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2008: The Year of Moral Hazard

By Alyce Lomax – Updated Apr 5, 2017 at 7:54PM

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Rewarding massive failure imperils us all.

In 2008, many of us got a crash course on the term "moral hazard," whether we wanted it or not. At least once a week, it seems we're reminded of this term's importance, and why our economic freedom is seriously endangered by current policies that prop up failing, mistake-ridden companies and industries. 

"Moral hazard" is an economic term that originated from the insurance industry. Basically, it refers to the likelihood that individuals or entities will perform dangerous, risky acts because they know they have protection -- a safety net -- if something goes awry. The "too big to fail" motif so prevalent in 2008, and so linked to the idea of "moral hazard," exemplifies the slippery slope we've found ourselves on.

Lining up for help
Many of us worried that the original Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout would be a sucker punch, creating ever more expensive and dangerous moral hazards. Sure enough, more and more companies have been lining up for TARP assistance, many of which don't seem to represent the essential functions government wanted us to believe TARP was intended to protect.

Apparently, after enjoying a decade of risk, greed, and gluttony, nobody wants to face the miserable but necessary hangover that inevitably follows. American Express (NYSE:AXP) has been approved for $3.39 billion in funds from TARP. General Motors' (NYSE:GM) GMAC will receive another $5 billion. General Electric (NYSE:GE) got a debt backstop, too. Commercial real estate companies have recently joined the cacophony of companies desperately braying for government financial help.

Ford (NYSE:F), General Motors, and Chrysler may be too dumb to survive, but the government has also deemed them too big to fail.  And in a really bizarre twist, even farm equipment maker Deere (NYSE:DE) recently got a debt backstop from the government.

What's next -- the newspaper industry, perhaps? I guess companies like Tribune or Gannett (NYSE:GCI) could argue that our country needs newspapers -- even if nobody really wants them, at least in their fee-based, newsprint form. (And gosh, USA TODAY even has "USA" in the title! Can't let that fail, right? We'll worry about the pitfalls of state-run, state-funded media later.) We Fools have even begun to joke that Sirius XM (NASDAQ:SIRI) is too big to fail, too.

You can argue that almost anything is too something to fail. But all joking aside, we are in trouble.  

The devil's in the details
"Moral, adj. Conforming to a local and mutable standard of right. Having the quality of general expediency."
- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

I'd say the sarcastic definition above is spot-on these days. In the wake of our recent financial meltdown, so many people seemed to panic, swiftly sacrificing principles and common sense alike. Fear of consequences has pushed government and business into a treacherous tangle of safety nets and "expediency."

As much as it pains so many policy-makers to reward failure or bad action, it seems that, darn it, it's just got to be done to save us all. Never mind the ominous idea that we could fail like Japan, with a bunch of zombie corporations staggering around for a decade.

I think we've been mugged and conned. The risk of the wholesale destruction of the American economy is most certainly real. When businesses face no risk of failure, they're free to do almost anything they want, however disastrous. That's the essence of the current danger.

Congressman Ron Paul, R-Texas, recently posted on his blog about the Big 3 bailout, writing that freedom includes the freedom to fail. This is important and very true. On our present course, government takes funds from companies and individuals who did the right thing to reward the failure and mistakes of others. That ill-advised principle makes these times morally hazardous indeed -- for our economy, for our basic economic principles, and ultimately for our freedom.

The bailout buck must stop -- the sooner, the better. Let's just hope that when it does, it's not too late for the rest of us.

American Express is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. The Fool owns shares of American Express. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Stocks Mentioned

Sirius XM Holdings Inc. Stock Quote
Sirius XM Holdings Inc.
$5.71 (-1.21%) $0.07
Ford Motor Company Stock Quote
Ford Motor Company
$11.20 (-2.35%) $0.27
American Express Company Stock Quote
American Express Company
$134.91 (-2.09%) $-2.88
General Electric Company Stock Quote
General Electric Company
$61.91 (-1.31%) $0.82
Gannett Co., Inc. Stock Quote
Gannett Co., Inc.
General Motors Company Stock Quote
General Motors Company
$32.09 (-3.52%) $-1.17
Deere & Company Stock Quote
Deere & Company
$333.89 (-2.08%) $-7.11

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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