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Lessons from Charlie Munger- III

Jan 13, 2011

In the previous article, we had discussed the influence of incentives at the level of individual firms and some antidotes for investors. In this article, we'll discuss the power of incentives in the context of economic systems.

We all are part of various systems or groups- from a micro-system like a family to a macro-system like an economy. If you rip apart any system and look at its core design, you will find mainly two things: incentives and disincentives. They may be in the form of rules, regulations, norms, customs, traditions, mores or ethics. And you see them everywhere, don't you? Be it religion, politics or economics, every system is made up of these elements.

We'd like to point out to you how the success or failure of any economic system depends on how incentives and disincentives are designed. Let us explain.

What made the free-market economy work?

The success of the free-market system as an economic system comes from its inherent reward-punishment mechanism. Owners have a strong incentive to prevent all waste in operations. Their businesses will perish in the face of brutal competition if they are not efficient. Replace such owners by salaried government employees and you will normally get a substantial reduction in overall efficiency.

Communism has failed due to the absence of exactly those incentives that have motivated private enterprises to flourish in democracies. The fall of the Soviet communists is a glaring example of wrong system design. But one may also point the knife at the US- the epitome of free-market economy, for bringing in one of the worst financial crises ever. What really went wrong? Well, there is not just one simple answer to this. But we'll restrict our discussion to the main theme of the article.

The US financial crisis: an outcome of wrong incentives and absence of disincentives

It is fashionable to bash up the US Fed and the big investment banks for all the menace they created. But blaming them alone would do us more harm than good; because the crisis was a failure of the entire system and not the outcome of a few crooks alone. In one part, the financial crisis was a result of a series of incentives that induced unscrupulous behaviour across the entire system. The other major mishap was a complete dearth of penalties for wrong behaviour. Looking back, the evidence comes out pouring, often overwhelming.

Though it is not widely discussed, the original subprime lenders of the 1990s had already gone bust by turn of the century. A child could point and say, "Don't make loans to people who can't repay them." Simple. But amusingly and frighteningly, the lesson learnt was a bit complicated: "Keep making such loans; just don't keep them on your books." The lenders made the loans, and then sold them off to the fixed income departments of big Wall Street investment banks. These investment banks in turn packaged them into bonds and sold them off to investors. So the originator of loans had little incentive to bother at all about creditworthiness. On the other hand, there was hardly any penalty to curb his recklessness. As Mr. Raghuram Rajan, a leading economist who saw the crisis unfolding as early as 2005 noted, "Incentives were horribly skewed in the financial sector, with the workers reaping rich rewards for making money but being only lightly penalized for losses."

Also, the problem was not that no one warned about the dangers. It was that those who benefited from an over-heated economy- which included a lot of people- had little incentive to listen. So everyone enjoyed this "passing the parcel (read atom bomb)" game as long as the music played. And we all know what happened after the music stopped.

India 2010: A carnival of scams

We just emphasised the omnipotence of incentives and how a flawed reward-punishment mechanism can bring about the collapse of a giant system. It is quite clear that man responds more often and more easily to incentives than to reason and conscience. Didn't we see this axiom crystallizing before our own eyes with the cracking of a series of scams last year? Again, we will not arrive at an effective solution if the issue is not addressed at the most fundamental level. Firstly, we have to accept that man is fallible and corruptible, if the situation so allows. So the solution does not lie in moralising individuals alone, but more importantly, in creating robust systems that reward fair and ethical behaviour and deter deceitful practices.

To be continued...

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