Money travels in diverse ways and in different forms. Not always is the route smooth. Technology helps speed and not accuracy because the person who operates the machine’s keyboard knows the game better. Blockchain technology, the latest armoury in finance, has helped create the FTX, the world’s second biggest crypto exchange that went bankrupt, affecting an estimated over 1mn (million), and its likes —Vauld and BlockFi—reminding of the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. No lessons were learnt from the failure of the bitcoins. This coin game is alluring and the greedy fell for it. These—and many others in the financial world—mirror venerated greed. The origin is, again, the US financial markets.
At one end, we are worried about the future causing injury to biodiversity conservation, sustainable use, and access to genetic resources, while, at the other end, excessive greed is endangering the financial world. The gap between greed and need would appear to be fast disappearing.
Some Firms Personified Greed
Rana Kapoor, Yes Bank, Kochars – Chanda and Deepak, ICICI Bank, Rakesh Kumar Wadhawan and son Sarang (HDIL), Dheeraj Wadhawan (DHFL), Kamal Kishore Gupta (Omkar Group), Ravi Parthasarathy (IL&FS), and Dham brothers (2019-22) against whom serious fraud investigation office is investigating the case involving 17 banks, only five banks so far responded. Cases of cheating, forgery, bribery, and defrauding large bank consortiums tot up financial irregularities that cut across continents as reported by the Economic Times
, and Moneylife
in a number of reports and editorial conversations.
, in August 2022, disclosed the response of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) under Right to Information (RTI) query raised by Pune-based Vivek Velankar: Just 312 big defaulters, with individual loan outstanding of more than Rs100 crore, owe more than 76% or Rs1,41,583.50 crore of the total unrealisable (bad) loans
. Information provided by RBI shows that there are 26 big defaulters who have outstanding loans of Rs1,000 crore and above. These wilful defaulter groups, together, owe Rs60,425.71 crore to public sector banks (PSBs). There are 40 companies in the next group of wilful defaulters in the outstanding bracket of Rs500 crore-Rs1,000 crore, with bad debts worth Rs28,297.99 crore.
Several big defaulters have, thus, obtained loans from different PSBs, which have now become unrealisable debt. It was noticed that 11 defaulters obtained a loan from State Bank of India (SBI) and other PSBs. These wilful defaulters are: ABG Shipyard Ltd, Concast Steel & Power Ltd, EMC Ltd, Rohit Ferro-Tech Ltd, Best Foods Ltd, Coastal Projects Ltd, Wind World (I) Ltd, Era Infra Engineering Ltd, BS Ltd, Rei Agro Ltd and Raj Rayon Industries Ltd. These banks, at the end of September 2022, report least non-performing loans as they are all transferred to National Asset Reconstruction Co Ltd- NARCL (Bad Bank), set up by the Union government. Thanks to this initiative, those banks’ balance sheets became green. Their risk appetite suddenly blossoms.
Financial Crime – Again Greed Is the Driver
‘Financial-crime incidents and failings have been on the rise throughout the pandemic, according to the Financial Action Task Force, a leading international standards-setting body for financial crime’, says a June 2022 article from McKinsey & Co (Daniel Mikkelsen et.al). They quote the UN office on drugs and crime reports, whose money-laundering values are extremely difficult to estimate but stress that the amounts are enormous and rising, reaching 2%-5% of global GDP, or US$800bn (billion) to US$2trn (trillion) annually. The routes are many: outlawed activities—such as the illicit drug trade, tax-avoidance schemes, money laundering, and consumer frauds— increasingly utilising digital payments channels. Greed is perpetrated.
In Favour of Greed
If everyone works only to fulfil his need, there will be nothing left to distribute for the others’ need. Greed is something far beyond an ambitious goal. You need to have greed as the motivating force. Michael Douglas famously said in the film Wall Street, “Greed is good!” and this was the celebrated mantra for the financial world as long as money was being made. Greed is considered integral to success. Then, how can we live for need alone? That will make our life uninteresting.
Economic dailies make headlines of the crorepatis. Lawmakers—at least in India—believe that, after all, a crore of rupees is nothing these days to stay in politics. Every legislator and parliamentarian gets a crore of rupees per annum in the name of constituency development! Crores of rupees are again spent to protect these lawmakers. His money needs protection. Can anyone find fault with it? In the process, the greed is legitimised and protected. This is the time to recall what our culture, ethos, ancient seers, and persons of repute said and the remedies they suggested so that the future is saved for the next generation.
Need versus Greed: The Eternal Conflict
Mahatma Gandhi said: “There is enough for every one’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” Need means, ‘I can and will use the item’. Greed means, ‘I need it all’. Negative greed is when I somehow need it all at any cost, even if it involves denying others.
“Greed degrades our values,” says Rabindranath Tagore.
Greed fuels more greed which, if unchecked, could finally trigger your downfall.
