Trust and Regulation

Regulation is a social substitute for trust.

That’s not a moral statement, just a factual one.

Sometimes the relationship between trust and regulation is obvious We submit to the regulation of traffic laws because we can’t trust everyone will simultaneously interpret the rules of the road similarly. And, when stoplights fail, we trust the regulation of traffic cops, whose very jobs are the result of a citizenry’s decision to be regulated.

Another regulatory no-brainer would seem to be the “commons,” i.e. a situation where, at the margin, it’s in everyone’s personal best interest to behave selfishly. Except that, when everyone does so, everyone turns out the loser. (In game theory, the “prisoner’s dilemma” spells this out). We can’t trust everyone (or even most people) to do what’s socially good, so we submit to regulation.

So it is we end up with regulated airspace and water tablesthough there are still crazies who insist they should be able to fly anything anywhere anytime, and drill any water drillable beneath their half acre of Arizona; plus, we still over-fish.

Closely related are natural monopolies, e.g. utilities (except, bafflingly to me, water companies in the UK). These businesses left unregulated will drift, often quickly, to monopolies. Much of regulatory debate is how to balance society’s interest vs. the normal trappings of markets. (Can we trust Microsoft to innovate? Airlines to share route rights? Telecom companies to share scale economies?)

The right degree of regulation for natural monopolies would be an easy matter for industrial economists, if only political ideologues nattering about free markets vs. socialism would leave them alone.

Much less is clear when it comes to naturally competitive markets in which people and companies behave in an untrustworthy manner toward customers, shareholders, employees and society. Here the issues become more clearly trust-related.

Can we trust the stockbroker’s motives when he recommends a stock? The food company’s label of ‘organic?’ Can we trust that the insurance company will be there when it’s claim time? Can we trust that a corporate email sent in confidence will be treated as such? That a doctor’s prescription is not unduly influenced by a pharmaceutical company?

Here are a few social policy rules of thumb for thinking about the relationship between trust and regulation.

1. Trust—where possible—is preferable to regulation. It avoids moral hazard; it is cheaper; and it is specific to the situation at hand.

2. Industry associations have a potentially powerful role to play. Too often they see their role as defenders of their constituents against regulation, rather than the far more constructive and long-term perspective of evolving powerful self-regulation. (I have blogged on this topic before; for mortgage banking, see my blogpost here; ; for financial planning, see here. Or, simply look at the regulatory nightmare the pharmaceutical industry has become, largely by failure to self-regulate.)

3. Certain industrial economics criteria cry out for regulation. If no one—investor, regulator, customer—has an integrated interest across a sector of business, then the situation is rife for abuse. The securitized mortgage industry had no one with an integrated perspective.  Regulation becomes by default attractive in such cases.

4. All else equal, short-term perspectives destroy trust and invite regulation.

5. Transparency may be the least costly form of regulation. It works best when obvious  It works best when obvious: e.g., "smoking causes cancer," or "these assets were marked to market."  Transparency as "the fine print" loses its power quickly. 

6. If an industry is fond of saying things like “caveat emptor,” or “hey it’s not illegal,” or “we’re only giving the consumer what they want,” look out. This is defensive language, typically used against stakeholder complaints—Big Tobacco, Big Food, and, I suspect, melamine producers in China.

7. Personally, I think business-school faculty have a huge responsibility. In an increasingly hyper-linked world, the competition-centric ideology taught as “strategy” is increasingly dysfunctional. It destroys trust by teaching that the natural state of business is to compete against our suppliers and customers, rather than to collaborate with and serve them.

By destroying trust, it invites regulation. Which, as stated in point one above, is the less preferable of the two.

Business, heal thyself; it’s better for all.