Bob Woodward’s Maestro, a history of Alan Greenspan’s regime at the Fed through the turbulent 90’s, was written 10 full years ago, yet reading it today, it is startlingly familiar territory. All the issues, arguments, and solutions which we think are new to the financial market since the collapse were actually rehearsed – over and over again – during various Financial crises while Greenspan was the Fed’s Chair. It’s all there – bailouts, “too big to fail”, threats to the vulnerable global economy, taxpayer rescues – everything except any mention of derivatives.
From the morning in August 1987 when Greenspan chaired his first FOMC meeting (the Fed board’s actual name is, significantly, the Federal Open Market Committee) he seemed to be dealing with one crisis after another. When he took over the economy was in the dumper brought about by the first Bush; when he was finally replaced by Ben Bernanke 3 years ago, he left having watched over the second Bush while he flushed the vibrant Clinton economy down the toilet, an economy that Greenspan – according to himself as reported by Woodward, at least – did a great deal to help create. And in each of those instances – from the savings & loan crisis to the currency crises of Mexico, Asia, and Russia to the LTCM crisis – there was a single cause: exceedingly dangerous financial speculation, not by fly-by-night hucksters and shady traders but by the biggest financial instutions in the world.
Well, the system had to implode – again – but all of a sudden even the bankers are paying attention. They get it.
It was an old-fashioned bank run that forced Bear Stearns to turn to the government for salvation on Friday. The difference is that Bear Stearns is not a commercial bank, and is therefore not eligible for the protections those banks received 75 years ago when Franklin D. Roosevelt halted bank runs with government guarantees.
Bear was, instead, emblematic of a financial system that grew up over the last two decades, one that largely marginalized traditional banking and that enabled lenders to evade much of the regulatory framework that had also begun during the Roosevelt administration.
The new system enabled loans to be made by almost any financial institution with the money coming from the sale of increasingly complicated securities backed by the loans.
Regulators believed that the new system spread out the risk. Alan Greenspan, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said the system had transferred risk from banks — which he called “highly leveraged institutions” — to “stable American and international institutions.”
It turned out he was wrong. Much of the risk had remained with commercial banks, but packaged in such a way that they were required to put aside fewer reserves to protect against losses. Much of the rest of the risk ended up with financial institutions that relied on their ability to borrow at low rates whenever they needed it.
“A sizable fraction of long-term assets — assets with exposure to different forms of credit risk—ended up in vehicles financed with very short-term liabilities,” Timothy F. Geithner, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said last week in a speech. “As is often the case during periods of rapid change, more significant concentrations of risk were present than was apparent at the time.”
Speak for yourself, Forked-Tongue Tim. It was apparent to me when I was arguing against it in the 80’s. You didn’t see it because you didn’t want to see it. It was perfectly obvious to everyone else.
Greed makes you go blind, Tim. Didn’t your Ma ever tell you that? Or were you stealing change from her purse at the time and not listening?