Archive for May, 2010

We’ve Been Taken for A Ride

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

It may be time for average persons to stop investing in the stock market.  I’ve been a big believer in the market over the years, and am familiar with the statistics showing how stock market investments have grown over the years.

But the evidence is mounting – and may now be overwhelming – that shows that the big players have rigged the markets.

First, flash trading a.k.a. computerized trading controls the stock market these days.  The stock exchanges TAKE MONEY to allow traders to hitch their computers closer to the computers used by the stock exchange.

The weird gyrations in the market are driven by computerized traders that make a little going up and a little coming down, as long as the trades keep happening.  For example, Goldman Sachs makes most its income from trading.  Trading your stocks.  For its own benefit.

“Goldman made $3.5 billion in profits in just three months.  While it doesn’t break down profits in detail, it does give a broad sense of where its revenues come from. Just $1 billion or 8 percent, came from traditional investment banking.  The biggest slice, 72 percent, came from trading. Morningstar analyst Michael Wong says that trading category covers a wide range of activity.”

“What we do see is a trend which has been developing over the past few decades. Goldman Sachs and the other investment banks are making more money making trades than they do doing the things investment banks traditionally do.”

The part that makes this all crazy is the hidden derivatives market.  As Matt Taibbi recently reported (Rolling Stone – May 26, 2010), “This insane outgrowth of jungle capitalism has spun completely out of control since 2000, when Congress deregulated the derivatives market.  That market is now roughly 100 times bigger than the federal budget and 20 times larger than both the stock market and the GDP.”

Try to get your arms around that point.  The derivatives market is 20 times larger than both the stock market and the GDP.

Gary Gensler, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, described the problem as follows at a June 2010 exchanges conference in New York:   “The buyer and seller never meet in a centralized market.   Right now, when Wall Street banks enter into derivatives transactions with their customers, they know how much their last customer paid for the same deal, but that information is not made publicly available.  They benefit from internalizing this information.”

Taibbi also reports that “Five of America’s biggest banks (Goldman, JP Morgan, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup) raked in some $30 billion in over-the-counter derivatives last year.  By some estimates, more than half of JP Morgan’s trading revenue between 2006 and 2008 came from such derivatives.”

That is simply insane unregulated capitalism.  Your 401k account goes into the tank, the stock market experiences unprecedented gyrations, and the big players make money hand over fist, at your expense.

“Imagine a world where there’s no New York Stock Exchange, no NASDAQ or Nikkei: no open exchanges at all, and all stocks traded in the dark. Nobody has a clue how much a share of IBM costs or how many of them are being traded . . . That world exists. It’s called the over-the-counter derivatives market. Five of the country’s biggest banks [ ] account for more than 90 percent of the market, where swaps of all shapes and sizes are traded more or less completely in the dark.”

Congress drafted legislation to bring derivatives out into the open, which the Senate gutted this spring.  Notes Taibbi, “The Senate [functions] as a kind of ongoing negotiation between public sentiment and large financial interests.”

Folks, we are getting clobbered here.  The Wall Street giants don’t want us to make money the old fashioned way in stocks, by buying good companies at a fair price.  They want trades, lots and lots of trades.  And they want derivatives, where they can gamble all day and make lots and lots of money.

Traditional investing look like a bad play until there is fundamental change in the markets.  Derivatives must come out into the openAmerica just suffered a “lost decade” in which the market declined over a 10-year period, just like happened previously in Japan.  Your 401k money is a pawn, and we are all losing while the big players just get richer and richer.

Could Breach of Contract Be Immoral?

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Prof. Seana Shiffrin of UCLA Law School tackles the issue of “contract law’s strong traditional bar on punitive damages for intentional, gratuitous breach of contract.”

She jumps right into the fray:  “Morality, I claimed, correctly regards some breaches of promise as morally wrong and as warranting not only compensation but the administration of morality’s punitive remedies, including blame, criticism, recrimination, and avoidance.”

That is a valid point.  There are times when morality must be part of contract law.  States Prof. Shiffrin, “The contract law invokes promise as the fundamental component of a contract but, puzzlingly, does not subject gratuitous breaches of contract (and hence breaches of promise) to the distinctive punitive measures endorsed and administered by law, save when those breaches are also torts.”

