Wednesday, October 06, 2010

What a Conflicted Web We Weave: Academic Economists, Finance, the Global Economic Meltdown, and the Impending Health Care Collapse

We have been writing about conflicts of interest in health care now for a long time.  We started with a focus on academic physicians'  and leaders' financial ties to pharmaceutical/ biotechnology/ device companies, then went on to the intense conflicts generated by academic medical and other health care non-profit leader who also sit on boards of directors of for profit health care corporations, and to conflicts affecting various kinds of respected not-for-profit health care organizations, like medical societies and patient advocacy groups.

Meanwhile, we uncovered the curious dominance of the boards of some health care organizations by leaders in the finance world, including some of the leaders of the failed companies that brought us the "great recession."  This did seem like a leadership problem for health care, in terms of the dominance of health care leadership by the elite of another industry that did not exactly seem to share the values we physicians swear to uphold.  However, it did not seem to be a conflict of interest problem, until now.

The Chronicle of Higher Education just published an article by the director of a soon to be released documentary on conflicts of interest and academics, but this time academic economics.

Charles Ferguson, the author, used as an example the Larry Summers, the former President of Harvard University (and hence leader of the Harvard Medical School, School of Public Health, and Harvard's teaching hospitals).  We had commented here about Summers' poor fit for the role of an academic medical leader, and here and here about the dominance of Harvard leadership by leaders of (sometimes failed) financial institutions.  Ferguson summarized (bad pun, sorry) the problem thus:
Summers is unquestionably brilliant, as all who have dealt with him, including myself, quickly realize. And yet rarely has one individual embodied so much of what is wrong with economics, with academe, and indeed with the American economy.

The problem is essentially one of huge conflicts of interest:
the revolving door is now a three-way intersection. Summers's career is the result of an extraordinary and underappreciated scandal in American society: the convergence of academic economics, Wall Street, and political power.

Summers bear huge responsibility for the current economic mess:
Consider: As a rising economist at Harvard and at the World Bank, Summers argued for privatization and deregulation in many domains, including finance. Later, as deputy secretary of the treasury and then treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, he implemented those policies. Summers oversaw passage of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed Glass-Steagall, permitted the previously illegal merger that created Citigroup, and allowed further consolidation in the financial sector. He also successfully fought attempts by Brooksley Born, chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in the Clinton administration, to regulate the financial derivatives that would cause so much damage in the housing bubble and the 2008 economic crisis. He then oversaw passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which banned all regulation of derivatives, including exempting them from state antigambling laws.

Over the past decade, Summers continued to advocate financial deregulation, both as president of Harvard and as a University Professor after being forced out of the presidency.

Not only did Summers set up the structure that allowed reckless bets with other people' money on opaque financial derivatives by finance leaders who stood to make huge gains if they won their bets, but could foist all losses on others, but he actively attempted those who tried to warn us all of the impending economic collapse.
Summers remained close to Rubin and to Alan Greenspan, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve. When other economists began warning of abuses and systemic risk in the financial system deriving from the environment that Summers, Greenspan, and Rubin had created, Summers mocked and dismissed those warnings. In 2005, at the annual Jackson Hole, Wyo., conference of the world's leading central bankers, the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, Raghuram Rajan, presented a brilliant paper that constituted the first prominent warning of the coming crisis. Rajan pointed out that the structure of financial-sector compensation, in combination with complex financial products, gave bankers huge cash incentives to take risks with other people's money, while imposing no penalties for any subsequent losses. Rajan warned that this bonus culture rewarded bankers for actions that could destroy their own institutions, or even the entire system, and that this could generate a 'full-blown financial crisis' and a 'catastrophic meltdown.'

When Rajan finished speaking, Summers rose up from the audience and attacked him, calling him a 'Luddite,' dismissing his concerns, and warning that increased regulation would reduce the productivity of the financial sector. (Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner, and Alan Greenspan were also in the audience.)

