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Greenspan to Wall Street: Drop dead

Alan Greenspan testifying on Capital Hill in 2010. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Alan Greenspan testifying on Capital Hill in 2010. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Alan Greenspan, a former Federal Reserve chairman, believes the U.S. government made a big mistake with its “too big to fail” policy after the 2008 financial crisis, saying he favored letting drowning banks sink into Chapter 11.

“I would like to see all institutions go through Chapter 11 if they get into trouble,” Greenspan said Tuesday during a lunchtime Q&A session at the Securities Industry and Financial Market Association’s (SIFMA) annual meeting in New York. “We don’t allow that to happen anymore. If you try to prevent it, you run into all kinds of serious troubles.”

Looking at what he termed “the greed of Wall Street,” Greenspan was certainly more outspoken in sharing his thoughts about the U.S. markets than he ever was during his 1987-2006 tenure as Fed chairman.

Turning from the 2008 failure of the banking system to the current attempts to fix it with Dodd-Frank reform, Greenspan said he has “no doubts” that the reform act will be a disappointment.

“Dodd-Frank is essentially there to restrain competition,” he said, adding that it would be “physically impossible” to enact all of the provisions of the 2,300-page law.

What the U.S. economy needs now, Greenspan said, is the ability to move society’s savings into profitable investment in cutting-edge technologies. But the problem is that when banks are too big to fail, they tend to misuse those savings, he said.

“If large bank X is overextended and supported by the monetary system of a central bank, that institution does not worry about the golden rule because at the end of the day it will be bailed out. As a result, there is abnormally low capital in the banking system,” Greenspan said.

To be sure, the problem has become a global one, because too big to fail is happening in enough countries to show that it is not indigenous to the United States, Greenspan said. “If you’re a banker and there’s no lender of last resort, your capital drains out and you become inefficient.”

Also during the Q&A, the former Fed chairman signaled that he is keeping up with the latest economic trends while writing his upcoming book. (A portion of Greenspan’s yet-to-be published book was presented to the Brookings Institution in 2010.)

Declaring himself a fan of behavioral economics, Greenspan said the concept of irrationality interests him because human beings do not behave in the way neoclassical economics works.

“We’re beginning to see that you have to reconstruct the system by studying how people do things. Euphoria and fear are fundamental to human nature,” he said.

Greenspan then noted that the human beings who run the Federal Reserve, International Monetary Fund and JPMorgan Chase & Co. all missed the signs of impending disaster in 2008.

“A necessary condition for a financial crisis is that very few people expect it,” he observed.

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