The argument continues.  “If the law’s rationale for the bar on punitive damages is that the prospect of punitive damages might discourage efficient breach of contract – I label this the efficient-breach rationale – then the divergence between morality’s response to breach and the law’s response to breach is problematic in ways that morally decent citizens cannot accept.”

“The efficient-breach rationale forwards a justification for a legal doctrine that consists in the claim that barring punitive damages would encourage and facilitate certain breaching behavior.”

“But this behavior is condemned by morality.  To the extent the law adopts and embodies this rationale, it thereby embraces and tries to encourage and facilitate immoral behavior.  Although the law need not enforce morality as such, it is problematic when the law, either directly, or by way of the justifications underlying the law, embraces and encourages immoral action.”

Amen.  It’s about time someone steps up like this.  The law of contracts should not turn a blind eye to contract that is immoral.


Prof Shiffrin concludes that “Citizens, who in a democratic polity must be thought of as partial authors of the law, cannot, in all consistency, accept such laws and their justifications while simultaneously acting and reasoning as moral agents.  The law ought not to be structured or justified in ways that place citizens in such an untenable position: it must accommodate the needs of moral agency even if it need not or should not enforce morality directly.”

(Seana Shiffrin, Could Breach of Contract Be Immoral?, in Michigan Law Review (June 2009), Vol. 107, No. 8, p. 1551.)

Individual Freedom and Fault in Contract Law

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Prof. Stefan Grundmann argues that strict liability is essential to contract law because it enforces an important societal norm – freedom of choice.

According to Prof. Grundmann, “The majority of civil law scholars endorse the idea that the fault principle is ethically well-founded, and some scholars clearly see it as ethically superior to strict liability.  The core argument is the following: A system that grounds damages in fault gives the breaching party more freedom, since he does not have to answer for developments that he could not control.”


The professor bends the opposing argument.  The application of fault to contract law rests on the premise that the society should condemn some acts, to a greater extent than merely enforcing the financial obligations that are established by private contract.

Prof. Grundmann continues.  “In a Kantian tradition, it is seen as an act of freedom to choose between breach or conformity with a contract.  Others, however, argue that a regime of strict liability may also foster some level of freedom by furthering the principle of pacta sunt servanda, that agreements must be kept – a principle of equal importance with freedom of will.  Therefore, balancing of both principles seems necessary.”

Here the professor seeks to balance two moral standards.  He asserts that “freedom and pacta sunt servanda are not of equal importance, at least not in the context discussed here.  There is actually a clear hierarchy between them, and pacta sunt servanda is clearly more important because of the following reason.”

“Those who advocate the ethical superiority of the fault principle because it gives the breaching party the freedom to answer only for those acts and events for which he is responsible forget one rather simple fact: there is an earlier type of freedom that allows each party to decide what offers he makes and to which standards he wants to bind himself, i.e., the freedom of contract.”

Here we get to the heart of the argument – that protection of individual rights is more important than protection of societal norms.  States Prof. Grundmann, “The most vital tenet of freedom in modern times [ ] is the right of each person to decide, to the greatest extent possible, which obligations to assume.  This freedom – which comes first – is disregarded if the question of whether fault or strict liability should govern is decided, not on the basis of the parties’ expressed or implicit intentions, but rather on the basis of an ‘ethical credo’ about the superiority of fault or of strict liability.”

Again, the focus on individual rights ignores the question of whether fault – not as an excuse for breach of contract, but as justification for additional remedies – advances important societal values.

Concludes the author, “strict liability better fosters freedom of contract.”  Thus, “If the freedom of the parties is taken seriously, the question is how to interpret their intentions, not to impose on them a regime judged by scholars, legislatures, or any other third party to foster their freedom and therefore be ethically superior.  Replacing the choice made by the parties – even if justified as fostering freedom – is paternalistic.”

(Stefan Grundmann, The Fault Principle as the Chameleon of Contract Law: A Market Function Approach, in Michigan Law Review (June 2009), Vol. 107, No. 8, p. 1583.)

Fault at the Contract-Tort Interface

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

Prof. Roy Kreitner of Tel Aviv University shows great insight into the dichotomy between tort and contract law.  He first discusses how tort law shifted toward a fault-based system during the nineteenth century.

