Greenspan Joins the Too-Big-to-Fail Fight

Alan Greenspan has had his legacy forever tarnished by the financial crisis, the conditions for which it’s almost unanimously agreed were created or at least ignored by him.

We once knew Greenspan as the Randian free-market fundamentalist he was for nearly two decades as chairman of the Federal Reserve. Then, in the midst of the wreckage, he famously told Congress a year ago that he was “shocked” and “very distressed” that “I have found a flaw” in such a philosophy:

I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.

No word yet on whether he’s retired his copy of Atlas Shrugged.

But Bloomberg reports that Greenspan is putting on his T.R. Rough Rider uniform and calling for radical government intervention to bust up the trusts, er, giant banks. Can it be? The Maestro sounding like The Audit and a million others like-minded voices?

“If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big,” Greenspan said today.

Nice to hear common sense and not oracle-ese.

And he’s been rereading the history books:

“In 1911 we broke up Standard Oil — so what happened? The individual parts became more valuable than the whole. Maybe that’s what we need to do.”

Greenspan explains his position by pointing out that too-big-to-fail institutions gain an unfair, implicit government subsidy because lenders think—rightly—the government will have to bail them out if EnormoBankCorp gets into trouble. That distorts the market and endangers the welfare of the entire country.

Of course, Greenspan blames somebody else for this:

At one point, no bank was considered too big to fail, Greenspan said. That changed after the Treasury Department under then-Secretary Hank Paulson effectively nationalized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the Treasury and Fed bailed out Bear Stearns Cos. and American International Group Inc.

Who really thinks Citi wasn’t too big to fail while Greenspan was in power?

But he does shoot down the current policies:

Fed officials have suggested imposing a tax or requiring higher capital ratios on larger banks to ensure the firms’ safety and reduce some of the competitive advantage from the implied subsidy. Greenspan said that won’t work.

“I don’t think merely raising the fees or capital on large institutions or taxing them is enough,” Greenspan said. “I think they’ll absorb that, they’ll work with that, and it’s totally inefficient and they’ll still be using the savings.”

Good for Bloomberg for understanding the news value of these comments. No one else did.

As far as I can tell, Reuters was the only other news outlet reporting on this speech, and it blew it, relegating the TBTF news to one line at the end of a 119-word piece.

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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.