Well, there goes my political career. A statement like, “Fraud is not a bad thing,” can follow you around like Gordon Gekko’s, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” But as someone who prepares auditors to prevent and detect fraud, I want to make a case for why I believe fraud is a symptom of something good.
Fraud does not happen in a vacuum. Fraud can only take place when there is trust between parties, since fraud involves the intent to deceive. You cannot readily deceive someone who does not trust you. But trust is necessary for personal relationships and business relationships.
Divorce and infidelity happen, too. Infidelity involves a kind of fraud, but it is largely able to happen because spouses trust one another. If they had detectives monitoring each other 24 hours a day, it would be expensive, but you would have a lot less infidelity. There would also be a lot fewer people getting married. Divorce is not a good thing, but it is an inevitable by-product of a good thing, the long-term commitment of a trust relationship called marriage.
What has happened in the American economic marketplace has led to an environment that is exceptionally low in trust. If you want to avoid infidelity, don’t get married. If you want to avoid fraudulent loans, don’t lend money at all. The government pumped money into banks and banks would not lend it out. People were infuriated. But banks had just been excoriated for making all kinds of liar loans in a real estate bubble, and doing so had endangered their capital levels. Why start dating again so soon when you have been burned?
The market was well lubricated with trust (and had a few bad incentives mixed in), and that provided a significant opportunity for fraud. Long-term economic success will do that. But in addition to high levels of trust, people were involved in transactions they didn’t understand, like derivatives and mortgage-backed securities. When people trust and they are poorly informed about something, there is frequently someone willing to take advantage of them.
Trust is the lubricant for markets. It can only be maintained when there is a habit of truth-telling in a market, whether that market is for love or money. If everyone is lying, immense resources are consumed verifying the truth from outside sources. And when lying is revealed in the form of fraud, it takes a while to recover.
Of course, banks could do a much better job verifying income, and in some cases verifying it at all. And people could do a lot better job verifying the character of the people they marry before they marry them.
Fraud does not make me feel good, and neither does divorce. But both of them signal something positive, the existence of a trusting atmosphere based on the goodwill that derives from a habit of truth-telling. And if you don’t interfere and turn either markets or marriage into a police state, you can be pretty sure that, given freedom, people’s desire for love and money will insure healthy markets for both.
Fraud is not a good thing. But as a guy who has studied it for a long time, I have to say that, much like marriage, the risk of trusting is worth the return.