27 September 2008

"Moral hazard" - a term to learn

Moral hazard is the prospect that a party insulated from risk may behave differently from the way it would behave if it were fully exposed to the risk. Moral hazard arises because an individual or institution does not bear the full consequences of its actions, and therefore has a tendency to act less carefully than it otherwise would, leaving another party to bear some responsibility for the consequences of those actions...

Financial bail-outs of lending institutions by governments, central banks or other institutions can encourage risky lending in the future, if those that take the risks come to believe that they will not have to carry the full burden of losses. Lending institutions need to take risks by making loans, and usually the most risky loans have the potential for making the highest return. A moral hazard arises if lending institutions believe that they can make risky loans that will pay handsomely if the investment turns out well but they will not have to fully pay for losses if the investment turns out badly...

Moral hazard can also occur with borrowers. Borrowers may not act prudently (in the view of the lender) when they invest or spend funds recklessly. For example, credit card companies often limit the amount borrowers can spend using their cards, because without such limits those borrowers may spend borrowed funds recklessly, leading to default.

Some believe that mortgage standards became lax because of a moral hazard—in which each link in the mortgage chain collected profits while believing it was passing on risk—and that this substantially contributed to the 2007-2008 subprime mortgage financial crisis. Brokers, who were not lending their own money, pushed risk onto the lenders. Lenders, who sold mortgages soon after underwriting them, pushed risk onto investors. Investment banks bought mortgages and chopped up mortgage-backed securities into slices, some riskier than others. Investors bought securities and hedged against the risk of default and prepayment, pushing those risks further along.

(According to research by Dembe and Boden, the term dates back to the 1600s, and was widely used by English insurance companies by the late 1800s.)

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