Too embarrassed to ask: what is moral hazard?

The term “moral hazard” comes from the insurance industry in the 18th century. But what does it mean today?

The term “moral hazard” was first widely used in the insurance industry in the 18th century. Put simply, it refers to a situation in which a person or institution engaged in a risky activity does not bear the full negative consequences of their decisions. This lack of consequences encourages them to behave more recklessly than if they were fully responsible for their actions.

Here’s an easy example. Let’s say you’ve insured your mobile phone. As a result, you don’t bother to buy a protective case for it. After all, if it drops on the floor and breaks, the insurer will pay. That’s moral hazard.

For a much more dramatic real-life example, consider the role moral hazard played in the financial crisis of 2008. In the early 2000s, the US housing market was booming. Investors lined up to buy bundles of US mortgages, which they saw as a low-risk way to get higher interest payments than they could get from US government bonds. They bought these mortgage bundles from the banks. The banks, in turn, made the bundles out of individual mortgages they’d bought from mortgage lenders.

Because there was so much demand, mortgage lenders paid their salespeople big bonuses to sell as many mortgages as they could. But because they were immediately selling the mortgages on to the banks, the mortgage lenders didn’t worry about how creditworthy the borrowers were. They just cared about their commissions. And because the banks were selling the mortgage bundles on to investors, they didn’t worry about the quality of the loans. They just cared about their fees.

In short, the people who issued the mortgages made a profit, and thought they had offloaded the risks to someone else. Then house prices fell, some homeowners stopped paying their loans, and the entire financial system nearly collapsed.

That’s moral hazard, too – when profits go to one group of individuals or companies, but losses are borne by the taxpayer as a group.

And moral hazard is still rife in the financial system. For example, central banks constantly step in and print money to prevent economic shocks from spreading. But that encourages investors to take more risk than they otherwise would. 

Which just sets us up for a worse crash in the future.

On that cheery note, may I suggest you subscribe to MoneyWeek magazine.

Recommended

Imperial Brands has an 8.3% yield – but what’s the catch?
Share tips

Imperial Brands has an 8.3% yield – but what’s the catch?

Tobacco company Imperial Brands boasts an impressive dividend yield, and the shares look cheap. But investors should beware, says Rupert Hargreaves. H…
20 May 2022
What's behind Sri Lanka’s crippling debt crisis?
Emerging markets

What's behind Sri Lanka’s crippling debt crisis?

Sri Lanka has been hit by a triple whammy of economic shocks and has gone to the IMF for a bailout. It may just be the first domino to fall in a globa…
20 May 2022
Investing in drugmakers: uncommon profits from curing rare diseases
Share tips

Investing in drugmakers: uncommon profits from curing rare diseases

Treatments for medical conditions with only a small number of sufferers can still be very attractive for pharmaceutical companies and investors becaus…
20 May 2022
Share tips of the week – 20 May
Share tips

Share tips of the week – 20 May

MoneyWeek’s comprehensive guide to the best of this week’s share tips from the rest of the UK's financial pages.
20 May 2022

Most Popular

The ten highest dividend yields in the FTSE 100
Income investing

The ten highest dividend yields in the FTSE 100

Rupert Hargreaves looks at the FTSE 100’s top yielding stocks for income investors to consider.
18 May 2022
Aviva: a share for income investors to tuck away
Share tips

Aviva: a share for income investors to tuck away

Insurance giant Aviva is one of the highest yielding stocks in the FTSE 100 – and it’s cheap, too, making it a tempting target for income investors. R…
18 May 2022
Despite the crypto crash, bitcoin still has a bright future
Bitcoin & crypto

Despite the crypto crash, bitcoin still has a bright future

Cryptocurrencies have crashed hard, with bitcoin down by more than 50% from its peak. But, says Dominic Frisby, bitcoin still has a future – it is the…
19 May 2022