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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Batting Better Than Goldman Sachs on Corporate Governance

Companies differ on how they handle personal and institutional conflicts of interest. This difference may reflect disagreement over whether a conflict of interest is inherently unethical, or whether one must be exploited for any conduct to be unethical. I take the former position: that to be in a conflict of interest is indeed inherently unethical. At the very least, being in a conflict of interest can trigger or spawn additional conflicts of interest. I point to Goldman Sachs’ response to an institutional stockholder’s corporate governance proposal as a case in point. That case can be contrasted with how the BATs board reacted in terms of corporate governance to bad public relations and a failed IPO.

The full essay is at Institutional Conflicts of Interest, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.

The Federal Reserve’s Housing Bubble

During one of his lectures to a class at George Washington University in March of 2012, Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, claimed that the central bank’s lower interest rates did not trigger the housing bubble that began in the late 1990s and ended in 2006. For one thing, the Fed did not start cutting interest rates until a few years into the twenty-first century. Also, home prices rose after the Fed later began raising interest rates. Bernanke also cited Europe, where housing booms have not been associated with either tight or loose monetary policy.

                         Ben Bernanke lecturing at Washington University       European Pressphoto Agency

The full essay is at Housing Bubble.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Efficiency and Ethics: On the Fairness of High-Speed Trading

Two months into 2012, the SEC announced that it had been examining the trading activities of high-frequency trading firms.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the SEC was “examining, among other things, whether high-frequency firms benefit from delays in the dissemination of prices from various corners of the markets. . . . High-speed firms use direct feeds from exchanges that can give them a leg up on slower traders.” High-frequency traders “can access prices a split second faster through their access to direct feeds.” This is accomplished by placing the trading computers in the same data center that houses the exchange’s computer servers. Just over a year later, the Wall Street Journal reported that high-speed traders were using “a hidden facet” of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s computer system “to trade on the direction of the futures market before other investors get the same information.” Even getting the confirmation of a high-speed trade just one to ten milliseconds faster can enable a computer to know the direction a commodity is going and trade on it. According to the Wall Street Journal, the “ability to exploit such small time gaps raises questions about transparency and fairness amid the computer-driven, rapid-fire trading that increasingly grips Wall Street and confounds regulators.” Both the increasing use of high-speed trading and the problem of accountability from a regulatory point of view raise the stakes in determining the ethics of the practice.  

The full essay is in Cases of Unethical Business, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.com.  

                              Has the increasing role of high-speed trading rendered the individual investor a "second-class citizen" in the stock market?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cardiologists as Ethicists: On Cheney’s Heart Transplant

The Huffington Post reports that “(f)ormer Vice President Dick Cheney had a heart transplant [on March 24, 2012], after five heart attacks over the past 25 years and countless medical procedures to keep him going. Cheney, 71, waited nearly two years for his new heart, the gift of an unknown donor.” At the time, more than 3,100 Americans were on the states’ waiting list for a heart. Of the roughly 2,300 heart transplants performed in 2011, 332 were over sixty-five. On average, heart failure was killing 57,000 Americans a year at the time, so just a fraction of those who could use a heart get one. One might question, therefore, whether the 332 recipients who were over 65, and Cheney, who was 71, should have been allowed to avail themselves of the relatively short supply of available hearts.

                                   Dick Cheney was noticeably thinner after his 2010 heart attack. 
“The ethicists will get into this case.” Eric Topol, a cardiologist in California, wrote this line in reference to the question of age. Specifically, should someone who could be expected to have ten years left take a heart that could otherwise allow someone else to live twenty or thirty more years?  Over 70% of heart-transplant recipients live at least five years. It could be argued that Cheney had been able to live 71 years so it is not fair for someone who is 50 or 60 to not be able to do likewise for lack of a transplant because someone Cheney’s age has it. On the other hand, Cheney could argue that because people were living into their 80s and even 90s, he could expect to do so as well. In other words, he could look at someone who is 81 and say, “it is not too much to ask to try to live that long.”

To be sure, my primary applications of ethical theory are in business, government, society, and religion. I do not have the background in biology and medicine to be an expert in medical ethics. So this essay can only be cursory. It is odd to me, therefore, when someone who has not even studied ethical theory wades in as a pseudo-ethicist. An undergraduate degree from a medical school (e.g., the M.D.) does not qualify a cardiologist as an ethicist.

Yet William Zoghbi, the incoming president of the American College of Cardiology at the time of Cheney’s transplant, said on that very day concerning Cheney’s age, “It is not too old. Age is really not a factor.” To be sure, he was referring to the medical condition of the patients. However, he went on to overreach, opining “I don’t see any ethical issues here,” given how weak Cheney’s heart had been. Just because a non-ethicist does not think there are any ethical matters involved does not mean that this is so.

From my standpoint as a business ethicist, I believe an ethical issue is indeed involved in hospitals, as businesses, giving hearts to older applicants, especially if they are powerful or wealthy people who can “skip” in line by having a dedicated donor. More generally, using the utilitarian ethical theory of Bentham, it could be argued that giving hearts to older applicants violates the greatest good (in terms of pleasure) for the greatest number. Older recipients tend not to live quite as many years on a new heart, and they have already lived to be a ripe old age while someone with heart disease at 50 has not. Enabling as many people as possible to reach 71 would go a long way in terms of the greatest good for the greatest number.

Admittedly, I must qualify my conclusion due to my lack of medical knowledge. For instance, I do not know how the older recipients fare medically relative to younger ones. Ideally, a doctor of ethics who has an undergraduate degree from a medical school should be decisive here. For a cardiologist without any formal education in ethical theory to venture an ethical conclusion suggests a certain educational immaturity, if not arrogance. I doubt that William Zoghbi had even heard of Bentham’s utilitarian theory and yet the cardiologist presumes that no ethical issues are involved in Cheney’s case.

In a society in which the profession of medicine is valued a lot, people might enable medical practitioners to get away with such an over-reach with impunity. No doubt Dick Cheney really wanted to keep living. This natural urge—the life instinct—can easily succumb to a medical practitioner’s artificial desire to over-reach in terms of what is entitled by the undergraduate degree granted by medical schools.


Kasie Hunt, “Dick Cheney Heart Transplant: Former VicePresident Recovering After Undergoing Surgery,” The Huffington Post, March 24, 2012.