Do safety measures encourage us to take more risks?
Photo: Magnus Manske. Source: Wiki
The US Forest Service was created in 1905. Teddy Roosevelt signed the bill in response to a series of disastrous forest fires, like the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894. These fires threatened future commercial timber supplies, and the Federal Government had begun to establish national forest reserves. Why create them, people wondered, if they were just going to burn down?
So the Forest Service established a systematic approach to fire control, building a network of roads, lookout towers, ranger stations, and communications. They also offered financial incentives for states to fight fires. With new technology, like airplanes, smokejumpers, and chemicals, they established their 10 am policy: every fire should be suppressed by 10 am the day following its initial report.
But a funny thing happened: by eliminating fire from the forest ecosystem, a lot of dead wood and other fuel accumulated over time. This insured that when fires did break out, they would become far more destructive. Moreover, scientists noted that fire was an essential part of many plant and tree life cycles. The Forest Service changed its approach from fire control to fire management—letting naturally occurring fires burn, unless they threatened developed areas.
Is this part of what led to the Financial Crisis of 2007-2009? During the 25 years prior, economists had noted that more effective bank regulation and monetary policy had led to a “Great Moderation”—a significant dampening of the business cycle in the US and other developed nations.
It’s possible that reduced economic volatility led investors, homeowners, and banks to take on greater risks. In essence, the Fed’s policy of fire suppression allowed toxic assets to be created and distributed throughout the financial ecosystem. Highly regulated (and insured) banks were replaced by (uninsured) shadow banks. These assumed particular risks and contributed to a culture of increased systemic risk. When some of their assets began to unravel, it was impossible to contain the damage.
We find a sort of risk-homeostasis in other areas. Anti-lock brakes encourage more aggressive driving; better skydiving gear allows hazardous high-speed maneuvers close to the ground. This is sometimes called the Peltzman effect: people behave as if they want a certain level of risk in their lives. This appears to be the case with ecosystems and economies, too.
Are safety measures useless, then? Absolutely not! The rate of accidental fatalities has fallen dramatically over time, and there are also fewer bank failures. But like the US Forest Service, we need to focus on risk management rather than risk reduction. Don’t assume government regulators will control your financial risks. Diversification, analysis, and—above all—not paying too much are still crucial, and always will be.
The biggest risk, after all, is believing that we aren’t taking any risk. In a dynamic world, that’s guaranteed to fail.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Chief Investment Officer