Audit Roundup: Times Have Changed for Greenspan

NYT on his derivatives legacy; more U.S. bailouts; etc.

The Times absolutely unloads on Alan Greenspan (whom the business press lionized for decades) in a huge page-one piece, blaming him for a blind faith in non-regulation of markets—particularly involving derivatives— that helped created the financial crisis.

And his views held the greatest sway in debates about the regulation and use of derivatives — exotic contracts that promised to protect investors from losses, thereby stimulating riskier practices that led to the financial crisis. For more than a decade, Alan Greenspan has fiercely objected whenever derivatives have come under scrutiny in Congress or on Wall Street.

“What we have found over the years in the marketplace is that derivatives have been an extraordinarily useful vehicle to transfer risk from those who shouldn’t be taking it to those who are willing to and are capable of doing so,” Mr. Greenspan told the Senate Banking Committee in 2003. “We think it would be a mistake” to more deeply regulate the contracts, he added.

The NYT doesn’t forget that the Clinton Administration was responsible for this, too. Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who was instrumental in implementing the deregulatory philosophy in the 1990s, looks very bad here:

Mr. Rubin, now a senior executive at the banking giant Citigroup, says that he favored regulating derivatives — particularly increasing potential loss reserves — but that he saw no way of doing so while he was running the Treasury.

“All of the forces in the system were arrayed against it,” he said. “The industry certainly didn’t want any increase in these requirements. There was no potential for mobilizing public opinion.”

This story is part of the paper’s “The Reckoning” series, which has been excellent so far. This one is a must read, top to bottom.

Here Sir Alan sums up his philosophy for Congress:

“There is nothing involved in federal regulation per se which makes it superior to market regulation.”

The consequences of the Greenspan Era—and don’t forget his easy-money policy, which played the biggest role—just in today’s papers include the Fed having to give the effectively nationalized AIG $38 billion to stay afloat (that’s on top of the $85 billion it gave it a few weeks ago), and considering taking big stakes in the nation’s biggest banks to keep them afloat. Surely he would have preferred a little regulation to having government all over the means of production.

The Journal looks at California’s deepening recession to show what the rest of the country faces. Let’s hope it doesn’t result in all fifty states running to the federal government for emergency multi-billion dollar loans.

But even before the most recent blows to the national economy, Californians were feeling the downward drag of a consumer-led recession — in which shrinking home values caused people to rein in their spending, fueling unemployment and, in turn, sparking further spending cuts and joblessness.

Economist Nouriel Roubini, in Forbes, gives four actions governments need to take to prevent a depression, including guaranteeing all bank deposits, injecting capital into banks, and passing a massive economic stimulus package.

At this point, the U.S., the advanced economies (and now most likely even some emerging market economies) will experience an ugly recession and an ugly financial and banking crisis—regardless of what we do from now on. We are already now in a global recession that is getting worse by the day. What radical policy action can only do is to prevent what will now be an ugly and nasty two-year recession and financial crisis from turning into a decade-long economic depression.

Michael A. Hiltzik of the LA Times goes out on a limb to ask whether the stock market is ready to rebound. That’s a limb I wouldn’t want to test right now.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.