Feb 1st 2009

The Death of Trust

by Sin-ming Shaw

Sin-ming Shaw is a private investor and former visiting scholar at Princeton University.

BANGKOK - A friend recently asked a seemingly naïve question: "What is money? How do I know I can trust that it is worth what it says it is worth?" We learn in introductory economics that money is a medium of exchange. But why do we accept that? Banknotes are just pieces of paper with a number attached to them.

We believe in banknotes because we collectively decide to trust the government when it says that 100 is 100, not 10 or 50. Money, therefore, is about trust, without which no society can function.

Just as we obey our leaders' orders to fight and die because we trust their judgment, we entrust our careers and our money to those who run Citigroup and Goldman Sachs and other such banks, because we believe their leaders will be fair to their employees and clients, and honorable in their business practices. We do not grow up wishing to work for crooks and liars.

Once that trust breaks, bad things happen. Money ceases to have credibility. Leaders become figures of contempt or worse.

As I write, inflation in Zimbabwe has reached an unimaginable (if not unpronounceable) level of more than 500 quintillion per cent. One quintillion is one million trillion. A year ago, inflation was "only" 100,000%. This is what happens when trust vanishes.

Fortunately, Zimbabwe is not a country of real consequence for world stability. But the Weimar Republic and China in the 1940's were. One opted for Hitler and the other for Mao Zedong to restore trust. So the risks are clear.

Are we now seeing an erosion of trust in America and in the United Kingdom?

The first warning sign surfaced in 2001, with the bankruptcy of Enron in the United States. Its fraudulent accounts were certified by Arthur Andersen. Now, India's Satyam, audited by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, is found to be missing billions in cash. If we cannot rely on the best auditors, can we continue to trust chartered accountants?

Bond rating agencies have issued misleading ratings on companies in questionable health. Will we ever again be able to trust a triple A rating issued by, say, Moody's?

Banks have been holding our money for safekeeping since the fourteenth century, when the Florentines invented the practice. The Royal Bank of Scotland, founded in 1727, when laissez-faire philosopher Adam Smith was only four years old, has just become a socialist state-owned-enterprise thanks to the bank's incompetent leaders, who acquired over-priced banks filled with toxic assets.

Citicorp, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and other symbols of "excellence" all would have collapsed but for public bailouts. And yet for decades we thought that the people who were managing those firms were much smarter than we were.

We grew up admiring leaders such as Robert Rubin, John Thain, and Henry Paulson. Rubin, a former US Treasury Secretary and ex-Chairman of Goldman Sachs, presided over the collapse of Citigroup while taking home $150 million in bonuses. Should he really have been rewarded at all for his "performance"? Just this week, the technically bankrupt Citigroup's senior executives were about to buy a new $50 million luxury French jet for themselves, until the White House stopped it.

Thain, also a former president of Goldman Sachs, helped himself and his Merrill Lynch staff to $4 billion in bonus payments even after he had to sell the firm to Bank of America to save it from bankruptcy. After he was caught spending $1.2 million, even as Merrill Lynch disintegrated, to decorate his new office, Bank of America had to fire him to placate growing revulsion over Wall Street's out-of-control culture of entitlement.

Paulson, the outgoing Treasury Secretary and another Goldman Sachs veteran, left a loophole in his rescue package big enough for a truck to drive through. That loophole allowed his former friends and colleagues on Wall Street to pay themselves billion-dollar bonuses while keeping those firms afloat with taxpayers' money.

The universities these men attended - Harvard and Yale for Rubin; MIT and Harvard for Thain; Dartmouth and Harvard for Paulson - have been magnets for the world's finest young minds. The rest of us thought that these institutions could instill the wisdom, insight, and character of which we all wished we had more.

Perhaps parents all over the world should re-examine their often obsessive craving for these "name-brand" universities, pushing their children as if an Ivy League degree was an end in itself. Now we know that Wall Street's titans were never all that smart, and certainly not very ethical, for they failed the only test that counts. All of the firms they led collapsed, and were saved only by money from those who could never get a senior job on Wall Street or a place at Harvard.

These Wall Street princes were smarter in one way, however: they managed to pocket a fortune while the rest of us are stuck with the mess they left behind. Bernard Madoff who hailed from down-market part of New York City and attended a middling university will spend time behind bars, but none of the titans of Wall Street with blue-chip pedigree will ever do so.

