An institutionalized system of skewed incentives allowed Wall Street bankers and other corporate executives to gamble with America's wealth and then get away largely scot-free after the house of cards came tumbling down, plunging the U.S. into the worst economic crisis in decades and destroying trillions of dollars of wealth worldwide.
That's the analysis of Joseph Stiglitz, an internationally renowned economist and winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics. (His latest book, Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy, is just out in paperback.)
During a wide-ranging interview with DailyFinance at AOL headquarters in New York City this week, Stiglitz, who served as chief economist of the World Bank from 1997-2000 and is currently University Professor at Columbia University, explained how the availability of cheap money (thanks in large measure to former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan), combined with outright mortgage fraud and deceptive and predatory lending practices put millions of people into homes they couldn't afford and caused real estate prices to skyrocket. That created a bubble that would inevitably pop. (See video below, or read the full interview transcript.)
"Festering For Years"
"We have to understand that the problems have been festering for years, not just the last three years," said Stiglitz. "In the years prior to the breaking of the bubble, the financial industry was engaged in predatory lending practices, deceptive practices. They were optimizing not on producing mortgages that were good for the American families but in maximizing fees."
Meanwhile, stock-based compensation created further skewed incentives by encouraging executives to pursue short-term stock gains at the expense of long-term corporate sustainablity, Stiglitz said, and in some cases encouraged them to deceive their own shareholders.
Highly complex financial instruments and off-balance-sheet transactions allowed the bankers to keep much of their activity hidden from woefully understaffed regulators at the SEC and other supposed financial watchdog agencies. And if the regulators did catch some fraud, Stiglitz explained, the system of penalties generally meant a small fine relative to the full ill-gotten gains, often in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
"Still Home Sitting Pretty"
Legal penalties for financial fraud in the U.S. have become "just a cost of doing business," Stiglitz said. "It's like a parking fine. Sometimes you make a decision to park knowing that you might get a fine because going around the corner to the parking lot takes you too much time."
"We fine them, and what is the big lesson?" said Stiglitz. "Behave badly, and the government might take 5% or 10% of what you got in your ill-gotten gains, but you're still sitting home pretty with your several hundred million dollars that you have left over after paying fines that look very large by ordinary standards, but look small compared to the amount that you've been able to cash in."
Taken together, Stigliz said, this system of widespread fraud, lax regulation and non-deterrent enforcement, created a system of skewed incentives that rewarded criminality, gambling and other bad behavior, and left American workers, investors and homeowners holding the bill.
Meanwhile, the astonishingly disproportionate influence of the big banks and corporations on the American political system has allowed powerful executives to exert their will on the U.S. government at the expense of the people, Stiglitz said.
"Five or Six Banks Equal to 300 Million People"
"Look at the regulatory reform that got passed," said Stiglitz. "It was an intense battle. And you had on one side a few banks. And on the other side you had 300 million people, American people. And it was really right in balance. Five or six banks equal to 300 million people. And in the end we got what you might call an unsatisfactory compromise."
Stiglitz doesn't buy the argument that trying to restrict corporate political donations would somehow infringe on the free speech of corporations, as the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in the landmark Citizens United case, a decision that busted open the door to a flood of corporate political donations.
"Corporations are a legal entity," Stiglitz explained. "We create them. And when we create them we create all kinds of rules. They can go bankrupt. And that means they owe more money and they get away scot-free. They can create an environmental disaster, and then go bankrupt and again go away scot-free. So, as legal entities we have the right to make the rules that govern them."
"As individuals we have certain basic rights," Stiglitz continued. "We aren't created by the law. We exist by nature. But corporations are man-made. They are supposed to serve our interest, our society's interests. And we are creating them with powers that are not serving our society's interests."
"A Vicious Cycle"
Unfortunately, he continued, we now have a situation where the owners of major American corporations, the shareholders, have virtually no say in compensation, the very thing that created many of the skewed incentives that led to the bad behavior.
"If you're going to rob your shareholders, shouldn't they have the right to say I don't like this?" asked Stiglitz. "It's basically a vicious cycle in which we've gotten ourselves, because the corporate executives control the corporations. The corporations have the right to give campaign contributions. So basically we have a system in which the corporate executives, the CEOs, are trying to make sure the legal system works not for the companies, not for the shareholders, not for the bondholders -- but for themselves."
"So it's like theft," said Stiglitz. "These corporations are basically now working for the CEOs and the executives and not for any of the other stakeholders in the corporation, let alone for our broader society."
What should be done? "I think we ought to go do what we did in the S&L [crisis] and actually put many of these guys in prison," said Stiglitz. "Absolutely. These are not just white-collar crimes or little accidents. There were victims. That's the point. There were victims all over the world."
A Theory of Justice
Among the casualties of this whole mess, according to Stiglitz? Faith in the legal system itself. "The legal system is supposed to be the codification of our norms and beliefs, things that we need to make our system work," he said. "If the legal system is seen as exploitative, then confidence in our whole system starts eroding."
"When you say the Pledge of Allegiance, you say, with 'justice for all," Stiglitz said. "People aren't sure that we have justice for all. Somebody is caught for a minor drug offense, they are sent to prison for a very long time. And yet, these so-called white-collar crimes, which are not victimless; almost none of these guys, almost none of them, go to prison."
"Families are as important as corporations," he said. "Keeping kids in school, not forcing them out of their home, keeping the community together, is certainly as important as keeping a corporation alive."