Moral Hazard: A Primer

The term moral hazard originated in the insurance business. It was a reference to the need for insurers to assess the integrity of their customers. When modern economists got ahold of the term, the meaning changed. Instead of making judgments about a person’s character, the focus shifted to incentives. For example, a fire insurance policy might limit the motivation to install sprinklers while a generous automobile insurance policy might encourage reckless driving. Then there is Kenneth Arrow’s original example of moral hazard: health insurance fosters overtreatment by doctors. Employment arrangements suffer from moral hazard, too: will you shirk unpleasant tasks at work if you’re sure to receive your paycheck anyway?

Moral hazard arises when we cannot costlessly observe people’s actions and so cannot judge (without costly monitoring) whether a poor outcome reflects poor fortune or poor effort. Like its close relative, adverse selection, moral hazard arises because two parties to a transaction have different information. This information asymmetry manifests itself in two ways. Where adverse selection is about hidden attributes, affecting a transaction before it occurs, moral hazard is about hidden actions that have an impact after making an arrangement.

In this post, we provide a brief introduction to the concept of moral hazard, focusing on how various aspects of the financial system are designed to mitigate the challenges it causes....

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Saving for retirement

The biggest question facing anyone considering retirement is financial: are my savings sufficient to provide for my lifestyle for the rest of my life? For the fortunate among us, the answer is yes. But for a large fraction of the population, the answer is likely no.

The typical U.S. household has few retirement savings. The National Institute on Retirement Security reports that the median for near-retirement households is $12,000, while that for all households is only $3,000. Most people are relying on government social security to meet their retirement needs.

There are many reasons for this. One is the reduction in the fraction of employers offering any retirement plan at all, and another is the shift away from defined-benefit (DB) and toward defined-contribution (DC) pension plans. The result is that many individuals face risks that they are not equipped to bear, and many households need to save substantially more than they would have had these changes not occurred....

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Financial Innovation and Risk Management

In 2013, Robert Shiller shared the Nobel Prize for Economics with Eugene Fama and Lars Peter Hansen for their research on asset pricing. While Shiller is known as a critic of the efficient markets hypothesis and as a proponent of behavioral finance, less appreciated is his work on advancing financial technology to help societies manage fundamental economic risks.

At a time when the recent crisis has given financial innovation a bad name, Shiller’s contrarian message is that well-designed financial instruments and markets are an enormous boon to social welfare. We agree.

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Do U.S. Households Benefit from the Great Moderation?

Something odd has happened to the U.S. economy over the past 30 years. Aggregate income (measured by real GDP) has become more stable (even including the 2007-2009 Great Recession). But, at the household level, the volatility of income has gone up. Put differently, families face greater income risk than in the past despite generally fewer or smaller economy-wide wobbles. What should we make of this?

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