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Fraud, Fools, and Financial Markets

NEW HAVEN – Adam Smith famously wrote of the “invisible hand,” by which individuals’ pursuit of self-interest in free, competitive markets advances the interest of society as a whole. And Smith was right: Free markets have generated unprecedented prosperity for individuals and societies alike. But, because we can be manipulated or deceived or even just passively tempted, free markets also persuade us to buy things that are good neither for us nor for society.

This observation represents an important codicil to Smith’s vision. And it is one that George Akerlof and I explore in our new book, Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception.

Most of us have suffered “phishing”: unwanted emails and phone calls designed to defraud us. A “phool” is anyone who does not fully comprehend the ubiquity of phishing. A phool sees isolated examples of phishing, but does not appreciate the extent of professionalism devoted to it, nor how deeply this professionalism affects lives. Sadly, a lot of us have been phools – including Akerlof and me, which is why we wrote this book.

Routine phishing can affect any market, but our most important observations concern financial markets – timely enough, given the massive boom in the equity and real-estate markets since 2009, and the turmoil in global asset markets since last month.