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Greenspan Stands His Ground

Other economists fault Greenspan for his failure to closely regulate big banks. Alan Blinder, a Princeton University economics professor who was vice chairman of the Fed under Greenspan in the mid-1990s, says that the delay in raising rates in 2003-04 was a "minor blemish" on Greenspan's "stellar" record managing monetary policy. But Blinder says that he would give the former chairman "poor marks" for bank supervision, another key role of the Fed.

Blinder said that Greenspan "brushed off" warnings -- most notably from fellow Fed governor Ned Gramlich -- about mortgage abuses and dangers.

"Lending standards were being horribly relaxed, and the Fed should have done something about that, not to mention about deceptive and in some cases fraudulent practices," Blinder said. "This was a corner of the credit markets that was allowed to go crazy. It was populated by a lot of people with minimal financial literacy who were being sold bills of goods by mortgage salesmen."

Gramlich, who died last fall, proposed that the Fed send examiners into the consumer lending offices of Fed-regulated bank holding companies, which he said originated about 30 percent of subprime loans. In a speech last Aug. 31, Gramlich said "this whole subprime experience has demonstrated that taking rates down could have some real costs, in terms of encouraging excessive subprime borrowing." Moreover, he added, there was "a giant hole in the supervisory safety net. . . . It is like a city with a murder law but no cops on the beat."

Greenspan said that most of the subprime mortgages were originated by firms regulated by other agencies, but he adds, "In retrospect it was clearly a mistake" not to examine bank lending more closely. He said it was "very late in the game [that] we realized the size of the problem." He said that Gramlich had written him a note shortly before he died saying that if he had been more convinced, he would have pressed harder for action after Greenspan expressed doubts.

Greenspan has also been widely criticized for comments he made on Feb. 23, 2004, in which he encouraged homeowners to take out adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARMs. In a speech to the Credit Union National Association, Greenspan said that a Fed study showed that many homeowners would have saved tens of thousands of dollars over the previous decade if they had taken ARMs.

In fact, if homeowners had converted from ARMs to 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at that time, they might have avoided the repayment problems some people are now experiencing.

Greenspan said yesterday that he tried to correct those comments on March 2, 2004, less than a month later, in a New York speech praising 30-year fixed mortgages. "If I am guilty of encouraging people to take out adjustable-rate mortgages, I am guilty for 30 days," he said.

In his memoir, "The Age of Turbulence," published last year, Greenspan made scant mention of the time bombs that were planted when he was still chairman.

"I was aware that the loosening of mortgage credit terms for subprime borrowers increased financial risk, and that subsidized home ownership initiatives distort market outcomes," Greenspan wrote.

But the former Fed chairman said that the subprime boom would boost home ownership and was "worth the risk." Greenspan said that "protection of property rights, so critical to a market economy, requires a critical mass of owners to sustain political support."

Although home ownership rose from about 64 percent to 69 percent from the early 1990s through the middle of this decade, many analysts say that they doubt that had much effect on U.S. popular support for a market economy.

Regarding the mounting levels of debt, encouraged in part by the low cost of borrowing, Greenspan said that he was "reluctant to underestimate the ability of most households and companies to manage their financial affairs."

Greenspan compared bankers immediately after the Civil War, who he said sought to back two-fifths of their assets with equity, to today's bankers, who "are comfortable with a tenth." Yet, he said, bankruptcy is less prevalent today than it was 140 years ago.

"Rising leverage appears to be the result of massive improvements in technology and infrastructure, not significantly more risk-inclined humans," he wrote. Quoting two 1956 articles in Fortune magazine, alarmed by rising consumer short-term debt and mortgages, Greenspan noted that the magazine's grim forecasts did not come true. Economists worried that the ratio of household debt to household income was so high that it threatened families with delinquency and default, but, Greenspan said, assets and household net worth were rising faster than they knew.

"I do not recall a decade free of surges in angst about the mounting debt of households and businesses," he wrote. "Such fears ignore a fundamental fact of modern life: in a market economy, rising debt goes hand in hand with progress."

Blinder says: "It was not that Americans have too much credit card debt, which they do, or . . . that corporations are overleveraged, which they're probably not. It's not even that the typical American householder has a mortgage that's too big. But in that corner of the [mortgage] market, which turned out to be not such a small corner, a lot of bad practices were going on."

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