Greenspan Stands His Ground

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2008

Perhaps the Maestro composed some discordant notes after all.

The record of longtime Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan -- worshipped by business leaders and dubbed "Maestro" in a 2000 biography by The Post's Bob Woodward -- is getting a critical look as his successor Ben S. Bernanke wrestles with problems that began on the Maestro's watch.

Many economists blame Greenspan for lax bank supervision and for keeping interest rates too low, too long from mid-2003 to mid-2004. That, the theory goes, fueled the housing bubble and spawned subprime and adjustable-rate mortgages for low-income people, vast numbers of whom can't make their payments now. Banks bought those mortgages in bundles that are worth far less than they originally were. That has led to big write-offs, shaking the entire financial system.

In an interview yesterday, Greenspan said the Fed wasn't to blame. He said that global forces beyond the control of the Federal Reserve had kept long-term interest rates low, fueling the housing bubble earlier this decade. "Those who argue that you can incrementally increase interest rates to defuse bubbles ought to try it some time," he said. "I don't know of a single example of when interest rate policy has been successful in suppressing gains in asset prices."

Regarding the current turmoil, Greenspan said that a market crisis was inevitable. "If it weren't the subprime crisis it would have been something else," he said. That is because an era was ending that had seen "disinflationary forces" from developing countries such as China and a "protracted period" in which there was an "underpricing of risk."

Not all economists are ready to let the former Fed chairman off so easily.

Lee Hoskins, former president of the Cleveland Fed and Fed chairman from 1987 to 1991, says that to find "partial causes" of the credit turmoil, "you have to go back to the Fed's decision to push the federal funds rate down to 1 percent and leave it there for over a year." Hoskins says the Fed "made money very cheap, and we began to see the whole leveraging process we see today. The Fed has to take responsibility for some of that excessive growth."

Greenspan says that the Fed was worried about "corrosive deflation" at the time and that he saw that as a greater threat to the U.S. economy than a housing bubble. "There was a real serious concern about deflation," he said yesterday. "If you look at the notes of the Open Market Committee, the pressures were to go lower than 1 percent. There were no dissents." Bernanke, a member of the Fed board at the time, was also concerned about deflation.

Greenspan also argues that while the Fed has a lot of power over short-term rates, it has less influence over long-term rates, which he asserted were more important to housing prices. Even after the Fed starting raising short-term rates, long-term rates did not rise. He said that at the time "it became apparent that we lost control" of long-term interest rates "as did the Bank of England and all the central banks. As a consequence, we had very little ability to put a brake on the rise in home prices."

But other economists say that the very low short-term rates made adjustable-rate subprime mortgages, those with the worst default rates, more attractive than they otherwise would have been. Hoskins also argues that low short-term rates fed excesses at investment banks, which relied heavily on overnight financing while lending long term. "I don't know what Bear Stearns was banking on. I guess that nothing bad would happen -- ever," Hoskins says.

Others reviewing the Greenspan era at the Fed say there is a difference between the way Greenspan reacted during sharp sell-offs of stocks and the way he reacted to the technology and housing bubbles.

Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard economics professor and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, says that "the important point . . . is the philosophy of monetary policy that says 'you don't pay attention to asset prices when they are rising, only when they are falling.' " In reality, Rogoff adds, "if you cut interest rates when asset prices are in free fall, then when asset prices are rising while indebtedness is rising all over country, you need to raise rates. He actively chose not to do that."

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