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Still Wrong After All These Years

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June 21, 2010

I’m quite surprised by the fact that people continue to pay serious attention to the musings of Alan Greenspan.  On June 18, The Wall Street Journal saw fit to publish an opinion piece by the man referred to as “The Maestro” (although – these days – that expression is commonly used in sarcasm).  The former Fed chairman expounded that recent attempts to rein in the federal budget are coming “none too soon”.  Near the end of the article, Greenspan made the statement that will earn him a nomination for TheCenterLane.com’s Jackass of the Year Award:

I believe the fears of budget contraction inducing a renewed decline of economic activity are misplaced.

John Mauldin recently provided us with a thorough explanation of why Greenspan’s statement is wrong:

There are loud calls in the US and elsewhere for more fiscal constraints.  I am part of that call.  Fiscal deficits of 10% of GDP is a prescription for disaster.  As we have discussed in previous letters, the book by Rogoff and Reinhart (This Time is Different) clearly shows that at some point, bond investors start to ask for higher rates and then the interest rate becomes a spiral.  Think of Greece.  So, not dealing with the deficit is simply creating a future crisis even worse than the one we just had.

But cutting the deficit too fast could also throw the country back in a recession.  There has to be a balance.

*   *   *

That deficit reduction will also reduce GDP.  That means you collect less taxes which makes the deficits worse which means you have to make more cuts than planned which means lower tax receipts which means etc.  Ireland is working hard to reduce its deficits but their GDP has dropped by almost 20%! Latvia and Estonia have seen their nominal GDP drop by almost 30%!  That can only be characterized as a depression for them.

Robert Reich’s refutation of Greenspan’s article was right on target:

Contrary to Greenspan, today’s debt is not being driven by new spending initiatives.  It’s being driven by policies that Greenspan himself bears major responsibility for.

Greenspan supported George W. Bush’s gigantic tax cut in 2001 (that went mostly to the rich), and uttered no warnings about W’s subsequent spending frenzy on the military and a Medicare drug benefit (corporate welfare for Big Pharma) — all of which contributed massively to today’s debt.  Greenspan also lowered short-term interest rates to zero in 2002 but refused to monitor what Wall Street was doing with all this free money.  Years before that, he urged Congress to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act and he opposed oversight of derivative trading.  All this contributed to Wall Street’s implosion in 2008 that led to massive bailout, and a huge contraction of the economy that required the stimulus package.  These account for most of the rest of today’s debt.

If there’s a single American more responsible for today’s “federal debt explosion” than Alan Greenspan, I don’t know him.

But we can manage the Greenspan Debt if we get the U.S. economy growing again.  The only way to do that when consumers can’t and won’t spend and when corporations won’t invest is for the federal government to pick up the slack.

This brings us back to my initial question of why anyone would still take Alan Greenspan seriously.  As far back as April of 2008 – five months before the financial crisis hit the “meltdown” stage — Bernd Debusmann had this to say about The Maestro for Reuters, in a piece entitled, “Alan Greenspan, dented American idol”:

Instead of the fawning praise heaped on Greenspan when the economy was booming, there are now websites portraying him in dark colors.  One site is called The Mess That Greenspan Made, another Greenspan’s Body Count.  Greenspan’s memoirs, The Age of Turbulence, prompted hedge fund manager William Fleckenstein to write a book entitled Greenspan’s Bubbles, the Age of Ignorance at the Federal Reserve.  It’s in its fourth printing.

The day after Greenspan’s essay appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Howard Gold provided us with this recap of Greenspan’s Fed chairmanship in an article for MarketWatch:

The Fed chairman’s hands-off stance helped the housing bubble morph into a full-blown financial crisis when hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and other unregulated derivatives — backed by subprime mortgages and other dubious instruments — went up in smoke.

Highly leveraged banks that bet on those vehicles soon were insolvent, too, and the Fed, the U.S. Treasury and, of course, taxpayers had to foot the bill.  We’re still paying.

But this was not just a case of unregulated markets run amok.  Government policies clearly made things much worse — and here, too, Greenspan was the culprit.

