Former Bear Stearns Chief 'Ace' Greenberg Talks Bailouts, Banks and Books

Alan C. Greenberg has seen plenty of economic crises during the more than 60 years he's worked on Wall Street. As the former chief executive of Bear Stearns, he had an all-too close view of the most recent financial meltdown.

Recently at the 92nd Street Y in New York, Greenberg, who is now vice chairman emeritus of JPMorgan Chase (JPM) which took over Bear Stearns, had a chance to share his thoughts on the federal government's bailout of Wall Street, banking reform and the controversial book about his old firm entitled House of Cards.

Why the Government Was Right -- Sort Of

Looking back, Greenberg believes that the federal government's controversial move to bail out the nation's largest financial institutions two years ago was "good for the government and good for the American taxpayer."

"How many programs has the government got involved in where the government got their money back quickly, at a return of 30 or 40%? What other program have they ever done, what peanuts, ethanol have they ever bought and sold at a profit?" Greenberg asked during his talk with Norman Pearlstine, the chairman of Bloomberg Businessweek, at the 92nd Street Y.

However, the veteran banker didn't agree with every move the government made. He believes President Obama was wrong to say he wanted the banks to pay because they were bailed out. "Does he want the banks to pay for the problems we have with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? That's not the banks' problem, they didn't cause that. Does he want the banks to pay for the problem we have with Chrysler and General Motors, where the Bush administration blew $14 billion for no reason... The politicians kind of have a field day with this. What he did was right, it saved the country, they got their money back, plus some good return, and it was very fair."

Reform Regulation Won't Stop Wall Street

Greenberg also predicted that the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which would overhaul the U.S. banking industry, will not significantly hamper Wall Street.

"Regulation has never hurt our business. I'm sure there were people who were against the SEC, but it didn't hurt the business Stocks go up and stocks go down. One of the problems now is that everything gets so much publicity and the media makes such a big thing [out of it]."

Even with regulation in place, Greenberg said he didn't think future economic meltdowns could be prevented. "These things always keep recurring in a different form, and they always sucker in the people, whether it's the high-tech stocks or whether it's the mortgages, I'm not sure you could ever stop that," he said.

The biggest culprit in most meltdowns, he said, is when institutions or individual consumers become overleveraged. "If you cut down on leverage, of course, your chances are very good of surviving. The banks in Canada during this whole period have done terrifically, no problems, no nothing. The banks in Israel, no problem. When I was over there, I asked how come they have no problem. They said if you buy a house in Israel you put down 35%. That stops a lot of people from buying houses that can't afford them."

Bullish on the U.S.
and Natural Gas

Nevertheless, Greenberg was bullish about the U.S. economy, telling Pearlstine he was confident that the economy is on the mend. "I personally love to invest in the United States. I've never invested outside, I don't think I ever will. The opportunity is here. These other places the markets go up, the markets go down, most of the markets are much smaller than our markets...It's far away, and the transparency, the governments are a little bit different than ours, they can take whatever they want to, if they want to," he said.

The veteran investor is also steering clear of the popular safe havens of gold and cash. since neither pay a dividend. "I'm going to buy gold when it starts declaring a dividend."

As for the alternative energy business, Greenberg said he is skeptical. He ruled out solar and wind power as viable substitutes for foreign oil in the U.S. since they are too expensive. Instead he believes natural gas is the answer. "We have enough natural gas to last us 200 years, we just haven't figured out yet how to use it."

His Side of the Story

Greenberg spoke at the 92nd St. Y to promote his new book, The Rise and Fall of Bear Stearns, his response to the slew of other books that chronicled the bank's meltdown, namely William D. Cohan's House of Cards, which was published in 2009.

Referring to James Cayne, Bear Stearns' chief executive at the time of its collapse and his successor in that post, Greenberg said "the people" Cohan "got the facts from were not telling the truth."

"I felt I wanted to get my side of the story in print. I have children, I have grandchildren. I just thought I wanted the facts be known. I can tell you there isn't anybody that works at Bear Stearns that's read (my) book that hasn't said to me, 'That's the way it was.'"

Greenberg, who did not cooperate with Cohan on House of Cards, said, "Maybe I should have talked to Bill Cohan... There were three books written at that time, maybe four, I would have had to talk to all four authors, I didn't feel like doing that. I didn't know that the information they were going to get was going to be so inaccurate and so biased that it was just sickening."