The Great Moral Squeeze
Is it just a global credit crunch we are facing; is it merely a crisis of confidence?
Or have we stopped valuing values?
In reality, isn’t it that we are in the midst of a global “moral bankruptcy?”
And, does a strong ethical framework foster a healthy economic environment?
Finally, what can we do to regain some semblance of normalcy?
Note: This essay discusses a wide variety of ideas and draws from several bodies of knowledge. Therefore, it ought to be read with the cognizance that an in-depth exploration of the topics covered may warrant a volume in the future – of which this essay could form the underlying foundation.
Monday, September 15, 2008: Lehman Brothers files for the largest bankruptcy protection in U.S. history. The US government refrains to intervene to save the failing investment bank.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008: U.S. Federal Reserve presents $85 billion rescue package to the insurance behemoth: AIG. The move is made in order to avert larger, systemic shocks to the global financial system. The same day, Merrill Lynch, the third largest investment bank in the world is sold to Bank of America in a fire sale.
Sunday, September 21, 2008: In order to shore up their toxic balance sheets, two of the most venerable names in the investment banking world: Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley dropped their much vaunted investment banking status to become bank holding companies.
October 6-10, 2008: The Dow Jones Industrial Index falls 1874 points (18%) to record the steepest weekly fall in its history of 120 years.
Friday, October 31, 2008: UK’s second largest bank: Barclays announces a £7.3 billion investment from Middle East sovereign fund investors for roughly a third of its ownership.
Monday, November 24, 2008: US government and Citigroup together identify $306 billion in distressed assets on Citigroup’s balance sheet. Citigroup would absorb the first $29 billion in losses and various US government agencies would pick up most of the remaining tab. The Treasury Department also commits to a total $45 billion infusion into the bank.
Thursday, December 11, 2008: Former Chairman of NASDAQ, Bernard Madoff is arrested on a securities fraud charge that is estimated to be worth a historic $50 billion.
There’s plenty of other bad news to recount. But you get the picture.
Safety in Numbers
“We go by the major vote, and if the majority are insane, the sane must go to the hospital.”
– Horace Mann
The word on the street was: if a sufficiently high number of people would be on the wrong side of the issue, the rule of safety in numbers applied. Well, the numbers part did apply, and the safety part did not.
During the boom times, “free markets” were given as much a free rein to benefit from the growing “investor class” of wealthy high net worth individuals, investment bankers, hedge fund managers, asset managers, and private equity firms, among others. Millions of less than sophisticated investors got caught in the current financial crisis through one product or another – whether through an unrealistic home mortgage, or spiraling credit card debt, or a derivative investment, or a home equity line, or one of the other cheap credit-fuelled products. Now, tens of millions of average Joes and Janes through their savings, 401-K’s, IRA accounts, and mutual fund and common stock holdings are bleeding hundreds of billions of dollars. Somewhere along the way, the financial services sector (purveyors of easy credit-fuelled products) got too smart and too greedy for everyone’s good.
Ultimately, bad karma had to catch up.
And how has bad karma caught up?
Seemingly sophisticated financial market participants (investment banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, asset management firms, etc.) have suffered, and in certain instances, succumbed to what Warren Buffet calls, “weapons of mass financial destruction.” And now, expectedly, everyone – the perpetrators and the victims – are in that clichéd state of: fear, uncertainty and doubt.
Doesn’t history have a way of repeating itself?
In fact, there are several parallels between now and The Great Depression. On the back of years of easy credit, speculation was rampant across several asset classes such as equities, commodities and real estate then, just the way it was on this go around. There was a “trust” (investment firms that were publicly traded) securities bubble then just the way there was a derivatives (fixed income securities, commodities futures, etc.) bubble this time around. The role of investment banks in creating and selling new, arcane, and insidious financial instruments, was central then just as it has been in this crisis. And an unfettered financial markets regulatory environment and a damagingly loose monetary policy regime that spawned the market distortions then are strikingly similar to the “market fundamentalist” economic policy framework that has given rise to the current financial meltdown today.
Whether folks are aware of the parallels between now and the Great Depression or not, markets are spooked by the inability of the financial services sector to self-correct the excesses of its own offspring, i.e. products of financial engineering.
And therefore, markets find themselves underneath a cascade of events from housing price collapse, to home foreclosures, to personal and corporate bankruptcies, to the ever-growing sub-prime crisis, to millions of job losses, to an unrelenting colossal liquidity crunch, to historic stock market crashes, and to a potential US financial markets failure, and a globaleconomic meltdown…and possibly the invocation of The D word?
So, how did we get here?