States Prof Kreitner, “the early [tort] law asked simply, ‘Did the defendant do the physical act which damaged the plaintiff?’  T[ort] law of today, except in certain cases based upon public policy, asks the further question, ‘Was the act blameworthy?’”

Ft. Ord Public Lands

Thus, “the ethical standard of reasonable conduct has replaced the unmoral standard of acting at one’s peril.  It is most likely that theories of strict liability were dominant during the formative years of the common law.  But during the nineteenth century . . . there was a decided and express shift towards the theories of negligence.”

Prof Kreitner continues.  “The accounts of such a shift are persuasive, but only when one acknowledges that the shift took place over the course of decades (rather than, say, through one key judgment of an individual court) and that it solidified quite late in the nineteenth century.”

Further, the shift in tort liability occurred among societal changes.  “The importance of the shift in background assumptions about liability could hardly have been imagined early in the nineteenth century, when the number of serious injuries from industrial activity was minuscule in comparison to what would emerge in the last third of the century.”

“By the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the question of the extent to which injuries from industrial accidents could go uncompensated had become a major economic battleground in ways that would have been difficult to appreciate early in the century.”

Prof Kreitner then turns to contract liability.  As he states, “Everyone is familiar with the idea that contract rests on a species of strict liability, namely the claim that in general “duties imposed by contract are absolute . . . It remains an ingrained aspect of mainstream understandings of contract.”

He explains that, “What generally escapes appreciation is that the understanding of contract as a strict liability regime is anything but an age-old phenomenon.  In fact, such a regime emerged in the United States only at about the same time as the solidification of the no-liability-without-fault regime in tort, during the final decades of the nineteenth century.”

“During the first half of the nineteenth century, although receding slowly in the decades following, contract was understood as a fault-based regime.”  The professor explains that fault was interposed because contracts arose out of relationships.  Contract law “was understood in direct reference to the typical contractual relationships that constituted it.  This world of contract was inhabited by people in relational pairs: bailor and bailee, principal and agent, master and servant, principal and factor, landlord and tenant, vendor and purchaser, husband and wife.”

Given these relationships, “actors had standardized duties, whose contours were shaped by the relation itself.  Individual agreement tailored these duties only on the margins.  And while some of the relations included duties we could characterize as absolute, it was far more typical for duties to be framed in terms of reasonable skill, reasonable diligence, or reasonable care.”

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Accordingly, early contract liability was premised on fault.  “It was a failure to meet the standard of care, often phrased directly in terms of negligence, that triggered contractual liability.  Thus, the basic standard of liability was one of fault, even if fault of an objective variety.”

Societally-imposed standards were gradually removed from contract law.  “In order to exclude the state, the theory of contract had to place the parties in full control of the relationship.  Once that was accomplished, the road was open for the parties’ self-imposed obligation to be construed as absolute.”

The shift was societal standards (i.e., liability based on fault) to absolute liability has been complete in contract law for a century.  “Contract was thus established as the very center of the private realm, in part by purging its fault-based standards.  Indeed, it is the image of strict liability that heightens the sense of party control and autonomy, since it is always assumed that the parties could, if they wished, contract for any other standard of liability within their contract.”

Yet, norms of conduct remain part of contract law, which is why concepts of fault have not been eradicated from contract theory.  “Part of what parties to a contract are involved in is the generation of a public good [. ]  This idea should not sound farfetched.  It is intuitive that contracting parties generate a public good in the shape of trust in the market, or the idea of safe contracting.”

“Consider, for example, the difference between analyses of nondisclosure and misrepresentation: when dealing with silence regarding features of the transaction . . . The analysis of misrepresentation is fundamentally different, quintessentially fault based, and obviously reliant on sources outside the parties’ own agreement – and yet, no less contractual for that.  Nondisclosure can theoretically be overcome simply by asking the right question.  Misrepresentation, however, threatens to unravel the basic background trust without which market transactions would be far more difficult.”

(Roy Kreitner, Fault at the Contract-Tort Interface, in Michigan Law Review (June 2009), Vol. 107, No. 8, p. 1533.)