History has not been kind to societies that lose trust in the integrity of their leaders and institutions. We need to save our economic system from its abusers, or else.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

If you wish to comment on this article, you can do so on-line.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com.

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 15th 2019
".....one of the most accurate recession indicators, known as the yield curve, has recently been flashing warning signs. Every postwar recession in the US was preceded by an inversion of the yield curve, meaning that long-term interest rates had fallen below short-term interest rates, some 12 to 18 months before the outset of the economic downturn."
Jul 6th 2019
Extract: ".........growing poverty even when working, the collapse of stable and safe social identities linked to work, the increasing instability of employment security, and the rapid change of local communities due to emigration, migration, collapsing housing affordability, and redevelopment initiatives that displace communities. These provide precise and urgent electoral rallying points. They are particularly effective given that so many mainstream politicians ignore these basic grievances. In recent years, the lineup of politicians opposing the New Right – Hillary Clinton, the Remain campaign, Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Renzi – have been unwilling to even recognise these structural problems. This provided the New Right the opportunity to appear credible, simply by acknowledging them."
Jul 6th 2019
".........an openly Russophilic administration in the US may be one reason why Putin’s domestic support has been declining so sharply."
Jul 3rd 2019
"Extract: .........in a world of rapidly expanding automation potential, demographic shrinkage is largely a boon, not a threat. Our expanding ability to automate human work across all sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – makes an ever-growing workforce increasingly irrelevant to improvements in human welfare. Conversely, automation makes it impossible to achieve full employment in countries still facing rapid population growth........The greatest demographic challenges therefore lie not in countries facing population stabilization and then gradual decline, but in Africa, which still faces rapid population growth."
Jul 1st 2019
Trump’s personal style – vocal, expertise-averse, scandal-prone and driven by a focus on his partisan base – may be unusual, but aspiring Democratic presidential contenders may be making a serious error in allowing Trump’s “Wizard of Oz” act of big claims and small achievements to pass unchallenged. There is a massive gap between the pledges he made to voters and the reality of an outsider presidency thoroughly co-opted by its party. So far, the “Trump revolution” turns out to be an ordinary Republican presidency.
Jun 25th 2019
"Trump’s vindictive bluster has steamrolled economic-policy deliberations – ignoring the lessons of history, rejecting the analytics of modern economics, and undermining the institutional integrity of the policymaking process. Policy blunders of epic proportion have become the rule, not the exception. It won’t be nearly as easy to spin the looming consequences."
Jun 19th 2019
Solar energy is one of the fastest-growing energy sectors in the world, and has the great advantage of producing no carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is raising the average surface temperature of the earth. India is now for the first time in history investing more in solar energy than in coal. There is a simple reason for this. Coal costs roughly 5 cents a kilowatt hour to generate electricity. India just let a bid for 1.2 gigawatts of solar energy and four companies scooped it up at 3.6 cents a kilowatt hour.
Jun 19th 2019
Extract: "Abe has reportedly nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize – at the request of the US – for opening talks with North Korea. And he has offered to mediate in America’s dispute with Iran. (His recent visit to Tehran – where he reportedly asked Iran’s leaders, at Trump’s request, to release detained Americans – made clear that, even squeezed by sanctions, Iran has no interest in negotiating with a serial violator of signed agreements.) What Trump calls an “incredible partnership” is, in reality, a largely one-sided relationship. But, for Abe, appeasing Trump is not so much a choice as a necessity: he must prove to Japan’s people and their neighbors, particularly the Chinese, that he knows how to keep Trump on his side."
Jun 17th 2019
Extarct: "We know well the damage that corrupt leaders do to their people. We should therefore have much more to say about the quintessential corruption entailed by tolerating lies. Such tolerance allows the poison to spread through the body and soul of democracy, undermining democracy’s institutions by attacking the invisible norms and tacit understandings that support them."
Jun 11th 2019