The Fed’s manipulation of interest rates in the middle of the last decade laid the groundwork for the most fevered stage of the housing bubble.  To this day, Greenspan, using heavy-duty statistical analysis, disputes the role his super-low federal funds rate played in encouraging risky behavior in housing and capital markets.

Among the harsh critiques of Greenspan’s career at the Fed, was Frederick Sheehan’s book, Panderer to Power.  Ryan McMaken’s review of the book recently appeared at the LewRockwell.com website – with the title, “The Real Legacy of Alan Greenspan”.   Here is some of what McMacken had to say:

.  .  .  Panderer to Power is the story of an economist whose primary skill was self-promotion, and who in the end became increasingly divorced from economic reality.  Even as early as April 2008 (before the bust was obvious to all), the L.A. Times, observing Greenspan’s post-retirement speaking tour, noted that “the unseemly, globe-trotting, money-grabbing, legacy-spinning, responsibility-denying tour of Alan Greenspan continues, as relentless as a bad toothache.”

*   *   *

Although Greenspan had always had a terrible record on perceiving trends in the economy, Sheehan’s story shows a Greenspan who becomes increasingly out to lunch with each passing year as he spun more and more outlandish theories about hidden profits and productivity in the economy that no one else could see.  He spoke incessantly on topics like oil and technology while the bubbles grew larger and larger.  And finally, in the end, he retired to the lecture circuit where he was forced to defend his tarnished record.

The ugly truth is that America has been in a bear market economy since 2000 (when “The Maestro” was still Fed chair).  In stark contrast to what you’ve been hearing from the people on TV, the folks at Comstock Partners put together a list of ten compelling reasons why “the stock market is in a secular (long-term) downtrend that began in early 2000 and still has some time to go.”  This essay is a “must read”.  Further undermining Greenspan’s recent opinion piece was the conclusion reached in the Comstock article:

The data cited here cover the major indicators of economic activity, and they paint a picture of an economy that has moved up, but only from extremely depressed numbers to a point where they are less depressed.  And keep in mind that this is the result of the most massive monetary and fiscal stimulus ever applied to a major economy.  In our view the ability of the economy to undergo a sustained recovery without continued massive help is still questionable.

As always, Alan Greenspan is still wrong.  Unfortunately, there are still too many people taking him seriously.




Obama Unveils His Most Ambitious Plan

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June 18, 2009

On Wednesday, June 18, President Obama released his anxiously-awaited, 88-page proposal to reform the financial regulatory system.  An angry public, having seen its jobs and savings disappear as home values took a nosedive, has been ready to set upon the culprits responsible for the economic meltdown.  Nevertheless, the lynch mobs don’t seem too anxious to string up former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan.  Perhaps because he is so old, they might likely prefer to see him die a slow, painful death from some naturally-occurring degenerative disease.  Meanwhile, a website, Greenspan’s Body Count, has been keeping track of the number of suicides resulting from the recent financial collapse.  (The current total is 96.)  As usual, President Obama has been encouraging us all to “look forward”.  (Sound familiar?  . . . as in:   “Forget about war crimes prosecutions because some Democrats might also find themselves wearing orange jumpsuits.”)

In reacting to Obama’s new financial reform initiative, some critics have observed that the failure to oust those officials responsible for our current predicament, could set us up for a repeat experience.  For example, The Hill quoted the assessment of Dean Baker, Co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research:

However, the big downside to this reform proposal is the implication that the problem was the regulations and not the regulators.  The reality is that the Fed had all the power it needed to rein in the housing bubble, which is the cause of the current crisis.  However, they chose to ignore its growth, either not recognizing or not caring that its collapse would devastate the economy. If regulators are not held accountable for such a monumental failure (e.g., by getting fired), then they have no incentive to ever stand up to the financial industry.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Smart Money magazine provided some similarly-skeptical criticisms of this plan:

Influential bank analyst Richard Bove of Rochedale Securities believes the Obama rules will only add costs to the system and will not lead to more effective oversight.  After all, a regulatory framework is already in place, Bove says, but the political will to enforce it has been absent — and that’s just the way Washington wants it.  Indeed, the only truly aggressive SEC director since the Kennedy administration was Harvey Pitt, Bove says. “[And] when he got religion about regulation, he got removed.”