Economic Constraints in the Fiduciary Relationship

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

Professors Robert Cooter and Bradley J. Freedman analyzed the economic character and legal consequences of the fiduciary relationship.  As discussed below, their strongest point is to explain that not all fiduciary duties are the same – it depends on the nature of the relationship.

As a starting point, they acknowledge that “Legal theorists and practitioners have failed to define precisely when such a relationship exists, exactly what constitutes a violation of this relationship, and the legal consequences generated by such a violation . . . In any of these paradigmatic forms, a beneficiary entrusts a fiduciary with control and management of an asset.  Ideally, for the beneficiary, this relationship would be governed by specific rules that dictate how the fiduciary should manage the asset in the beneficiary’s best interests.”

Jølstravatnet Lake in Jølster, Norway

“Because asset management necessarily involves risk and uncertainty, the specific behavior of the fiduciary cannot be dictated in advance.  Moreover, constant monitoring of the fiduciary’s behavior, which would protect the beneficiary, often is prohibitively costly . . . The fiduciary relationship exposes a beneficiary/principal to two distinct types of wrongdoing: first, the fiduciary may misappropriate the principal’s asset or some of its value (an act of malfeasance); and second, the fiduciary may neglect the asset’s management (an act of nonfeasance).”

Employing a law and economics perspective, Cooter and Freedman pose the question: “How can one party be induced to do what is best for another without specifying exactly what is to be done?”

Cooter and Freedman consider how to deter wrongful conduct by the fiduciary.  As they explain, “Once a consensual relationship in which the principal relinquishes control or management of her asset to the agent is formed, the resulting separation of ownership from control or management creates opportunities for the agent to appropriate the asset or some of its value.”

This leads to the first broadly-stated category of wrongful conduct:  misappropriation, or violation of the duty of loyalty.  “Fiduciary law creates a cluster of presumptive rules of conduct compendiously described as the duty of loyalty . . . Taking advantage of these opportunities whether by theft, diversion, conversion, or trespass would violate the agent’s duty of loyalty.”

“Generally, once a fiduciary is shown to have purchased her own asset on behalf of the principal without its consent, either she is held to be disloyal and allowed no defenses, or she has the burden of proving her loyalty.”

The professors suggest that “If the parties to this agreement possessed perfect information, disloyalty could be controlled or prevented by contract.”

In the real world, that is not correct.  It does not matter how much is written into the contract – if the thief wants to commit larceny, the contract won’t stop him.

San Francisco Presidio

Even more, the fiduciary relationship is a “relational contract,” in which obligations morph over time.  Cooter and Freedman correctly state that, “In fiduciary relationships, however, the parties are unable to foresee the conditions under which one act produces better results than another.  Rather, chance events and unanticipated contingencies require continual recalculation to determine which course of action will be the most productive.”

This leads into the second category of wrongful conduct, “negligent mismanagement, [which is] is governed by the duty of care.”

Here lies the strongest points in the article.  Cooter and Freedman state that “Judgment especially is important when decisions involve an element of risk.  The duty of care imposes an obligation on the fiduciary to avoid unnecessary risk.”

“However, different levels of risk are appropriate in different fiduciary relationships.  For example, a trustee often is required to be prudent and conservative in managing an asset, whereas a director of a start-up company may be encouraged to take risks.”

That is a point that is ignored far too frequently.  Different relationships lead to different fiduciary obligations, which cannot be painted all with the same brush.

“The bundle of duties and rights created by fiduciary law must be adjusted continually in response to changing circumstances and fresh litigation . . . Holding trustees to higher standards than directors makes economic sense because the same legal rule that imposes a light burden on a trustee would impose onerous restrictions upon a director.”

Thus, Cooter and Freedman conclude that, “Whenever an optimal contract includes fiduciary duties, the economic character of the fiduciary relationship precludes the specification of exact duties . . . The economic character of the fiduciary relationship embodies a deterrence problem for which the duty of loyalty provides a special remedy . . . [To this end] the duty of loyalty must be understood as the law’s attempt to create an incentive structure in which the fiduciary’s self-interest directs her to act in the best interest of the beneficiary.”

Robert Cooter and Bradley J. Freedman, The Fiduciary Relationship: Its Economic Character and Legal Consequences, in 66 New York University Law Rev. 1045 (1991).