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As 2008 draws to a close, it's a good time to contemplate this crazy year and one of its major themes: unbridled greed, unfettered by conscience.
It's true, some degree of self-interest is important -- it breeds incentive to strive, to realize our dreams and goals, to do better, and to create. However, there's a reason that outright "greed" is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. It's a destructive force, and our current troubled times illustrate that point pretty perfectly.
Michael Lewis's recent article for Portfolio magazine, "The End of Wall Street's Boom," got my brain rolling on the era of greed. The article presents an eye-opening account of what went wrong for decades: CEOs with no clue as to what kind of risks underlings were taking, and underlings who didn't actually even know what they were doing, folks who lied and screwed each other over with wild abandon, and last but certainly not least, a disturbing lack of accountability, much less conscience.
All of this boils down to greed -- admittedly with an ample dose of stupidity, too, and that's a terrible combination -- and it has nearly brought our entire system to its knees.
Still, the news just keeps coming about just how bad it has been, and we continuously receive more and more signs that not only are many people not ashamed, but they still feel awfully entitled to enjoy the fruits of jobs poorly done. What the …?
In the latest surreal headlines, money manager Bernard Madoff has been arrested for massive fraud -- basically, a Ponzi scheme. Apparently, even some very smart people couldn't remember that if it's too good to be true, it probably is.
Merrill Lynch's (NYSE: MER ) John Thain made headlines this month when he was reported as angling for a $10 million bonus for a year's work. The board pushed back, and he backed off. Although I understand the argument that Thain's stewardship and sale of Merrill to Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) kept shareholders from suffering even worse losses, I can't believe he had the gall to ask for a massive bonus for a short stint at a firm that will soon no longer be an independent entity.
And I still can't get over some of the information that came to light during the Congressional hearings involving Lehman Brothers' Dick Fuld. No wonder a Lehman employee allegedly punched his lights out when he ran into Fuld at the gym.
Danced to death
When Fuld allegedly pooh-poohed the notion of conciliatory pay cuts for management to soothe sore stakeholders, he said, "Don't worry -- they are only people who think about their own pockets." As disturbing as I find that statement, I know there's some truth to it -- people can be lulled by money.
Then there's Citigroup's (NYSE: C ) former CEO Chuck Prince's strange but fitting metaphor about the boom times: "When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance. We're still dancing." Maybe what we really saw was a resurgence of the medieval dancing-mania epidemic.
Many people -- including shareholders -- got wrapped up in the perils of greed and short-term thinking, and they let too many of the warning signs slide as long as the short term felt lucrative. In a way, I feel as if greed even got perverted into a virtue instead of a vice in many people's minds. It's high time we say, "No more!"
There is hope
Fortunately, there are some companies and individuals who take the long term to heart. These are the philosophers of long-term thinking who have illustrated knowledge of the difference between the capitalist ideal of building great, long-term businesses rather than greedy pillaging for short-term personal gains.
Take Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-A ) (NYSE: BRK-B ) Warren Buffett, who has shown loads of long-term wisdom and often criticized corporate excess, including runaway CEO pay. Or Costco's (Nasdaq: COST ) modestly compensated CEO Jim Sinegal, who famously ignored Wall Street pressure to boost profits by shirking on employee benefits like health care. Or Whole Foods Market's (Nasdaq: WFMI ) John Mackey, who debated the great economist Milton Friedman, arguing that business does have a responsibility to focus on more than simply profit. Then there's Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, who outlined many of the dangers in our system in his book The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism, which I enjoyed and reviewed in 2006. (His new book, Enough, is on my to-read list.)
It seems as if the last several decades have been defined by greed and short-term thinking. Maybe we all fell asleep at the wheel a little bit; perhaps bull markets have become the opiate of the masses, sedating reasonable caution. However, we all play a part in what goes on, and speaking of accountability and conscience, I hope more of us can bring it on ourselves to condemn the factors and behavior that brought us here and remember the things that really matter, like honesty, hard work and true merit.
This could be a great opportunity to remember the patient rewards of long-term investing, and to remember that being a shareholder means being part-owner of a company. Hopefully, the current disasters will result in a push for solid, shareholder-friendly corporate governance principles and boards of directors that actually do their jobs in looking out for shareholders and long-term performance. Maybe we can all invest with the motive of avoiding companies with management cultures that only look out for themselves, even if they try to bribe us along the way with short-term, ill-conceived profits.
It's time for vigilance, and it's time to reject short-term views (so long, short-termers). It's also high time to realize that greed isn't good, and that a better rule of thumb might be the Golden Rule: "Treat others as you want to be treated." It doesn't sound so bad to me.