Amazingly, rather than ending up an economic pariah after that, Summers regained power over the economy in the last few years.
Then, after the 2008 financial crisis and its consequent recession, Summers was placed in charge of coordinating U.S. economic policy, deftly marginalizing others who challenged him. Under the stewardship of Summers, Geithner, and Bernanke, the Obama administration adopted policies as favorable toward the financial sector as those of the Clinton and Bush administrations—quite a feat. Never once has Summers publicly apologized or admitted any responsibility for causing the crisis. And now Harvard is welcoming him back.

Summers was tightly aligned with the finance world, and benefited from the dominance of financial leaders on Harvard's board (see post here):
After Summers left the Clinton administration, his candidacy for president of Harvard was championed by his mentor Robert Rubin, a former CEO of Goldman Sachs, who was his boss and predecessor as treasury secretary. Rubin, after leaving the Treasury Department—where he championed the law that made Citigroup's creation legal—became both vice chairman of Citigroup and a powerful member of Harvard's governing board.

Yet in between his government and academic leadership roles, Summers got rich from finance firms' money.
Summers became wealthy through consulting and speaking engagements with financial firms. Between 2001 and his entry into the Obama administration, he made more than $20-million from the financial-services industry. (His 2009 federal financial-disclosure form listed his net worth as $17-million to $39-million.)

Ferguson went on to list several other conflicted academic economists:
The route to the 2008 financial crisis, and the economic problems that still plague us, runs straight through the economics discipline. And it's due not just to ideology; it's also about straightforward, old-fashioned money.

Prominent academic economists (and sometimes also professors of law and public policy) are paid by companies and interest groups to testify before Congress, to write papers, to give speeches, to participate in conferences, to serve on boards of directors, to write briefs in regulatory proceedings, to defend companies in antitrust cases, and, of course, to lobby. [Ed: they are thus the "key opinion leaders" of economics and economic policy.]  This is now, literally, a billion-dollar industry. The Law and Economics Consulting Group, started 22 years ago by professors at the University of California at Berkeley (David Teece in the business school, Thomas Jorde in the law school, and the economists Richard Gilbert and Gordon Rausser), is now a $300-million publicly held company. Others specializing in the sale (or rental) of academic expertise include Competition Policy (now Compass Lexecon), started by Richard Gilbert and Daniel Rubinfeld, both of whom served as chief economist of the Justice Department's Antitrust Division in the Clinton administration; the Analysis Group; and Charles River Associates.

In my film you will see many famous economists looking very uncomfortable when confronted with their financial-sector activities; others appear only on archival video, because they declined to be interviewed. You'll hear from:

Martin Feldstein, a Harvard professor, a major architect of deregulation in the Reagan administration, president for 30 years of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and for 20 years on the boards of directors of both AIG, which paid him more than $6-million, and AIG Financial Products, whose derivatives deals destroyed the company. Feldstein has written several hundred papers, on many subjects; none of them address the dangers of unregulated financial derivatives or financial-industry compensation.

Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the first George W. Bush administration, dean of Columbia Business School, adviser to many financial firms, on the board of Metropolitan Life ($250,000 per year), and formerly on the board of Capmark, a major commercial mortgage lender, from which he resigned shortly before its bankruptcy, in 2009. In 2004, Hubbard wrote a paper with William C. Dudley, then chief economist of Goldman Sachs, praising securitization and derivatives as improving the stability of both financial markets and the wider economy.

Frederic Mishkin, a professor at the Columbia Business School, and a member of the Federal Reserve Board from 2006 to 2008. He was paid $124,000 by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce to write a paper praising its regulatory and banking systems, two years before the Icelandic banks' Ponzi scheme collapsed, causing $100-billion in losses. His 2006 federal financial-disclosure form listed his net worth as $6-million to $17-million.

Laura Tyson, a professor at Berkeley, director of the National Economic Council in the Clinton administration, and also on the Board of Directors of Morgan Stanley, which pays her $350,000 per year.

Richard Portes, a professor at London Business School and founding director of the British Centre for Economic Policy Research, paid by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce to write a report praising Iceland's financial system in 2007, only one year before it collapsed.

And John Campbell, chairman of Harvard's economics department, who finds it very difficult to explain why conflicts of interest in economics should not concern us.

