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Inside Job or Internal Greed?

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A review of Inside Job, produced, written, and directed by Charles Ferguson, produced by Audry Marrs, 108 minutes, narrated by Matt Damon.

By Michael Shermer

In this disturbing and often infuriating look at the financial meltdown, the Academy Award-nominated (No End in Sight) documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson promises viewers an inside look into the "inside job" (use intended to convey criminality) that he believes explains the financial meltdown and subsequent recession. Inside Job is a well produced, artfully edited, and dramatic reconstruction of the rise and fall (and rise) of the Wall Street financial industry. Most of us are painfully aware of what happened to the economy, so this film packs into less than two hours what took two years to unfold, and so the emotional impact is commensurate with the eye-blurring number of events tightly repackaged in cinematic gravitas.

With Inside Job I expected a Michael Moore-like liberal attack on all things free market, but that is not the case here. Instead, there is what is said and what is not said. In other words, there were no lies of commission, but there were some lies of omission. What is said in Inside Job (that I found to be accurate although Ferguson does not phrase it this way) is that, in fact, we do not practice free market capitalism because the government (both Bush and Obama administrations are indicted in the film) are in bed with Wall Street tycoons, reducing risk taking through the moral hazard of promised bailouts. The whole point of capitalism is to make a profit by taking risks. Low risk taking typically results in slow and steady growth, whereas high risk taking historically produces both high profits and steep losses. By entering the business of risk protection, the government is sending a clear signal to the market: don't worry about taking big risks with your own and investors' money; we'll bail you out. In profits we're capitalists, in losses we're socialists. This is what Ralph Nader would call corporate welfare, and in the case of the financial meltdown and subsequent bailout he would be right.

What infuriates in particular in the film is just how much of an old-boys club Wall Street is (and what little chance any of us little guys have in competing fairly), and how much of the club roster includes prominent politicians and members of the Federal Reserve. It reminded me of my research on doping in sports, in which it has become abundantly clear that nearly everyone seems to turn a blind eye to the problem and former athletes are now running the sanctioning bodies and doping agencies are in the pay of said sanctioning bodies. When Ferguson reminds us that Obama left in place all the major players in the game--Bernanke, Geithner, Paulson, Sumners, et al.--it made me think of what would happen if Major League Baseball put Barry Bonds in charge of ending steroid use, or Marion Jones was the executive director of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The greed of Wall Street bankers and financiers is the leitmotif throughout Inside Job, and there is certainly no shortage of it on Wall Street. As one trader noted, there is no point of going anywhere near that part of Manhattan if your primary goal is not to make a pile of money. But Wall Street greed is only half the story; the other half is Main Street greed. Those greedy bankers were giving questionable loans to greedy buyers, and everyone was hoping to cash in through escalating risk taking in financial and real estate markets.

Now, behavioral economists have demonstrated that humans are normally very risk averse. Specifically, the research shows that losses hurt twice as much as gains feel good. That is, in order to get someone to invest their hard-earned money you have to convince them that the potential gains are twice as much as the possible losses. So why weren't all these Wall Street bankers and Main Street buyers risk averse? Two reasons: short term thinking and reduced risk signals. First, potential home buyers and investors mistakenly assumed that the increasing trend line in housing prices would continue unabated indefinitely. Two, loan officers and their financial institutions intentionally and deceptively reduced the normal risk signals sent to potential customers in hopes that the artificial bubble would not burst. It did, and here we are.

Since corporations and financial institutions are run by people, they should show the same risk aversion that individuals do when investing money and granting loans. Normally they do, but over the past decade something happened to remove or delay the risk. That something was a combination of government intervention into the financial marketplace and private repackaging and selling of loans to organizations too distant from the risk to feel averse to the potential loss. For example, in the spring of 1999 a pilot program was launched by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Recall that Fannie and Freddie are government-run organizations that do not make loans directly to customers--they buy loans from banks, which make those loans directly. So, here already the risk was removed a step from the brains of the risk assessors, but risk aversion was further attenuated by government interference with the pricing mechanism that normally adjusts for risk.

In that pilot program the nation's largest underwriter of home mortgages came under pressure from the Clinton administration in its desire to achieve an "ownership society," along with insistence from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that Fannie and Freddie increase their portfolio of loans made to lower and moderate-income borrowers from 44 percent to 50 percent by 2001. That meant granting loans to higher risk customers.

There's nothing wrong with corporations and institutions taking higher risks, as long as they adjust for it by charging more. The higher price acts as a risk signal to both buyers and sellers, thereby dialing up their emotion of risk aversion. This is what Fannie Mae was already doing by only purchasing loans that banks made charging three to four percentage points higher than conventional loans. But under the new program implemented in 1999, higher-risk people with lower incomes, negligible savings, and poorer credit ratings could now qualify for a mortgage that was only one point above a conventional 30-year fixed rate mortgage (and that added point was dropped after two years of steady payments).

In other words, the normal risk signal sent to high risk customers--you can have the loan but it's going to cost you a lot more--was removed. Lower the risk signal and you lower risk aversion.

None of this is part of Inside Job, and that's a shame because it misses an opportunity for a deeper look into the well of human nature that can lead any of us down a greedy path of blind profit seeking through rent seeking--the term used by economists to describe actions of individuals or firms to seek profits through political manipulation instead of economic competition. The problem is not greed per se, since that is part of our nature that when channeled properly through clearly defined and strictly enforced rules can result in much human progress. The problem is the attenuation or elimination of risk signals that keep greed in check.