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Chasing the Greased Pig Down Wall Street: A Gatekeeper’s Guide to the Psychology, Culture and Ethics of Financial Risk-Taking


Donald C. Langevoort


Georgetown University Law Center

July 12, 2010

Cornell Law Review, Vol. 96, pp. 1209-1246, 2011
Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 10-40
Georgetown Law and Economics Research Paper No. 10-11

Abstract:     
The current financial crisis has once again focused attention on lawyers, corporate directors and auditors as gatekeepers, who are expected to introduce some degree of cognitive independence to the task of risk assessment and risk management in public companies, including financial services firms. This essay examines the psychological and cultural forces that may distort risk perception and risk motivation in hyper-competitive firms, beyond the standard economic incentives associated with agency costs and moral hazards, warning gatekeepers against too easily assuming that all is well when insiders display high levels of intensity, focus and devotion to hard-to-achieve goals. In fact, these may be the source of perceptual problems. It includes a section entitled “Three Variations on a Theme by Chuck Prince,” based on his famous reference to Citigroup having to dance because the music was still playing. Building on this metaphor, we look at the emotional and physiological impulses to dance into a frenzy, the pressure to win the dance competition, and dancing as performance for a fickle audience. The essay concludes by connecting culture to moral rationalizations – Goldman Sachs doing “God’s work”– and the exercise of individual power in organizations, and urges caution about the psychological and cultural forces that affect gatekeepers, too.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 34

Keywords: securities fraud, financial crisis, ethics

JEL Classification: D81, E44, E62, K20, K22

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Date posted: July 12, 2010 ; Last revised: January 12, 2012

Suggested Citation

Langevoort, Donald C., Chasing the Greased Pig Down Wall Street: A Gatekeeper’s Guide to the Psychology, Culture and Ethics of Financial Risk-Taking (July 12, 2010). Cornell Law Review, Vol. 96, pp. 1209-1246, 2011; Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 10-40; Georgetown Law and Economics Research Paper No. 10-11. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1639138

Contact Information

Donald C. Langevoort (Contact Author)
Georgetown University Law Center ( email )
600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9832 (Phone)
202-662-9412 (Fax)
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