greeted with half the outrage heaped on Bernard Madoff two years ago. Some would suggest that the reason Madoff seems to be the only corrupt financier behind bars is that he stole from the 1%, while the fixers at Barclays and the other banks that manipulated the $360 Trillion derivatives market got away with a mere dismissal and most of their bonuses intact. Eduardo Porter suggests the real reason for our non-chalance.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Libor scandal is how familiar it seems. Sure, for some of the world’s leading banks to try to manipulate one of the most important interest rates in contemporary finance is clearly egregious. But is that worse than packaging billions of dollars worth of dubious mortgages into a bond and having it stamped with a Triple-A rating to sell to some dupe down the road while betting against it? Or how about forging documents on an industrial scale to foreclose fraudulently on countless homeowners?
What is so shocking is that most of what purports to be mainstream economic theory today is based on this notion of rational choice theory. The whole Potemkin Village of Libertarian Free Market theory is based on a concept that takes no account of the tendency of “rational actors” to cheat if they think they can get away with it. Porter again.
Company executives are paid to maximize profits, not to behave ethically. Evidence suggests that they behave as corruptly as they can, within whatever constraints are imposed by law and reputation. In 1977, the United States Congress passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, to stop the rampant practice of bribing foreign officials. Business by American multinationals in the most corrupt countries dropped. But they didn’t stop bribing. And American companies have been lobbying against the law ever since.
Extrapolating from frauds that were uncovered during and after the dot-com bubble, the economists Luigi Zingales and Adair Morse of the University of Chicago and Alexander Dyck of the University of Toronto estimated conservatively that in any given year a fraud was being committed by 11 to 13 percent of the large companies in the country.
This is the basic flaw in the Republican argument that we need less regulation of the financial markets. As Simon Johnson wrote this morning, The Market Has Spoken and It is Rigged. This is the torch the Democrats must carry from now until the election. Mitt Romney is the poster child for Savage Capitalism. His election would signal the end of democracy and the beginning of Oligarchy.