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Greenspan's Laissez Fairy Tale: How Flawed Economic Theories Fail to Account for Financial Fraudsters

Alan Greenspan touted 'reputation' as the characteristic that made possible trust and free markets. He was dead wrong.

We continue to witness remarkable developments in the intersection of the related fields of economics, finance, ethics, law, and regulation. Each of these five fields ignores a sixth related field – white-collar criminology. The six fields share a renewed interest in trust.

The key questions are why we trust (some) others, when that trust is well-placed, and when that trust is harmful. Only white-collar criminologists study and write extensively about the last question. The primary answer that the five fields give to the first question is reputation. The five fields almost invariably see reputation as positive and singular. This is dangerously naïve. Criminals often find it desirable to develop multiple, complex reputations and the best way for many CEOs to develop a sterling reputation is to lead a control fraud. Those are subjects for future columns.

This column focuses on theoclassical economics' use of reputation as “trump” to overcome what would otherwise be fatal flaws in their theories and policies. Frank Easterbrook and Daniel Fischel, the leading theoclassical “law and economics” theorists in corporate law, use reputation in this manner to explain why senior corporate officers' conflicts of interest pose no material problem. The most dangerous believer in the trump, however, was Alan Greenspan. His standard commencement speech while Fed Chairman was an ode to reputation as the characteristic that made possible trust and free markets. I've drawn on excerpts from one example: his May 15, 2005 talk at Wharton. I find Greenspan's odes to reputation as the antidote to fraud to be historically inaccurate and internally inconsistent in their logic. Here, I ignore his factual errors and focus on his logical consistency. 

“The principles governing business behavior are an essential support to voluntary exchange, the defining characteristic of free markets. Voluntary exchange, in turn, implies trust in the word of those with whom we do business.

Trust as the necessary condition for commerce was particularly evident in freewheeling nineteenth-century America, where reputation became a valued asset. Throughout much of that century, laissez-faire reigned in the United States as elsewhere, and caveat emptor was the prevailing prescription for guarding against wide-open trading practices. In such an environment, a reputation for honest dealing, which many feared was in short supply, was particularly valued. Even those inclined to be less than scrupulous in their personal dealings had to adhere to a more ethical standard in their market transactions, or they risked being driven out of business.

To be sure, the history of world business, then and now, is strewn with Fisks, Goulds, Ponzis and numerous others treading on, or over, the edge of legality. But, despite their prominence, they were a distinct minority. If the situation had been otherwise, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America would never have realized so high a standard of living."

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"Over the past half-century, societies have chosen to embrace the protections of myriad government financial regulations and implied certifications of integrity as a supplement to, if not a substitute for, business reputation. Most observers believe that the world is better off as a consequence of these governmental protections.

Accordingly, the market value of trust, so prominent in the 1800s, seemed by the 1990s to have become less necessary. But recent corporate scandals in the United States and elsewhere have clearly shown that the plethora of laws and regulations of the past century have not eliminated the less-savory side of human behavior. We should not be surprised then to see a re-emergence of the value placed by markets on trust and personal reputation in business practice.

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