There is a native story in the US where a man talking to his young grandson tells the boy he has two wolves inside him attacking each other. The first is the wolf of peace, love, and kindness. The other wolf is fear, greed, and hatred. The small boy asked, “Which wolf will win, grandfather?” “Whichever one I feed,” was the reply.
Therefore, what you feed is what you will get, my dear son. Again, there is a well-known saying of Mignon McLaughlin: “We are all born brave, trusting and greedy and most of us remain greedy”. As Aristotle said, “Madness is badness of spirit, when one seeks profits from all sources.”
Desire, like fire, is a source of natural energy and power. We can harness the energy of fire for productive purposes or we may be burned by it, at our own option. Greed is not a bad word itself. We would not have the best of the inventions, had we not been greedy. The myths, like the ones that the world is flat, would not have been debunked. Greed could elevate our lives, radically elevate our families’ economic living, our community, our country, and the entire world.
Self-interest or self-focus needs to be distinguished from greed or selfishness. For example, when Mother Theresa used her Nobel Prize money to build a leprosarium, she was not acting out of greed but was acting on self-interest to attain the noble goal of treating more patients.
Instead of rewarding good practices, we started rewarding only the outcomes, irrespective of how they were attained. That has driven a lot of greedy behaviour from persons who would not normally act that way. The result—the world slipped into economic meltdown, nations started talking about greed – greedy lenders, greedy corporate executives and so on.
A Wealthy Farmer’s Greed
A wealthy farmer was once offered all the land he could walk on in a day provided he returned by sundown to the point at which he started. To get a good start, early the next morning, the farmer started covering ground quickly because he wanted to get as much land as he could. Even though he was tired, he kept going all afternoon because he did not want to lose this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain more wealth. Late in the afternoon, he remembered that the condition of the deal to be fulfilled was to get back to the starting point by sunset. His greed had gotten him far from the starting point. He started his return journey, keeping an eye on how close he was to night. The closer it got to sunset, the faster he ran. He was exhausted and out of breath, pushing himself beyond the point of endurance. He collapsed and died. He finally made it before the moon appeared in the sky, but only to be buried, needing a small plot on the land he tilled all day. There is a lot of truth in this story and a lesson to be learnt. Any greedy person would end up the same way.
There are several interesting stories: the dog that saw its own image holding a juicy bone in its jaws while crossing the brook and jumping into the brook that ended its life. So was King Midas’ golden touch.
In the Mahabharata, we come across a king by the name of Yayati, who, in order to revel in the endless enjoyment of flesh, exchanged his old age with the youth of his obliging youngest son for a thousand years. However, he found the pursuit of sensual enjoyment ultimately unsatisfying and came back to his son pleading him to take back his youth. This ‘Yayati syndrome’ shows the conflict between externally directed acquisitions (extrinsic motivation) and inner value and conscience (intrinsic motivation). Excess greed erodes one’s fortunes in no time.
Creative accounting, creative derivatives that conceal the genuine issues and Ponzi schemes are not acts of sacrifices; these are examples of deep-rooted selfishness. Moreover, some of the players operated in such a way that their operations became ‘too big to fail’. When a market entity perceives itself to have become too big to be allowed to fail, it takes undue risks in anticipation of being bailed out by public policy, if it falls into difficulties.
There is enough evidence of greedy behaviour of the corporate leaders strengthening public conviction that free markets are tools for the rich to get richer at the expense of the welfare of the general public. Consequently, a large majority of the developing world sees no legitimacy in a system in which they have been proven losers.
The various macro remedies that are widely debated are: interest cuts, government guaranteeing private debts, temporary freeze on mortgage foreclosures, infrastructure spending, tax rebates, rationalisation of bonus, recapitalisation of banks, and taking toxic assets to a new bad bank. Deficit financing has become the order of the day. Every economy is over-leveraged now, with debt to GDP ratios crossing sustainable limit. Will the future income pay off their past debts and also new debts?
The report of the UN high-level panel on international financial accountability, transparency and integrity for achieving the 2030 agenda (February 2021)
in such contexts, argued for redesigning the policies shaping the global financial system standards to “furthering financial integrity and adhere to the values of accountability, legitimacy, transparency, and fairness.” Capacity building must be strengthened to implement this agenda and respond to new risks and context-specific challenges. It also called for implementing values and policies through a coherent ecosystem of institutions, nationally, regionally, and internationally and a suitable review mechanism avoiding duplication. The report insisted that countries publicly report on their progress and protect the media against harassment.
Business leaders have to take the lead in regaining the trust of society. They have to conduct themselves more ethically and legally. The people at the vanguard of the capitalist movement have to make themselves more acceptable to those left behind by shunning a vulgarly rich life.
(The author is an economist and risk management professional. The views are personal. The author thanks BP Acharya, former additional chief secretary, government of Telangana for permission to use his cartoon in the article.)