More Skin in the Game in 2013

In an opaque system, operators have an incentive to hide risk, taking upside without downside. And there is no possible risk management method that can replace having skin in the game – particularly when informational opacity is compounded by informational asymmetry.

NEW YORK – Those who have the upside are not necessarily those who incur the downside. For example, bankers and corporate managers get bonuses for “performance,” but not reverse bonuses for negative performance, and they have an incentive to bury risks in the tails of the distribution – in other words, to delay blowups.

The ancients were fully aware of this incentive to hide risks, and implemented very simple but potent heuristics. About 3,800 years ago, the Code of Hammurabi specified that if a house collapses and causes the death of its owner, the house’s builder shall be put to death.

This simple tenet is at the origin of “an eye for an eye” and the Golden Rule in ethics (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). But, beyond ethics, this was simply the best risk-management rule ever.

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