Home > Uncategorized > Ed Dolan on Other People's Money: Government, Oil Spills, Financial Crises & Limited Liaibility

Ed Dolan on Other People's Money: Government, Oil Spills, Financial Crises & Limited Liaibility

Ed Dolan (Professor at Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, Latvia and editor of the Austrian classic, The Foundations of Modern Austrian Economics (online here), and author of the classic pamphlet TANSTAAFL: An Economic Strategy for the Environmental Crisis (1971), has a post up at his new economics blog that ties together the above subjects, each a favorite of my own.

As I noted in a recent post referring to BP and ocean ecosystems :

Aren’t there huge and obvious commons-related problems that stem from government ownership and “management” of resources – be they federal lands, the seas, our fiat currency, or our financial institutions and publicly-listed companies?

But enough of me; here is the meat of Mr. Dolan’s post, What Oil Spills and Financial Crashes Have in Common: Gambling with Other Peoples Money (emphasis added):

:What do the Gulf oil spill and the recent financial crisis have in common? Both of them are the result of risk-taking gone wrong. …

The real trouble comes when you have a chance to gamble with other people’s money. Then you start looking for strategies that usually give you at least a modest payout even though they involve a small chance of catastrophic loss. These are called negatively skewed risks. You take these risks, even if you know they have a negative expected value, because you think you will pocket a gain most of the time. You expect that when disaster finally strikes, you will be able to walk away with your past winnings in the bank while sticking someone else with the loss.

Several common situations in business life give rise to the temptation to gamble with other people’s money. Executive compensation plans that emphasize short-term bonuses, include golden parachutes, and lack clawback provisions are one example. Not only top executives face such incentives–mid-level traders, engineers, and analysts may also take risks in the hope of bonuses or promotions, with the expectation that the worst that can happen in case of catastrophe is that they lose their jobs. Stockholders may condone such risk taking because they are protected by limited liability.

Both the Gulf oil spill and the financial crisis had their origins in negatively skewed risks. Investigators in the Gulf disaster are looking at whether BP and its contractors underplayed downside risks when they made technical choices, ignored warning signs, and neglected preparations for dealing with a worst-case spill. In the financial crisis, negatively skewed risks involved excessive leverage, manipulation of ratings, design of complex securities, and several other factors.

What can be done? Regulations can be made stricter, but who will regulate the regulators? Who will ensure they are not captured by special interests? Compensation plans can be changed–but if shareholders do not take the initiative, can outsiders fix the system for them? Corporations can be held to strict standards of legal liability, but individuals who make bad decisions are not necessarily the ones to pay when their corporate employers are found liable.

There is no magic bullet. We can only hope that after a couple of really big disasters, people will be more alert to early warning signs the next time.

What Ed has failed to note is that both the financial crisis and the BP oil spill/Gulf crisis are examples of the “Tragedy of the Commons” – when the commons are either the government pocketbook itself, or resources owned/managed by the government. Solutions to management of the Gulf lie in giving more rights – such as “catch rights” and a veto over oil and gas development – directly to resource users like fishermen. With their livelihoods on the line, they would be much more diligent than government can ever be in making sure oil and and gas development proceeds safely.

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