Extract: "I noticed this dynamic firsthand a few years ago in Blagoveshchensk, on the Siberian border, just a half-mile from the Chinese town of Heihe. A century and a half ago, Blagoveshchensk was part of China. Then the Cossacks took control of it, along with many other territories in Chinese Outer Manchuria, on behalf of the Russian czar. Blagoveshchensk’s local history museum presents the development of the town after the Cossack takeover as a civilizing mission. The Russians, it seems, still view themselves as superior Westerners. As for Heihe, it got rich a quarter-century ago, after capitalizing on Russia’s post-Soviet disarray to sell cheap goods to then-starving Russians. Its own history museum presents the Cossacks as “hairy barbarians” (Lao Maozi) and lists the towns of Russia’s far east by their historical Chinese names: Blagoveshchensk is Hailanpao, Vladivostok is Haishenwai, and Sakhalin is Kuye. Local behavior reflects these perspectives. At the ferry port, the Russians sneer at the Chinese traders who bring Russian vodka and chocolate to Heihe, while the Chinese move past the Russians as if they do not exist."
Jun 5th 2019
Extract: "....the Constitution, which established the impeachment process as a check on the president’s behavior between elections, says nothing about using it only when politically convenient. Moreover, given the results in 2018, Democratic Party leaders might well discourage making the disposition of the president the key issue in the next election. Most important, a decision not to initiate an impeachment process against Trump could set a terrible precedent. If Trump isn’t impeached for his numerous criminal acts and abuses of power, would impeachment remain a viable check on the presidency? "
Jun 3rd 2019
Extracts: "Sooner or later, all smaller powers dependent on global markets would have to choose a side, unless they are somehow strong enough to withstand both American and Chinese pressure. With China and the US both demanding clarity, even economic giants like the European Union, India, and Japan would be faced with an intractable economic dilemma."
May 24th 2019
Waging a war against Iran, or even thinking of doing so, is sheer madness. Trump has thus far wisely rejected the warmonger National Security Advisor John Bolton’s outrageous advice. Waging another war in the Mideast, this time against Iran, would have not only disastrous consequences for the US but will also engulf our allies from which they would suffer incalculable human losses and destruction. Bolton was the architect behind the devastating war in Iraq in 2003, which inflicted more than 5,000 US casualties and a cost exceeding two trillion dollars, allowed Iran to entrench itself in Iraq, and gave way to the rise of ISIS.
May 24th 2019
The private Tasnim news agency reports from Iran that in a speech to thousands of university students, Iran’s clerical leader Ali Khamenei made an unusual and extraordinary criticism of president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over their handling of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or deal on limiting Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.
May 21st 2019
Extract: "Brexit, after all, is as much a Kremlin project as it is anyone else’s. Putin wants to divide Europeans, and in the UK, Brexit has succeeded in dividing Britons like nothing since the Corn Law debates almost 200 years ago. Putin wants the EU to fragment, and Brexit is causing the biggest crack yet in the bloc’s history. Putin wants to sow doubt about the legitimacy of traditional news sources; pro-Brexit media consistently promote lies as truth and inveigh against reputable papers like the Financial Times as elitist enemies of the people."
May 16th 2019
Iraq’s population when invaded was 26 million. Iran’s population today is 81 million..........Whereas Iraq’s neighbors– Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular– had been mauled by Saddam and so did not strongly oppose Bush’s invasion, Shiite Iraqis, many Syrians, the Hazaras of Afghanistan, and the some 40 million Shiites of Pakistan would support Iran.
May 15th 2019
It’s time that economists, pundits, and politicians start looking holistically at life in our times, and take seriously the long-term structural changes needed to address the multiple crises of health care, despair, inequality, and stress in the US and many other countries. US citizens, in particular, should reflect on the fact that many other countries’ people are happier and less worried, and are living longer. In general, those other countries’ governments are not cutting taxes for the rich and slashing services for the rest. They are attending to the common good, instead of catering to the rich while pointing to illusory economic statistics that hide as much as they reveal.
May 8th 2019
"........Meanwhile, Trump is leaving the door open for Russia to come to his aid again in 2020. The White House and congressional Republican leaders have been blocking a bill to secure US elections against foreign attacks. And administration officials have been instructed not to raise the issue of Russian interference with the president, lest it cast a shadow on his legitimacy.  The next phase in this affair is already coming into focus. Barr, with the help of Trump’s golfing buddy Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now enlisted in peddling the president’s fantasy that the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “deep-state” supporters of Hillary Clinton. Once again, current and former FBI agents will be targeted, either because they expressed criticism of Trump or because they opened a national security investigation into a hostile power’s meddling in the US presidential election (which continued in the 2018 midterms). FBI director Christopher Wray, commenting on the Mueller report, said that the Russians are “upping their game” for 2020. "
May 7th 2019
We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.