How to Explain Moral Hazard

It took me many years to understand the phrase “moral hazard.” It’s a fundamental tenet of economics, usually used to explain that, since consumers are untrustworthy, businesses need to charge them more.*

It was finally cleared up for me in the midst of a presentation last year about how it’s a “moral hazard” issue that divorce rates go up as more women work outside of the house/family business. So I asked the presenter, “You mean it’s a moral hazard issue that women who have an independent income can now get out of an abusive relationship?”

Fortunately, one of the best Labor Economists in the world was in the room. He just looked up and said, “Or guys start leaving their wives because the wife can go to work now.”

Aha! The light dawns: moral hazard is, indeed, about power relationships: it allows arseholes to be even greater arseholes. (One step further, and you start spouting Ayn Rand.)

Preceding is preamble to correcting an error made by a worker in today’s Phialdelphia Daily News (h/t Dr. Black, of course):

Yesterday, Local 234 President Willie Brown said that the wage package was acceptable but that he was worried about the underfunded pension fund, funded only 52 percent. He said he believed that SEPTA had not contributed to it for 10 to 12 years….

“We could wake up and our pension could be completely gone,” [Brown] said. “We don’t want to end up like AIG,” referring to the international insurance giant who got $173 billion since last fall in a U.S. government bailout.

Mr. Brown should not worry about that. AIG’s creditors (e.g., The Great Vampire Squid) were paid in full, because Tim Geithner and Larry Summers want a veto-proof Republican majority by 2012, if not 2010.**

Pensioners, otoh, are subject to “moral hazard.” Believing their contracts were viable, reasonable, and negotiated by people who were working in the best interest of the firm—that is, people who were not writing a check with their mouth that their pockets couldn’t cash—clearly causes them not to do enough to save. Because they don’t understand that mismanagement of their pension is their fault, and that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation will only ensure that their pensions will be paid “up to certain limits,” no matter how much extra Roger Smith or Michael Eisner or Jack Welch took from the company for performing almost as well as the rest of the stock market.

So, let us say to Mr. Brown and the rest of the workers who depend on their pensions being funded: Don’t worry about being treated the way AIG was. You’re going to be dealt with as a “moral hazard” problem for believing that the contract you negotiated will be enforced.

Why, if those workers were at all sensible, they would have taken the money upfront the way those Captains of Industry did, instead of gotten a false sense of security (“moral hazard”) from contractual negotiations about future payments.

As noted by Dr. Black, while management claims that they are fulfilling their legal obligations, management’s pension fund is almost 25% better funded than the workers fund (53% v 65%).

This is, of course, A Good Thing. After all, we wouldn’t want workers to believe that what they think of as Contractual Obligations is anything other than a case of “moral hazard.”

UPDATE: I see, via David Wessel’s Twitter feed, that Ricardo Caballero puts forth standard Economics Reasoning:

His idea is likely to give heartburn to many economists and policy makers, who worry about “moral hazard” — the idea that if financial institutions know they’ll be saved in an emergency, they’ll take even greater risks that will inevitably lead to greater disasters.

Don’t fret, says Mr. Caballero: “this moral hazard perspective is the equivalent of discouraging the placement of defibrillators in public places because of the concern that, upon seeing them, people would have a sudden urge to consume cheeseburgers.”

After all, we just have to acknowledge that “moral hazard” exemptions are the rule, not the exception, for mismanaged businesses. After all, paying out more in bonuses than you make in a year is a Perfectly Reasonable Business Strategy.

*Seriously. The standard example is that people “don’t tell the whole truth” on health insurance applications, so companies need to charge them more. The logical extension of this is that people who tell the whole truth are leaving money on the table, since no insurance company would ever take an ex poste action against people who omit or forget that sprained ankle from thirty years ago. For an alternate view, see Malcolm Gladwell.

**There may be an alternate explanation, but this one requires the fewest outlandish assumptions.