You are hereAlan Greenspan still hasn't got a clue

Alan Greenspan still hasn't got a clue


By www - Posted on 11 March 2009

On the same day that his successor signaled dramatic policy changes that would see the Federal Reserve "take away the punchbowl" before inflating yet another asset bubble, radically altering the way financial market regulators operate in the process, former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan was readying yet another in a long series of op-ed pieces in his own self-defense.

He didn't cause the housing bubble, or so he says.

After yesterday's commentary by David Leonhardt at the New York Times about how the central bank had been played like a fiddle by big financial firms who took on "excessive risk" knowing that the government would be there to bail them out, you'd have thought that maybe there would be some reluctance to go forward with the editorial.

Apparently not.

Still seemingly unfamiliar with the concept of "moral hazard" where, in the words of Mr. Leonhardt, big firms can "act as if their future losses are indeed somebody else’s problem", and having only confessed to being "shocked" last year after finding a flaw in his ideological framework about how "self-interest" works in the real world, the opinion piece made it into the Wall Street Journal this morning.

Alan Greenspan still hasn't got a clue.

After a long period of relative silence since the wheels fell off the global economy last fall and as his critics grew in number, his name often cited in public opinion polls as "the one individual" most responsible for the current mess (this term, admittedly, now failing to adequately describe the extent of the problems the world now faces), his defense has become defiant, if not desperate, the most recent example being provided today:
The Fed Didn't Cause the Housing Bubble
Any new regulations should help direct savings toward productive investments.
By ALAN GREENSPAN

We are in the midst of a global crisis that will unquestionably rank as the most virulent since the 1930s. It will eventually subside and pass into history. But how the interacting and reinforcing causes and effects of this severe contraction are interpreted will shape the reconfiguration of our currently disabled global financial system.
There are at least two broad and competing explanations of the origins of this crisis. The first is that the "easy money" policies of the Federal Reserve produced the U.S. housing bubble that is at the core of today's financial mess.

The second, and far more credible, explanation agrees that it was indeed lower interest rates that spawned the speculative euphoria. However, the interest rate that mattered was not the federal-funds rate, but the rate on long-term, fixed-rate mortgages.Yes, this is the now-familiar, "I was powerless to do anything about long-term rates" retort that really had little to do with the housing bubble during its bubbliest years.

With prices having risen to nosebleed levels during the middle of the decade, who could afford to buy a house with a 30-year fixed loan?

[Note: For those of you keeping track at home, the above does qualify as a "Greenspan mess" sighting satisfying the "within two paragraphs" criteria which, in a little known footnote to the rules, includes the article byline.]

And here comes the "savings glut" rationale for why long-term rates were such a conundrum (yet not really a factor when the worst of the housing bubble damage was being done), followed by the now-familiar, "our housing bubble was just average" angle:
That ex ante excess of savings propelled global long-term interest rates progressively lower between early 2000 and 2005.

That decline in long-term interest rates across a wide spectrum of countries statistically explains, and is the most likely major cause of, real-estate capitalization rates that declined and converged across the globe, resulting in the global housing price bubble. (The U.S. price bubble was at, or below, the median according to the International Monetary Fund.)What follows is a rebuke of Stanford University Professor John Taylor' revisionist history (apparently, it takes one to know one) in which short-term interest rates were cited as the proximal cause for the current meltdown.

And after that, it's always handy to cite glowing criticism from someone who died back in 2006, before it became widely known just how bad things would get.
Given the decoupling of monetary policy from long-term mortgage rates, accelerating the path of monetary tightening that the Fed pursued in 2004-2005 could not have "prevented" the housing bubble. All things considered, I personally prefer Milton Friedman's performance appraisal of the Federal Reserve. In evaluating the period of 1987 to 2005, he wrote on this page in early 2006: "There is no other period of comparable length in which the Federal Reserve System has performed so well. It is more than a difference of degree; it approaches a difference of kind."Thats just pathetic when you think about it...

Lastly, the question of regulation and the lack of sophistication. It is now very clear that the levels of complexity to which market practitioners at the height of their euphoria tried to push risk-management techniques and products were too much for even the most sophisticated market players to handle properly and prudently.

However, the appropriate policy response is not to bridle financial intermediation with heavy regulation. That would stifle important advances in finance that enhance standards of living.I just had to interject here before getting to the big finale - it should be noted that the book has not yet been written on these "enhanced standards of living".

It seems that standards of living in most of the world, particularly in the U.S., are one big moving target right now - "enhanced" is clearly not the right word here.

And, in conclusion...
If we are to retain a dynamic world economy capable of producing prosperity and future sustainable growth, we cannot rely on governments to intermediate saving and investment flows. Our challenge in the months ahead will be to install a regulatory regime that will ensure responsible risk management on the part of financial institutions, while encouraging them to continue taking the risks necessary and inherent in any successful market economy.
I'm underwhelmed.