Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Financial Conscience

Reader J. Christian dropped me an email pointing me towards a piece to today's WSJ about the importance of good and honest financial information -- as underlined by our current crisis. From it comes this description of John Moody, the originator of Moody's Investor Services:
When Moody published a statistical manual in 1900, followed by a system of rating securities with categories Aaa, Baa etc, and a series of investor-advice books, he provided reams of information to everyone, for just the price of a few books. These beginnings led to the development of Moody's Investor Services and other rating agencies. The securities rating system has now spread from the United States to the whole world, and helped make possible the capitalist explosion of growth and prosperity.

Moody left behind an autobiography, "The Long Road Home," 1933, and so we can glean some of his motivations.

Though Moody was a democratizer, he was not acting out of populist philanthropic motives when he launched Moody's. As he makes very clear in his autobiography, he did it to make money. But there were other things he cared about besides making money. People asked him around 1900, why give away all this information so cheaply? They told him he might expect to make a lot more money as an underwriter, middleman or bond salesman. But he recognized that was not his personality, and that "there was that 'literary' or writing bent of mine. To bring out a book -- even a mere compilation -- fired my imagination far more than could any dreams of becoming a successful banker."

He called it a "writing bent" but as is plain from his autobiography, it might be considered an impulse to speak perspicaciously and openly to the people. A "writing bent," connotes an impulse to consider the interests of a broad reading public, and publishing tables of statistics and ratings, as well as the various investing advice books Moody wrote for retail investors, is just that.

Moody was not selfless but he cared about people, and he cared about ethics. His autobiography was filled with admonitions about speculative bubbles that draw in unsuspecting investors (as he himself had personally experienced). He wanted to provide the careful information that would prevent financial misfortune for the average family. He was obsessed with ethical behavior and musings about his traditional Roman Catholic religion. He wrote about moral dilemmas, and his refusal to accept money under terms that would bias his ratings.
I know little else of Moody other than that, but what the article says I found charming, and a little inspiring. We could use more like him.

1 comment:

j. christian said...

As I was reading about Moody (before I knew he was a Catholic), I was thinking to myself that he sounded like a decent, ethical guy. So it was one of those "hooray" moments when I reached the line about his faith.