On a motorcycle trip to Puerto Vallarta years ago, we had to have some additional paperwork to get on the overnight ferry from La Paz to Mazatlán. The banks were closed and we tried to argue that we could get the same paperwork when we docked in Mazatlan. Finally, one of my companions did something stupid. He gave the customs official a document that we did have, but with a $50 bill attached. The official handed it back saying, "You're in the wrong country for that." And this was Mexico.
Starting with the Bernie Madoff scandal, I think corruption has reached a high-water mark here over the past three years, and various polls agree. It's disheartening. Just when we thought the banks were finally beginning to respond to some collective dictate of conscience, we learn about their interest-rate manipulation whose cost to all of us has yet to be determined.
While Barclays Bank was the first to fall, there is an indication that all of the too-big-to-fail banks may have been price-fixing in a way that affects many of the adjustable interest rates that are tied to the interbank loan rate -- the rate the banks charge each other for overnight loans. Think about all of us with credit card debt and other interest payments that are adjustable on a monthly basis and imagine that we've been paying a fraction of a percent more than we should have. Considering municipal bonds, adjustable rate mortgages and credit card debt alone, that fraction of a percent becomes a huge number.
It should be clear by now that the need to separate taxpayer-insured banks from the investment banking industry is a foregone conclusion. The noble experiment of ending the Depression-era laws that separated banks from brokerage houses has been a disaster. Trying to regulate them into submission is like putting our thumb on a blob of mercury. J.P. Morgan's $7 billion loss in derivatives while a small army of regulators was present at the time should prove that point.
Setting aside massive frauds, there's a new book by Dan Ariely titled, "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone -- Especially Ourselves." It talks about the extent to which there seems to be a little larceny in at least half of us, and this may explain why corruption is so pervasive.
Without going into details, a simple study of 30,000 people indicated that a few in the group were proven to be totally dishonest. There were 12 of these real jerks. But 18,000 people cheated at least a little bit earning ill-gotten gains totaling more than 200 times what the handful of big cheaters got. So, a little fraud here and a little fraud there can add up to big money.
This may explain why some obviously intelligent people in the financial world have gotten caught up in the culture of greed and are now headed for jail. One always asks, "Why did they have to do that? They already had everything." The nicest people can rationalize what's in their self-interest.
Finally, there's what I would term "soft corruption" that costs us probably more than the hard stuff. The recent disclosure at a major brokerage firm/bank suggested that so-called financial advice was really just an exercise of herding clients into mutual fund programs that made the most money for the bank -- products their own advisers would not invest in themselves.
The scale of corruption is so vast that correcting it would seem to be a hopeless task, but that's not the point. Archibald Cox, the second special prosecutor during the Watergate hearings, once gave a speech to young, discouraged people in Washington at the time. In general, he said, "It's unreasonable to think that you can solve the problems of Washington, and it's easy to get discouraged when so little progress is made. Instead, you need to learn to take joy in the endeavor."
I think that's where we are now. There has been an expression of the politics of selfishness at all levels of society and both political parties. The wealthy should pay more in taxes. Unions should stop overreaching. Financial institutions should recommend for clients only what they would invest in themselves. And so forth.
We can't solve the huge crimes, but in a small way we can help by adopting a stronger caveat emptor (buyer beware) mentality and be circumspect regarding advice from any institution -- be it a one-person planning firm or a too-big-to-fail institution. A little self-regulation at the grass-roots level can go a long way.