I once naively thought that the primary conflict of interest problems affecting academia involved health care, the dependence of medical schools and academic medical centers on commercial research funding, the emphasis these schools placed on faculty ties to commercial firms, leading to faculty "key opinion leaders" functioning as marketers of drugs and devices operating under the cloak of academia, and the major conflicts of academic leaders who also sit on health care corporate boards.

Now I wonder if all this came to pass because academic leaders already were comfortable with conflicts of interest after having profited from conflicts generated by relationships with the finance industry.

This now suggests that the dominance of university boards of trustees by finance leaders is a conflict of interest issue, too.

It also suggests that we in medicine should be paying more attention to how conflicts of interest shape not only the marketing of drugs and devices, but the health care policy that has lead to our currently dysfunctional system. If economists paid by finance companies could have been a major cause of the global financial meltdown, could health care policy experts paid by health care corporations be a major cause of our collapsing health care system?

Hat tip to the Naked Capitalism blog. See additional comments on the University Diaries blog and on Felix Salmon's blog.


Live it or live with it said...

You are of course right Roy. Perhaps that is why physicians have been so powerless. In our institution, the non-medical academic leaders have been the beneficiaries of the largess of their rises in endowments due to investment income. The recent losses were blamed elsewhere, written-off and again they are living on the income from their (albeit smaller) nest egg.

It's everywhere. One can't keep their academic job unless they are supported by a grant. These grants in turn pay dean's tax and rent on facilities built by the dean and pay for supplies marked up by the dean. The money from the nest egg built the buildings that get paid for by the government; so where again did that money go? Back into the administration budget, building the power, prestige, compensation, value of their 'consulting,' and future value of their compensation in private industry.

It is all about what is good for the leaders, not about anything else at all.

Without change, all is lost.

Obama now looks like either a foolish dreamer or a crook. I'd like to believe he was just innocent and thought people would act in an altruistic manner. They can't, they won't or they don't. Doesn't matter the reason, I think its just time to spend the last 2 years of Obama's opportunity in bringing suits against all the crooks.

It is the only thing he may have left he can do.

Here's hoping he sees the light. Crooks need to be jailed. Nothing else will stop this madness.

Anonymous said...

Have you not read University Inc. by Jennifer Washburn? She focuses on medical schools, but it goes beyond medicine.

Anonymous said...

And how does this play out in the day to day dealings of those watching? From University Diaries we learn:

“Greed: When your heart’s really in it.
Emory University cardiology professor Bobby Khan already has lots of money, but he couldn’t pass up this opportunity to make tons more:
… Khan acquired material nonpublic information regarding the acquisition of Sciele Pharma, Inc. (“Sciele”) by Japanese pharmaceutical company Shionogi & Co., Ltd”

Dr. Khan transferred a third of his net worth into this stock deal and is now charged with insider trading.

From the Oct. 5, 2010 WSJ article Drug Firms Face Bribery Probe we learn that several drug companies are being investigated for bribing government-employed doctors, sales agents, hospital committees, and regulators.

In both of these cases it is the SEC and DOJ doing the investigations, not the FDA and in a positive move regarding the bribery charges:

“US officials recently have threatened to file charges against executives and not just their companies.”

With an academic, government, and political leaders benefiting from their involvement in the financial markets, and positions as KOL’s, how can we expect corporate executives to behave any better?

Additionally we have reached a point of almost cult like belief in leadership’s ability to divine the future, leaving common sense for those of us though of as less astute.

Leadership’s responsibility is to those they lead, not to self. We have reached a point where leaders feel they are the reason for an organizations existence, and as such, financial rewards are theirs for the taking, along with the power and authority their positions reflect.

Steve Lucas

Anonymous said...

Great post! I have always wondered about Medpac, since they have a huge impact on our health care situation today. I suspect that there are some conflicts of interest there, as well.

Must be anonymous said...

I think the vast majority of us citizens absolutely DO NOT have a "cult like belief in leadership’s ability to divine the future."

The leaders become leaders by being hired by other leaders. Megalomania breeds more of the same. The PR machines that spout the praises of the "dear leaders" are as hollow as what comes from North Korea.

Yet, just like Kim and his progeny remain in charge, so do our dear leaders here.

Its the iron fist inside the velvet glove. Complain, blow the whistle, do something good even though it contradicts the party line, and BAM, you are laid low.