‘A Race to the Bottom’: Assigning Responsibility for the Financial Crisis

The global financial meltdown has been marked by shortages — of oversight, due diligence, moral fortitude and common sense. Today, approximately two years after the housing bubble burst and world stock markets collapsed, possibly the only surplus left from the crisis is that of finger pointing and blame.

“The question of blame has been one that’s been on a lot of people’s minds,” said Wharton Dean Thomas S. Robertson, introducing a panel discussion last December titled, “Responsibility and the Financial Crisis of 2008.” Attempts to pinpoint who or what caused the global financial crisis usually results in a long list of suspects: The Federal Reserve, government regulators, credit rating agencies, the Securities and Exchange Commission, subprime lenders and borrowers, and even business schools have found themselves at the end of an accusing finger. “Whether they bear some responsibility or not,” Robertson said, “We have an obligation to immerse ourselves in the question, ‘Where do we go from here?'”

The panel of professors from Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania spread the responsibility around. The possible culprits they identified ranged from global capital imbalances to outdated regulatory structures. Some found fault with the private sector and greed on Wall Street, while others argued that the government had not been held fully accountable for its failures. Perhaps the only common ground was a belief that there are no simple solutions. Oversimplification of complex problems is dangerous, some warned, and in itself might have contributed to the crisis.

According to Wharton finance professor Franklin Allen, there hasn’t been enough focus on the real causes of the financial crisis, which he traces to loose monetary policy and global capital imbalances. “The public sector has done a very successful job of pushing blame to the private sector,” he said. “So for example, there’s a lot of debate about consumer protection, but not the Federal Reserve…. There is little talk of reform of the global financial system.”,

The immediate cause of the crisis was clearly the housing bubble, Allen said. From 1890 to 1996, real housing prices rose 27%, whereas between 1996 and 2006, they rose 92%. “That’s more than three times as much. And that’s the problem.” The more important question is what caused the bubble. In Allen’s view, subprime mortgages were not to blame, because other countries without subprime mortgages also suffered housing bubbles. Rather, the problem was that the Fed kept interest rates too low for too long, and imbalances in global capital flows allowed people to borrow large amounts at low rates. “It became a very attractive arbitrage to borrow and buy houses,” Allen said.

He traces the global imbalances back to the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944 and the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Since Bretton Woods smoothed financial conflict after World War II, the world’s financial system has been dominated by the United States and Europe. As a result, Asia had little representation at the International Monetary Fund when its financial crisis unfolded in 1997. Unable to get the loans they needed during the crisis, Asian countries subsequently piled up safety stashes of $4 trillion in foreign reserves, money that ended up being invested in U.S. debt and contributing to the housing disaster.

The U.S. now borrows more money than any other country in the world, noted Wharton management professor Mauro F. Guillén, who also saw global capital imbalances as one root of the crisis. Guillén argued that the crisis “should be seen in the wider context of what is going on in the world.” For example, from a regulatory standpoint, one crisis contributor was the fierce competition between London and New York about who would have the lowest financial regulations — what Guillén called a “race to the bottom” in regulatory terms. London began to compete aggressively in the 1980s to woo financial firms back to England. The U.S. responded by easing financial regulations in the 1990s, eventually repealing the Glass-Steagall Act — a Depression-era law that barred commercial banks from engaging in investment-bank activities, and vice versa — in 1999. But the easing of regulations in the U.S. included no reform of its regulatory structure, which remained a hodge-podge of agencies inherited from The Great Depression. The result was “regulatory fragmentation,” Guillén said. “No agency had a 360 degree view.”

Wall Street’s ‘Self-selected Group’

Larry Zicklin, clinical professor of business ethics at New York University’s Stern School and a senior fellow at Wharton, took a different view of the crisis, placing blame squarely on Wall Street and the private sector. “I would argue that greed overcame due diligence,” said Zicklin, who noted that incentive systems got out of control. “We’re a self-selected group in Wall Street. Who goes to Wall Street? People who want to be rich.” As long as there was money to be made in the housing market, leverage was allowed to increase. Homes were sold to people who could not afford them because the assumption was made that prices would continue to go up. “Compensation was an issue; risk was not an issue,” Zicklin said. “Big firms like Lehman forgot who they were and what they were supposed to do.”

