Grip of Greed
“Greed lives on the axiom, ‘Never enough’.”
Dr John Ng
“When the stakes are high, everybody cheats.”
Steven Levitt, Freakonomics
The biggest seizure in Malaysia’s history…
The Commercial Co Investigation Department raided the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Tun Razak’s apartments and his linked-premises and seized the following items:
- Cash — Rm 160.7 million in 26 different currencies
- 35 bags of gold, diamonds, jewellery (without cost of workmanship & other axillary costs) — Rm 442 million (Retail price: Rm 660 – 880 million), there were 12,000 items (1,400 necklaces, 2,200 rings, 2,100 bangles, 2,800 pairs of ear-rings, 1,600 brooches, 14 tiaras and others)
- Most expensive item is the cost of necklace Rm 6.4 million
- 567 handbags with 37 brands. 272 Hermes bags valued at Rm 51.3 million
- 6 bags of 423 watches, costing Rm 78 million (The most expensive is Rolex Paul Newman Daytona costing Rm 3.5 million, Chopard Rm 2.5 million Richard Mille Rm 1.6 million
- 3 bags 324 sunglasses, costing Rm 374,000
Total cost of the loot amounting Rm 910 million – 1.1 billion.
My head was swirling in daze when I heard this revelation. How can anyone do this without any conscience? The only explanation is GREED. Even the so-called great organizations like Wells Fargo bank in the USA, Volkswagen in Germany, Sharp in Japan, Keppel O & M in Singapore have become victims of greed.
Even sports organizations, FIFA, IAAF, F1, are not exempt from these scandals.
Let’s examine this insatiable greed, that can affect and cause damage to our lives.
What is greed?
Merriam Webster defines it as a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money) than is needed motivated by naked ambition.
I define greed as an innate, growing and unbridled desire for the pursuit of money, wealth, power or other possessions — driven by self-interest to maximize short-term gains while denying or minimizing the same benefits to others. But it will finally lead to collapse.
Allow me to examine its anatomy:
Greed is growing and global
Whether we are in Delhi, Dubai or Detroit, greed’s tentacles spread far and wide and reach deep into every nook and cranny. With clever marketing and packaging, shrewdly disguised low-interest mortgage-loans and seemingly highly lucrative derivatives can tug at our depraved human hearts, which is greed’s innate residence.
Everyone, from Wall Street hedge fund managers to average homeowners, went for easy money and short-term profits by investing money they did not have, buying things they did not need and by betting on their future earnings.
As Jonathan Eyal of the Straits Times’ European Bureau rightly points out:
And though the current attention is on shady speculators, the reality is that ordinary consumers everywhere must share some of the blame. Some were accidentally sucked into the maelstrom — with unsolicited credit cards, for instance. But many willingly engaged in the credit orgy. Speculating on one’s house by borrowing against an existing mortgage — ‘releasing equity’, as it was politely called, became an honorable occupation in all Western countries.
I mention greed as one of the chief causes of the 2008 global meltdown not from the stand of a moral judge, but to show that greed affects everyone. It is easy to look at the speck in another’s eye, and forget the log in our own!
Greed is innate and unbridled
John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, had proclaimed, “We’re going to put an end to greed.” Personally, I don’t think greed can be ‘ended’. Even if our actions actually stop greed from causing harm (and that is very unlikely) it will rear its ugly head again sometime in the future. Why? Because we are born with it.
As Chanda writes insightfully, “Greed is the mother’s milk of global commerce.” Greed is a human inclination waiting to be unleashed given the right opportunity.
A close cousin of greed is ambition. It is very difficult to differentiate between the two. Both are emotional and adrenalin-driven elements that make us dissatisfied with the status quo and keep us creatively engaged, but can also lead us into disastrous decisions.
Look at how, time and again, greed keeps rearing its ugly head and growing into an uncontrollable monster:
Following the stock market crash of 1929, the Glass-Stegall Act of 1933 prohibited consolidation of investment, commercial banking and insurance services. It also created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to insure consumer bank deposits. The Act was intended to stop bank executives from steering consumers’ deposits into risky investments, and to prevent the collapse of financial institutions.
In 1999, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act repealed the Glass-Stegall Act and freed financial institutions by allowing consolidation among banks, securities firms and insurance companies and created competition.
Even Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Chairman, proclaimed, “American consumers might benefit if lenders provided greater mortgage-product alternatives to the traditional fixed rate mortgage.”
— Industry expansion
At this point, the greed party started. Commercial lenders began engaging in highly lucrative trading of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and collaterized debt obligations (CDOs), just like investment firms. The derivative market grew from almost $100 trillion in 1998 to $600 trillion in 2007.
Finally, the boom and bust came. With the US Federal Government lowering interest rates, cheap mortgage loans were readily available for consumers, who in turn generated a thriving investors’ market for derivatives such as MBS, CDO and other exotic securities. However, as interest rates rose, homeowners defaulted and put derivatives at risk. That was the beginning of the financial tsunami.
My verdict on McCain’s statement: Greed can only be contained, but never eradicated.
I agree with late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, who with his pragmatic outlook proclaimed: “Have we learnt nothing from the last Great Depression? Everybody has read Charles Kindleberger [Manias, Panics and Crashes], what shouldn’t be done the next time. I think [the US economy] will pick up again. But does that mean the end of all crashes? No.”
Greed is driven by self-interest under cover
The Americans are masters of marketing and packaging. During the 2008 financial crisis, who else could have invented terms like ‘sub-prime’, ‘structured products’, ‘collaterized debt obligations’, ‘mortgaged-backed securities’ and ‘Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP)’?
Very often we create names, fake news, accounting magic, exaggerations, etc. to justify our own self-interests…
Please write me, What are the other reasons can you give to explain why and how we can be gripped by greed?
Read more of my own analysis in the book, Unleashing the Greatness in You