The Moral Argument
If we scratch just beneath the surface, we will see that it is not just a “credit squeeze” we are in, it is actually a dual and interconnected squeeze. The squeeze in credit is really a symptom of a squeeze in confidence. But, it does not stop at that either: Loss of confidence originates from a more fundamental place. It originates from a lack of trust.
And needless to say, lack of trust is one stop away from the root cause – often dismissed as an irrelevant and antiquated notion in the modern, pragmatic world of business, economics and finance – ethics and morals.
“Greed, for a lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies…”
– Gordon Gekko (character played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 movie: Wall Street)
Trust, one may argue, is better. Trust unites. And, trust liberates. Most of all, trust elevates.
Trustworthiness earns us the entitlement of being called human and civilized.
It is the glue that ties individuals – businesses – communities – societies – in fact all relationships together. It gives us a symbiotic construct within which to co-exist with fellow humans.
One may argue, it naturally waxes and wanes with the continuously changing cycles of how much integrity or “moral equity” or “ethical capital” there is left in a society at a given point in time.
The disturbing state we find ourselves today is: trust is running dangerously low.
In the continuous cycle of peaks and troughs of honor and integrity, and yes, consumer and investor confidence, our times and our societies are experiencing for themselves what comes out of violating universal values. These universal and timeless values are deemed sacrosanct and inviolable for a civilized society to function with some semblance of order and certainty. It is those values which are considered the most basic, common denominator that have been, and should be, considered a given. It is these values that aggregate to what we commonly refer to as our moral compass.
It is our moral compass that protects us from giving in to Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” mantra.
It is our moral compass that steers us clear from mistaking a healthy dose of Rand-ian Objectivism (the operating philosophy of legions of Wall Street bankers and Corporate America’s CEO’s) with a “tunnel vision” and perverse pursuit of Chicago School economics agenda.
It is our moral compass that provides a degree of certitude to the other (whoever that other might be) that regardless of what we stand to gain or lose, we will honor our commitment to deliver on our promises (whatever our promises might be).
It is our moral compass that navigates us through life’s numerous temptations.
It is our moral compass that guides us to do the “right thing” – for the right reasons.
It is our moral compass that through hundreds, thousands, millions of big and small interactions and decisions keeps the society’s trust intact.
“…Pay my respects to grace and virtue,
send my condolences to good,
give my regards to soul and romance,
they always did the best they could,
and so long to devotion,
you taught me everything I know,
wave good bye, wish me well,
you gotta let me go,
are we human…”
– From the song “Human” by The Killers
Could it be that what we are really facing is a colossal “moral bankruptcy?
Glamorous, effective, and even practical as it appears, unethical and immoral behavior leaves the perpetrator and the victim impoverished. It is intoxicating but temporary. It leaves societies and economies stagnated or regressed. And it strips us of much that makes us civilized, cultured, and yes, human.
Governments, of course, cannot legislate morality. They can, to varying degrees of success, regulate business practices. Few would disagree that the numerous regulatory institutions and their complex and arcane control mechanisms in mature and emerging economies such as US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, China, India, Korea, among others have been able to regulate their markets to varying degrees of success. That was true until the current financial crisis began.
Governments can punish irresponsible, unethical or immoral behavior. Perhaps, through certain policy measures, they can even marginally incentivize ethical and moral conduct. Consider trading of carbon credits as an example.
With a clear sense of ethical direction, even companies can competently regulate their business conduct through governance standards, through audit committees and internal audit departments, through risk management departments and their policies and procedures, through their auditors and consultants, among others.
Ultimately, though, it is individuals who constitute these organic, evolving societies – who have to live by certain organizing principles that are governed by a broader social and moral code as well as a narrower administrative, legal and legislative framework. And if individuals do not or cannot self-govern themselves with a clear and broad set of rules of engagement, then the government can only do so much through its regulatory levers. But that does not mean it should forego its social responsibility and absolve itself of its moral obligation.
Erosion of Independent Judgment
“A man of great common sense and good taste is a man without originality or moral courage.” – George Bernard Shaw
Could it be, that America – and for that matter – the rest of the world is losing its capacity to appreciate and exercise clear-eyed, rational, and independent judgment?
Has group-think taken over to the point where critical thinking has become a novelty to marvel at rather than a skill to develop and employ?
Or is it that, in addition to the above, there is something even deeper at play here: We, as a modern, civilized society have stopped valuing values?
Simple, classic, timeless values.
It is societies, after all, that rise and thrive by values – or decay and decline for lack of them.