Greed may have played a role in the crisis, but focusing too much on compensation of “greedy executives” just takes attention away from more serious issues, argued Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor Diana C. Robertson, “Do we have sufficient consistent empirical evidence to suggest that executive pay packages led to excessive risk-taking, as has been alleged? Would we still have a financial crisis if the pay schemes had been different? It is difficult to say. Wouldn’t it be of greater benefit to focus on risk itself, on leverage, on the models used and on accountability? If we change the compensation without changing these, it seems likely that we could end up with another financial meltdown.”.

In terms of the public-private sector debate, “the financial crisis reveals a curious asymmetry in our responses to Wall Street and government,” said Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor Amy Sepinwall “Both are reported to have failed spectacularly but, in the case of Wall Street, the failure is seen as an expected lapse, while in the case of government, it is seen as a calamitous disappointment.”.

Sepinwall suggested that individual investors share as much responsibility as Wall Street for the crisis. “Wall Street is in the business of courting risk, and it is in the business of courting risk because the investing public has given it that mandate,” she said. “Individuals prefer to spend rather than save, and, as a result, demand the kind of financial alchemy that can transform one’s house into a virtual ATM, or one’s exceedingly modest savings into a fiscal cushion that can sustain a long, comfortable retirement. Fund managers are willing to oblige…. Risk, then, is the inevitable price of our preferences for leisure over toil and consumption over savings.”

Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor David Zaring sees the crisis as “a failure of institutions. In a global world, you would think that there would be a global response” to such a crisis, but most of the world’s financial networks failed. For example, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, a global forum established to improve cooperation and banking supervision worldwide, “had literally nothing to say in response to the financial crisis. To any extent we’ve seen a global response, it has come from the politicians.”

Both the public and private sector share blame for the crisis, suggested William W. Bratton a visiting professor from Georgetown University Law Center at Penn Law School. “This was not the unforeseeable perfect storm,” said Bratton, who argued that both Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan as well as the banks that made risky loans could have seen the crisis coming. “In the years leading up to the crisis, more and more smart people on both sides of the public/private divide were looking harder and harder at systematic risk. Why didn’t anybody look at the markets and connect the dots?” Bratton asked. “It was partly because the core dots were financial products that were supposed to make the system safe, diffusing rather than concentrating risk; and it was partly because nobody had a complete set of information gathered for the purpose of dot connection. And I think it was also because those responsible were very content to operate in a political economy built on the idea that markets control business better than government does.”,

Such simplistic beliefs themselves may have contributed to the financial crisis, suggested Wharton management professor Witold Henisz .”The responsibility for the current crisis and its predecessors lies in an oversimplified dogma or political doctrine that — while once necessary to achieve political support to undertake reforms needed to emerge from a crisis — continued forward in self-purification and extension in a manner that ultimately sowed the seeds of its own demise. Simple policy answers — e.g., ‘markets work,’ or ‘markets need to be controlled or regulated by government’ — … lose sight of the complexity, contingencies and uncertainty that characterize reality. Eventually, hubris sets in as policymakers, academics and those listening believe the simple answers. In short, policy proponents begin to drink their own Kool-Aid.”.

It is increasingly accepted that “some of the fundamental assumptions used to craft our market models do not accurately represent the actions of individuals,” Henisz said. “Perhaps we could previously ignore the role of guile, framing, envy, herding, fear, loss aversion, fairness and reciprocity — as well as procedural justice — but in thinking through the … financial crisis, I would argue these known behavioral traits must be moved from the shadows of electives, final weeks of courses and final minutes of classes to the forefront of managerial education and research.”

Guillén agreed. There is no simple solution to the crisis and no single scapegoat, he said. “You are deluding yourselves if you think you can find a solution to prevent this from ever happening again. We have to learn how to lead with uncertainty.”



沃顿商学院院长滕博勋(Thomas S. Robertson)谈到:“责任的问题一直盘桓在很多人的头脑中。”12月初,他发起了一个题为《责任和2008年的金融危机》(Responsibility and the Financial Crisis of 2008)的专家小组讨论会。当人们试图明确指出是谁以及什么原因引发了这场全球性金融危机时,往往会得到一长串难逃其责的机构名单:美国联邦储备委员会(Federal Reserve)、政府监管机构、信用评级机构、证券交易委员会(Securities and Exchange Commission,简称SEC)以及次级抵押贷款的出借人和借贷者,甚至连商学院到头来也会发现,自己难以逃脱人们的指责。“无论它们是否承担某些责任,”罗伯逊谈到,“我们都有责任深入探究这样一个问题:‘我们此后应该走向何方?’”

