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IN 2008, as the financial system was collapsing, Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve and champion of free markets, admitted he had been wrong. “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organisations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms,” he said. In other words: why would bankers destroy their own livelihoods?

Some clues to Mr Greenspan’s conundrum can be found in a new book* on Lehman Brothers, the American investment bank whose failure precipitated the worst of the crisis, and a recent report** on the collapse of HBOS, a British retail bank, that imploded soon after. Although the two banks had different histories, they made similar mistakes.

For a start, both strayed from their core expertise. HBOS was created through the combination of Halifax, a retail mortgage lender, and Bank of Scotland, one of Scotland’s two biggest banks. The merged entity wanted to gain market share in England and compete with the likes of HSBC and Barclays. The easiest way to increase business was to focus on smaller,...Continue reading

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