Dr. Walter Gerasimowicz of New York-based Meditron Asset Management is dubious about a number of proposals, especially that of expanding the Fed’s role.  “What I find to be very disconcerting is the fact that our Federal Reserve is going to have extensive power over much of the industry,” Gerasimowicz says.  “Why would we give the Fed such powers, especially when they’ve failed over the past 10 years to monitor, to warn, or to bring these types of speculative bubbles under control?”

Our government was kind enough to provide us with an Executive Summary of the financial reform proposal.  Here is how that summary explains the “five key objectives” of the plan, along with the general recommendations for achieving those objectives:

(1)  Promote robust supervision and regulation of financial firms.  Financial institutions that are critical to market functioning should be subject to strong oversight.  No financial firm that poses a significant risk to the financial system should be unregulated or weakly regulated.  We need clear accountability in financial oversight and supervision.  We propose:

  • A new Financial Services Oversight Council of financial regulators to identify emerging systemic risks and improve interagency cooperation.
  • New authority for the Federal Reserve to supervise all firms that could pose a threat to financial stability, even those that do not own banks.
  • Stronger capital and other prudential standards for all financial firms, and even higher standards for large, interconnected firms.
  • A new National Bank Supervisor to supervise all federally chartered banks.
  • Elimination of the federal thrift charter and other loopholes that allowed some depository institutions to avoid bank holding company regulation by the Federal Reserve.
  • The registration of advisers of hedge funds and other private pools of capital with the SEC.

(2)  Establish comprehensive supervision of financial markets. Our major financial markets must be strong enough to withstand both system-wide stress and the failure of one or more large institutions. We propose:

  • Enhanced regulation of securitization markets, including new requirements for market transparency, stronger regulation of credit rating agencies, and a requirement that issuers and originators retain a financial interest in securitized loans.
  • Comprehensive regulation of all over-the-counter derivatives.
  • New authority for the Federal Reserve to oversee payment, clearing, and settlement systems.

(3)  Protect consumers and investors from financial abuse.  To rebuild trust in our markets, we need strong and consistent regulation and supervision of consumer financial services and investment markets.  We should base this oversight not on speculation or abstract models, but on actual data about how people make financial decisions.  We must promote transparency, simplicity, fairness, accountability, and access. We propose:

  • A new Consumer Financial Protection Agency to protect consumers across the financial sector from unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices.
  • Stronger regulations to improve the transparency, fairness, and appropriateness of consumer and investor products and services.
  • A level playing field and higher standards for providers of consumer financial products and services, whether or not they are part of a bank.

(4)  Provide the government with the tools it needs to manage financial crises.  We need to be sure that the government has the tools it needs to manage crises, if and when they arise, so that we are not left with untenable choices between bailouts and financial collapse.  We propose:

  • A new regime to resolve nonbank financial institutions whose failure could have serious systemic effects.
  • Revisions to the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending authority to improve accountability.

(5)  Raise international regulatory standards and improve international cooperation.  The challenges we face are not just American challenges, they are global challenges.  So, as we work to set high regulatory standards here in the United States, we must ask the world to do the same.  We propose:

  • International reforms to support our efforts at home, including strengthening the capital framework; improving oversight of global financial markets; coordinating supervision of internationally active firms; and enhancing crisis management tools.

In addition to substantive reforms of the authorities and practices of regulation and supervision, the proposals contained in this report entail a significant restructuring of our regulatory system.  We propose the creation of a Financial Services Oversight Council, chaired by Treasury and including the heads of the principal federal financial regulators as members.  We also propose the creation of two new agencies. We propose the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which will be an independent entity dedicated to consumer protection in credit, savings, and payments markets. We also propose the creation of the National Bank Supervisor, which will be a single agency with separate status in Treasury with responsibility for federally chartered depository institutions.  To promote national coordination in the insurance sector, we propose the creation of an Office of National Insurance within Treasury.

So there you have it.  Most commentators expect that the real fighting over this plan won’t begin until this fall, with healthcare reform taking center stage until that time.  Regardless of whatever form this financial reform initiative takes by the time it is enacted, it will ultimately be seen by history as Barack Obama’s brainchild.  If this plan turns out to be a disaster, it could overshadow whatever foreign policy accomplishments may lie ahead for this administration.