在本次讨论会上,来自沃顿商学院和宾夕法尼亚大学(University of Pennsylvania)的教授们将责任分摊到了很多机构身上。从全球性的资本失衡(capital imbalances),到陈旧过时的监管结构,都被他们当作了这次危机的可疑罪魁。有人认为,私营部门的错误难逃干系,华尔街的贪婪应该为此负责,有人则认为,危机的原因在于政府一直没有为其错误承担全部责任。或许,讨论会达成的唯一共识就是,化解这场危机并没有简单的解决方案。有人告诫说,将复杂的问题进行过度简单化的处理是危险的,这种处理方法本身就可能给危机的爆发起到推波助澜的作用。

沃顿商学院金融学教授富兰克林·艾伦(Franklin Allen)认为,人们对这场金融危机的真正原因尚没有给予足够的关注,他认为,危机的原因可以追溯到宽松的货币政策和全球性的资本失衡上面。“就将责任推向私营部门来说,公共部门干得很漂亮。”他谈到。“举例来说,围绕消费者保护问题有很多争论,但是,关于联邦储备委员会却没有多少争论……人们对全球金融系统的改革谈论得也很少。”


他认为,全球性的资本失衡可以追溯到1944年的《布雷顿森林协议》(Bretton Woods Agreement)以及1997年的亚洲金融危机。因为《布雷顿森林协议》化解了第二次世界大战之后的金融冲突,所以,全球的金融系统一直是由美国和欧洲掌控的。结果就是,当金融危机在1997年爆发时,亚洲国家在国际货币基金组织(the International Monetary Fund)并没有多少发言权。因为在危机期间无法取得它们所需的贷款,所以,亚洲国家随后积累了4万亿美元的外汇储备以备不时之需,而这些资金最后又投资到了美国的债券上,从而,助长了这次房地产市场灾难的发生。

沃顿商学院管理学教授莫罗·F·吉兰(Mauro F. Guillén)谈到,现在,美国的借贷量比世界上任何一个国家都多,他也认为,全球性资本失衡是这场危机的根源之一。吉兰主张,“应该在全世界所发生的变化这一更广泛的背景下来看待这场危机。”举例来说,从监管的角度来看,危机的原因之一是在伦敦和纽约之间就谁的金融监管最为宽松所进行的激烈竞争——吉兰以法规术语将这一竞争称之为“竞次”(race to the bottom)(“竞次”通常是指以剥夺本国(本地区)劳动阶层的各种劳动保障,人为压低他们的工资,放任自然环境的损害为代价,从而赢得竞争中的价格优势的竞争行为。——译者注)。为了将金融机构招揽到英国,伦敦于20世纪80年代发动了激烈的竞争。美国则于20世纪90年代以放松金融机构的监管做出回应,并于1999年最终废除了《格拉斯-斯蒂格尔法案》(Glass-Steagall Act)(也称作《1933年银行法》,为20世纪30年代“大萧条”之后的美国立法,该法案将投资银行业务和商业银行业务严格地划分开来,以确保商业银行避免证券业的风险。该法案禁止银行包销和经营公司证券,只能购买由美联储批准的债券。——译者注),这是一个“大萧条”时代颁布的法案,该法案禁止商业银行从事投资银行的业务,同时也禁止投资银行从事商业银行的业务。但是,美国在放松监管的同时并没有改革其监管结构,依然保留着从“大萧条”传承来的那种“大杂烩”式的多种机构形式。结果就是“监管的碎片化”(regulatory fragmentation)(也称为“多头监管”),吉兰谈到。“没有哪个机构负责全方位的监管。”


纽约大学斯特恩商学院(New York University’s Stern School)商业伦理学教授、沃顿商学院高级研究员拉里·金克林(Larry Zicklin)对这场危机则持有另一种观点,他认为,责任完全在于华尔街和私营部门。“我认为,原因在于贪婪战胜了尽职调查。”金克林谈到,他指出,激励系统完全失控了。“我们是华尔街的‘自选组’(self-selected group)。谁会去华尔街呢?是的,那些想赚大钱的人。”只要在房地产市场还有钱可赚,杠杆的使用就会不断增加。住房被销售给了那些无力承付的人,因为人们认为,房价会持续上涨下去。“报酬体系才是问题所在,风险并不是问题。”金克林谈到。“诸如雷曼兄弟公司(Lehman)等大机构忘了自己是谁,忘了自己应该做什么了。”

