from Global Investing:

Away from the flock

Companies need to actively encourage dissent and aspire to heretical rather than consensus views if they want to avoid being as unprepared as they were for the financial meltdown.

Noreena Hertz, professor of finance, sustainability and globalisation at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, kicked off the CFA Institute's second annual European Investment Conference in Frankfurt with a wake up call for the assembled asset managers and bankers.

"This was not just a financial crisis - this was an existential crisis that exposed a faultline in the system," she said. "The way we thought about the world was profoundly flawed."

Hertz identified several major problems - a culture of intellectual conformity, the deification of experts like Alan Greenspan, and dogma superceding reason. She said the free-market economics that triumphed post-1979 should have been treated more as a hypothesis, not fact, but within economics debate was discouraged, and thinkers like Keynes and Minsky who didn't fit the prevailing view were sidelined.

For their part, individuals and businesses had accepted orthodox thinking and allowed the proclamations of "experts" to go unchallenged. She urged delegates to think in a more holistic way - for example, rather than just focusing on rising house prices in the US, they should have given some consideration to the amount of credit cards the average household had.

from Global Investing:

Watch the bezzle

  Who is next? After the Madoff and Satyam scandals, rattled investors are looking anxiously over their shoulders for the next big financial fraud.   It is generally assumed that the downturn will expose more wrongdoings - but that doesn't mean people become more dishonest when the economy is sick. In fact, quite the opposite, according to John Kenneth Galbraith's definitive 1954 work "The Great Crash, 1929."   When it comes to embezzlement, it's all a question of how visible the "bezzle" is, he argues.   Galbraith's 200-page history of the world's biggest boom-and-bust has stormed back into the bestseller lists in recent months, giving modern-day readers a glimpse of how speculative markets became divorced from reality 80 years ago and the hazards this created.   His words are as relevant as ever:   At any given time there exists an inventory of undiscovered embezzlement in - or more precisely not in - the country's businesses and banks. This inventory - it should perhaps be called the bezzle - amounts at any moment to many millions of dollars. It also varies in size with the business cycle. In good times people are relaxed, trusting, and money is plentiful. But even though money is plentiful, there are always many people who need more. Under these circumstances the rate of embezzlement grows, the rate of discovery falls off, and the bezzle increases rapidly. In depression all this is reversed. Money is watched with a narrow, suspicious eye. The man who handles it is assumed to be dishonest until he proves himself otherwise. Audits are penetrating and meticulous. Commercial morality is enormously improved. The bezzle shrinks.   (Reuters photo: Disgraced financier Bernard Madoff is escorted by police as he departs U.S. Federal Court after a hearing in New York, January 5, 2009)