And therefore, governments, companies, and societies together have to pay the price for the wayward conduct of its citizens – regardless of the industries in which they operate.
Just the monetary price tag on this go-around for our transgressions: $14 trillion and counting…
$8.5 trillion in various US Federal government bailout and stimulus packages (a detailed list is available upon request), $2.5 trillion and counting that governments around the world have infused into the financial services sector to shore up the global capital markets so far, and $4 trillion of losses incurred in capital markets since the current global financial meltdown began starting spring of 2007.
In light of these staggering losses, the question arises:
Is moral conduct a naïve and polyannish aspiration for a utopian world, or is it a realistic and practical imperative for a healthy, functional society and economy?
Switching gears then, so where does the trail lead us back to?
Uncertain Livelihood; Unstable Life
There could also be a lot of stress, pain, and suffering with the millions of job losses. There is unimaginable financial strain one goes through with a job loss and unconscionable insecurity that one experiences – especially in those economies where there is no safety net. Beyond those great misfortunes that no man or woman should have to face, there is a more fundamental loss. The loss of one’s identity that comes from being rendered unproductive and seemingly irrelevant to society. It is this loss that bends, and unfortunately sometimes, breaks the strongest, most resilient of wills. It is this loss that leads to crime. It is this loss that runs against the most basic principles of human dignity and honor. It is this loss that needs to be defeated with absolute resolve regardless of how derisive the label ascribed to the individual, company, or society fighting for the rights of the silent majority. Those could range from socialist to communist to liberal to progressive, and so on.
What also often goes unexplored is the socio-economic ecosystem that bred selfish, greedy, short-sighted, and socially deleterious behavior by which we are all affected. As Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten eloquently points out: “Long before the financial system melted down, American business’ share of the social compact melted completely away.”
Long before toxic assets had hit the balance sheets of Wall Street, toxic motivations had begun eating into the fabric of society. The unspoken rules that hold us together in a social compact of honor, decency, and fairness had been discarded to the junkyard of values.
A vast majority of the current bankers’ generation – Generation X – is likely to have experienced first-hand how their families’ economic and social stability came crashing down by the loss of the bread-winner’s job. The beneficiaries of this disruptive market mechanism extolled the virtues of its “Darwinian” ethos. As the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called it: the “creative destruction” of capitalistic forces. But there was a cost – a heavy cost borne by the families and their young, impressionable ones – who went on to live by the cynical interpretation of the Darwinian code of “survival of the fittest.” The interpretation was one of a twisted, brutal, and severely political ethos covered by a thin veneer of civility and political correctness. The moment they stepped out into the public domain, it was each man for himself, each woman for herself.
Such an insecure, uncertain, and unhealthy environment gave rise to the toxicity that we live and breathe today.
One may wonder: where is the civility in this value system?
Where is the humanity?
In a setting like this, where there would be only negative consequences for not being a “team player” – regardless of how morally vacuous the “game” was, voices of integrity would not have much of a chance. The reward of “fitting in” was too alluring, and the price of not doing so, too heavy.
And hence, here we are: In this global financial and moral crisis.
What could happen next?
“Brother, can you spare a dime.” – Yip Harburg (sang by Bing Crosby), 1932
Business is the lifeblood of an economy. However, capital is the oxygen of an economy. Capital is what oxygenates business – which in turn ensures economies survive and thrive. As we speak, the world financial markets are sucking out oxygen, i.e. capital of the markets. And out of businesses. They feel wronged and, therefore, are in a punishing mood. It doesn’t matter whether they punish Main Street for the sins of Wall Street or vice versa. After all, it is hard to single out any impeccably innocent party to this party.
Looking beyond the debate over the extent of their impact, it is entrepreneurial businesses that are one of the prime engines of economic growth in Western-style capitalistic economies around the world. In the ensuing corrective process that is already underway across the globe, the thriving market for ideas and innovations is getting squelched. In a knee-jerk reaction, the capital markets that trade in “paper” may intentionally or unintentionally stifle real entrepreneurship (regardless of whether it resides in a large enterprise or small). As it turns out, real entrepreneurship creates real value for the real global economy. And by the way, that real value produces real jobs and generates real wealth.
So, how do we get out of this mess? What should we do now?
“Get busy living, or get busy dying.” – Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (character played by Morgan Freeman in the movie Shawshank Redemption)
Keeping people employed fully is socially responsible. Utilizing their talents and skills optimally is economically profitable. Natural resources are scarce, human ingenuity is not. Zero sum games are applicable to the alternately dour and toxic, ruthless and vacuous world of politics. In sharp contrast, the world of economics is alive: pulsating with creativity, energy, and vitality. It is ever growing, morphing, and enriching.
