Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman defined moral hazard as:
Any situation in which one person makes the decision about how much risk to take, while someone else bears the cost if things go badly.
Companies exploiting moral hazard privatise the reward (they keep the profit) but socialise the risk (government bails them out if everything goes wrong)
Moral Hazard and the GFC
During the Great Depression more than 6000 American banks went bankrupt between 1930-33 and caused significant levels of unemployment. Learning from this event authorities believe that in future banks should be bailed out and this eventuated after the GFC in 2008. The main cause of the GFC was the sub-prime mortgage market where lenders faced a situation of moral hazard. Because the banks were taking on the risk the mortgage brokers, who sold the mortgages to the banks, didn’t really check whether the person taking on the mortgage could actually pay it back. Brokers were encourages to lie on the mortgage contracts about the income etc of their clients.
Moral Hazard and Covid-19
With corporate stimulus packages rolling out in most countries one wonders if there have been thorough enough checks on corporate behaviour. Issues like firing employees and bonuses to the top executives of companies have been prevalent in the past especially during the GFC. Then large businesses were favoured over small businesses. Today some of the wealthiest people made their money by borrowing from the banks to buy their own company shares in order to inflate its price. Following this they then sold their shares for a profit on the market. Now some of them are asking for bailouts as their company starts to struggle to survive. As well as government bailouts the central banks around the world have also engaged in the purchase of bonds and risky high-yielding debt. This is to ensure liquidity in the market but this intervention could shape how people perceive risk in the future and reward those institutions that behaved recklessly before the pandemic. Also more generous unemployment by the government might encourage people to be laid off and not seek work. However the time taken to minimise the moral hazard could have meant greater economic harm to the economy as a whole.