沃顿商学院法律研究与商业伦理教授黛安娜·罗伯逊(Diana C. Robertson)认为,或许,贪婪在这场危机中确实难逃其责,但是,过度关注“贪得无厌的高管”的薪酬,会使注意力偏离更严重的问题,她谈到:“我们真的有足够确凿的证据证明是高管的‘薪酬包’(pay package)导致了过度冒险的行为吗,就像人们指称的那样?如果采用不同的薪酬计划,我们还会遭遇金融危机吗?很难说。专注于风险自身、杠杆比率以及采用的模型和责任,不是更有好处吗?如果我们在没有改变这些的前提下,只是改变薪酬计划,那么,最终很可能还会爆发另一场金融系统的崩溃。”

就公共部门和私营部门之争的问题,“这场金融危机让人们对华尔街和政府做出了难以理解的非对称性反应。” 沃顿商学院法律研究与商业伦理教授艾米·塞宾沃尔(Amy Sepinwall)谈到,“人们认为两者都犯了大错,可是,华尔街的错误被人们视为是预料之中的,但认为政府的行为令人大失所望。”


沃顿商学院法律研究与商业伦理教授戴维·扎凌(David Zaring)认为,这场危机“是各个机构的一场失败。在这个全球化的世界中,你可能以为,面对这样一场危机,我们会看到一个全球性的应对反应。”但是,世界上的大部分金融网络都没有做出反应。举例来说,巴塞尔银行监管委员会(Basel Committee on Banking Supervision)——旨在为促进全球银行系统之间的合作和监管而建立的一个全球性论坛——“对这场金融危机完全噤声。我们在全球范围内看到的任何反应都是来自政治家的。”

来自乔治敦大学法律中心(Georgetown University Law Center)的宾夕法尼亚大学法学院(Penn Law School)客座教授威廉·布拉顿(William W. Bratton)认为,公共部门和私营部门都对这场危机负有责任。“这场危机并不是一场无法预测的‘完美风暴’。”布拉顿谈到,他认为,美国联邦储备委员会主席艾伦·格林斯潘(Alan Greenspan)和发放高风险贷款的银行都应该预见到这场危机的到来。“在这场危机爆发前的几年里,在公共部门和私营部门中,有越来越多的聪明人越来越清楚地看到了系统性风险。可为什么没人审视市场、将各个节点连接起来呢?”布拉顿问道。“部分原因在于核心节点是金融产品,我们倾向于认为,这些产品能让整个系统更安全,能化解风险,而不是聚集风险;部分原因在于,没人拥有能将各个节点连接起来所需的全面信息。我想,还有部分原因在于,那些承担责任的人,都非常喜欢在某个经济环境下实施管理,这个环境就是建立在市场能比政府更好地掌控企业这一观念基础上的政治经济环境。”

这种过分简单化的观念本身可能也为这场金融危机起到了推波助澜的作用,沃顿商学院管理学教授维托尔德·赫尼兹(Witold Henisz )谈到。“目前这场危机以及之前的危机的责任,就在于过分简单化的信条或者政治主张,而一旦需要赢得政治支持,人们就会对这样的信条或者主张实施必要的改革,以摆脱危机,这类信条或者主张还在继续‘自我净化’(self-purification)和扩展,但其净化和扩展的方式不过是在为自己的最终消亡而播种。简单政策的解决方案——比如,‘市场自会有效运转’或者‘市场必须要由政府控制或监管’的理念——完全忽视了现实世界的复杂性、偶然性以及不确定性等特点。可最终,政策制订者、学术界和那些听信简单解决方案的人却都变得高傲自大起来了。简而言之,这类政策的拥护者开始变得心醉神迷了。”

越来越多的人接受了这样一个判断:“用于构建我们市场模型的某些根本性假设,并没有精确反映出个体的行为。”赫尼兹谈到。“或许,以前我们可以无视诡计、欺骗、嫉妒、群体行为、恐惧、厌恶损失(loss aversion)、公平、互惠以及程序正义(procedural justice)所扮演的角色,但是,经过对这场金融危机的思考之后,我认为,对这些广为人知的行为特点的研究,必须从选修课、每学期最后几周的课程或者每节课最后几分钟的阴影中走出来,让它们走向管理教育和管理研究的前台。”



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