It is time for us all to go to work. Find our passions and our causes. Ideas we believe in. We do not have a choice. We must go to work.
In this great adversity, there is great opportunity. It is an opportunity to re-evaluate and re-adjust what we value and what we reward as a society.
As a global society.
We, as a global society, are at a crossroads. Big and far-reaching as the current global financial crisis is, the threat to the ecology of our planet dwarfs anything on the horizon. It is, quite simply, a matter of our long-term survival as a species.
The good news is, there are also many time-tested ideas, frameworks, and philosophies available for us to seek our collective salvation (in a purely secular sense of the word). They range from financial to economic to political to sociological to psychological to philosophical to religious, and of course, to ethical. Given how enormous and sweeping our challenges, we may have to employ all of these levers to varying degrees across different peoples and nations. All of these choices as independent organizing philosophies, or in some combination thereof, will most assuredly have different intended as well as unintended outcomes. A fair, steady, and dispassionate approach to arriving at a consensus is paramount. Intellectual honesty, therefore, is also imperative. Each nation, town and community would have to come up with their unique, grass-roots recipe that works for them. And at the same time, due to our ever deeper global inter-dependence, each of them would have to ensure that their governing social, economic, political, and religious ideology integrates in some way, shape, or form within the larger global community.
Curiously, the moment the discussion veers towards policy (and heaven forbid) ethics and morality – some of us tend to tune out. One cannot blame those who do tune out. We live in a cynical world.
Nonetheless, we must effect numerous policy changes to fix the global economy as well as to resolve the “clash of civilizations” – and to regulate the capital markets – and to clean up the housing mess – and to reduce uncertainty in the job markets – and so on. One could even offer several socio-economic frameworks to sort out the world’s moral bankruptcy in the private and public domains.
Role of America
However, as Newsweek International’s editor, Fareed Zakaria, explains: we are gradually shifting to a period of the “post-American world,” where the “rise of the rest” will create new ethical, environmental, commercial, political and diplomatic opportunities and challenges. America, however, would still have the unique opportunity to set the agenda for powers across both the developed and developing economies. Despite the gradual shift to a multi-polar power structure, what America thinks, says, and does in the forthcoming decades would continue to profoundly impact the rest of the world.
And therefore, as the current crisis has made it all too clear, American public policy and personal ethics would play a central role in getting not just America, but due to its inter-linkages, the rest of the world out of this current economic crisis and moral squeeze. However, even America’s constructive role in a “Post-American World” would only be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the world to get back on its feet. The solution set to today’s complex and long-term problems actually begins with a reminder of something much simpler yet bigger.
Back to Basics
“Leadership cannot just go along to get along. Leadership must meet the moral challenge of the day.” – Rev. Jesse Jackson
Progress has come to the world wherever the ennobling pursuit of one’s destiny has been rewarded.
Progress has come to the world whenever people have been proven right for believing “anything is possible.”
Therefore, it is time to ask broad and sweeping questions about whether we are achieving progress in a larger sense of the word; in a civilized sense of the world.
It is time to re-visit some of our long-held assumptions, hypocrisies, prejudices, and values by which we understand and respond to the world.
Now is also a time to re-discover an idea.
It is a basic idea. But a very big idea.
It is an idea for a fairer and more just world.
A world where leadership exists in thought and in action. And in every other sense of the word.
A world that is driven by a sense of purpose rather than by a sense of convenience.
A world that not only confronts tyranny but also embraces justice.
A world that not only fosters unity but also promotes diversity.
A world that not only has a taste for success but also an appetite for failure.
A world that not only reaches up for the pinnacle of power but also reaches down to the depths of compassion.
A world whose nations set their agendas – not just due to their military might, or financial strength but more so, because of their moral authority.
A world whose nations not only protect their land, sea, and air but also open their hearts, minds and souls.
A world that not only commits to a level playing field but also delivers on mobility for those who score a goal.
A world whose nations are not only honest to their peers but also to themselves.
And most of all, a world where our sustenance is not at the expense of the planet’s sustainability.
It is time to re-discover classic values…values of merit, courage, hard work, enterprise, innovation, self-reliance, collaboration, thriftiness, tolerance, resilience, perseverance, unpretentiousness, candor, decency, trustworthiness, generosity, loyalty, honesty, and sustainability.
It is time to value values again.
About the Author: Sahil Alvi is a management consultant and a writer. He presently works with a global management consultancy in Dubai, UAE. Previously, he has held management consulting roles with Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers in the US. He can be reached at: email@example.com