Poor Ethics, Bad Business

Bad Business Ethics hurt capitalism and destroy the possibility of economic fairness. Assistant Professor Gonzalo Maturana says eliminating conflicts of interest and restoring ethical business practices starts with academia and upper management.

Business Ethics Matter in the Organization of Society

Dr. Gonzalo Maturana, Assistant Professor of Finance, at Goizueta Business School, Emory University, suggests that society must be organized around an economic system that places competition as the fundamental pillar for economic growth. And, that we can easily lose the benefits of capitalism when rules are violated.

An organized society formulated around an economic system that places competition as the competition for economic growth awards merit. The idea is that if one works hard there is an award. This fosters innovation and entrepreneurship, resulting in benefits to society, the entrepreneur hires workers, lower prices and covers a necessity. Central to the idea of merit is fairness. The strength of our economic system is predicated around this idea that the system is fair. There are a set of rules and polices that we have to help us move closer to fairness, but if not followed the system falls apart and a small group of people benefit at the expense of the majority. As a result, we could lose the benefits of capitalism when rules are violated.

So now the question is what happens if the public perceives that the system is not fair. A University of Chicago professor argues that without public support, or worse with public resentment, it's very difficult for the economic and financial system to operate.

Housing Crisis and Mortgage Back Securities

The 2008 mortgage crisis revealed the negative impact of not following ethics and behaving fairly. Recession mortgage backed securities helped facilitate additional mortgage credit that was not available. This fueled the demand for houses and contributed to the housing bubble. The market grew rapidly around 85 billion in 2000 to 1 trillion in 2006. Catching these during an economic boom is very difficult in part because no one is paying attention and the problem is exacerbated during an economic downturn. 

Mortgaged back securities are non-agency securities. The mortgages are put together and securities are created out of them which is then sold to investors. This allows banks to transfer credit risks allowing borrowers to default on their mortgages. Homeowners may want larger loans and a lower rate and the loan officer collects important information to determine how risky the borrower is.

There are several conflicts of interest when creating such securities. The loan officer is often compensated on loan volume, so there is some incentive to lowering the standards. Originators may also have an incentive to inaccurately report information to the underwriters. Misrepresentation may be difficult to catch due to the complexity of mortgage back securities, the structure of the payments and how you measure risk. Most problems flow directly or indirectly to the incentive of the underwriting bank. 

Residential mortgage backed securities are extremely complex in terms of the structure of the payments and how you measure risk. Also, credit rating agencies were supposed to certify the quality of the securities, but again they were paid by the underwriters with whom they have repeated business. Dr. Maturana has research that shows that there was a ripple effect that operated house prices and incentivized someone’s decision to expand a credit. When the recession market collapsed and disappeared by these lenders went out of business quickly. 

Ramifications for Unethical Behavior

Dr. Maturana says employees involved in the creation of residential mortgage backed securities that were later found to be misrepresented did not face significant career penalties. These employees remained employed at the same bank, moved to another large bank, or were promoted. This is concerning because the employees that were analyzed, worked at banks that settled with the Department of Justice and admitted wrongdoing during the structuring of these residential mortgage backed securities. 

Findings show that the system of settlements may not be good. These results and the lack of individual prosecutions send a message to current and future finance professionals that there's little if any place for punishment for abusive practices. This level of repercussion can reinforce cultural norms that allow or encourage employees to ignore the warning signs of fraud and abuse. Dr. Maturana says good business ethics need to be part of the culture and that the guidelines need to come from upper management who should lead by example. If a boss cares about business ethics and good behavior then that's something that's constantly discussed in the work setting. Also, for incentivizing good behavior he suggests having a strong enough deterrent. Increasing accountability and rethinking statute of limitations for example are a way to generate incentives. 

How Academia Plays a Role in Business Ethics

Conflicts of interest are driving business decisions all the time. Dr. Maturana says business schools can contribute to business ethical behavior by discussing these issues openly in the classroom and increasing awareness of the importance of these issues beyond just the fact that misbehaving is wrong. Academia can play a role in exposing and challenging unethical businesses practices.

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