FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Why Greenspan Owes America an Apology

by DEAN BAKER

Alan Greenspan will go down in history as the person most responsible for the enormous economic damage caused by the housing bubble and the subsequent collapse of the market. The United States is still down almost 9m jobs from its trend path. We are losing close to $1tn a year in potential output, with cumulative losses to date approaching $5tn.

These numbers correspond to millions of dreams ruined. Families who struggled to save enough to buy a home lost it when house prices plunged or they lost their jobs. Many older workers lose their job with little hope of ever finding another one, even though they are ill-prepared for retirement; young people getting out of school are facing the worst job market since the Great Depression, while buried in student loan debt.

The horror story could have easily been prevented had there been intelligent life at the Federal Reserve Board in the years when the housing bubble was growing to ever more dangerous proportions (2002-2006). But the Fed did nothing to curb the bubble. Arguably, it even acted to foster its growth with Greenspan cheering the development of exotic mortgages and completely ignoring its regulatory responsibilities.

Most people who had this incredible infamy attached to their name would have the decency to find a large rock to hide behind; but not Alan Greenspan. He apparently believes that he has not punished us enough. Greenspan has a new book which he is now hawking on radio and television shows everywhere.

The book, which I have not read, is ostensibly Greenspan’s wisdom about the economy and economics. But he also tells us that his problem as Fed chair was that he just didn’t know about the flood of junk mortgages that was fueling the unprecedented rise in house prices during the bubble years. He has used this ignorance to explain his lack of action – or even concern – about the risks posed by the bubble.

Greenspan’s “I didn’t know” excuse is so absurd as to be painful. The explosion of exotic mortgages in the bubble years was hardly a secret. It was frequently talked about in the media and showed up in a wide variety of data sources, including those produced by the Fed. In fact, there were widespread jokes at the time about “liar loans” or “Ninja loans”. The latter being an acronym for the phrase, “no income, no job, no assets”.

The fact that banks were issuing fraudulent mortgages by the millions, and that the Wall Street crew was securitizing them as fast as they could get them, was not top secret information available only to those with special security clearance. This was the economy in the years 2002-2006.

It was impossible to look at the economy in these years and not see the role of the housing bubble and the tsunami of bad mortgages that fueled it. The run-up in house prices led to a near record pace of construction. Typically housing construction is around 4.5% of GDP. It peaked at 6.5% in 2005. Greenspan didn’t notice? Who did he think was going to live in all these units, the building of which had created record vacancy rates as early as 2003?

And he didn’t notice that the spike in house prices had led to a surge in consumption pushing saving rates to nearly zero? He actually co-authored several pieces on exactly this topic with another Fed economist. Between the 100% predictable collapse of residential construction and the plunge in consumption that would follow the loss of the housing wealth that was driving it, we were looking at a loss of more than $1tn in annual demand. What did Greenspan think would fill this gap, purchases of Ayn Rand’s books?

Greenspan had all the information that he could have possibly needed to spot the housing bubble and to know its collapse would be really bad news for the economy. More than anyone else in the country he was in a position to stop the growth of the bubble.

Suppose that, instead of extolling the wonders of adjustable rate mortgages, Greenspan used his public addresses to warn people that they were buying into an overpriced housing market; and he warned investors that the subprime mortgage backed securities they were buying were filled with fraudulent mortgages. Suppose further that he used the Fed’s research staff to document these facts.

Greenspan could have used the regulatory powers of the Fed to crack down on the bad mortgages being issued by the banks under the Fed’s jurisdiction, as his fellow governor Edward Gramlich urged. And, he could have arranged to have a meeting with other federal and state regulators to see what they were doing to prevent mortgage fraud in the financial institutions under their jurisdictions as well.

Those are the actions that we had a right to expect from a Fed chair faced with the growth of a dangerous asset bubble. That is what Alan Greenspan would have done if he had been earning his salary. Instead, he did nothing. He cheered on the bubble until it burst and then he said it wasn’t his fault.

This man has nothing to tell the country about the economy and the media is not doing its job to imply otherwise. If Greenspan doesn’t have the decency to keep himself out of public view after all the damage he has done to the country, then the media should do it for him. The only thing he has to say that would be newsworthy is that he’s sorry.

Mark Weisbrot is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.

This essay originally ran in the Guardian.

 

 

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of  Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

May 23, 2017
John Wight
Manchester Attacks: What Price Hypocrisy?
Patrick Cockburn
A Gathering of Autocrats: Trump Puts US on Sunni Muslim Side of Bitter Sectarian War with Shias
Shamus Cooke
Can Trump Salvage His Presidency in Syria’s War?
Thomas S. Harrington
“Risk”: a Sad Comedown for Laura Poitras
Josh White
Towards the Corbyn Doctrine
Mike Whitney
Rosenstein and Mueller: the Regime Change Tag-Team
Jan Oberg
Trump in Riyadh: an Arab NATO Against Syria and Iran
Susan Babbitt
The Most Dangerous Spy You’ve Never Heard Of: Ana Belén Montes
Rannie Amiri
Al-Awamiya: City of Resistance
Dimitris Konstantakopoulos
The European Left and the Greek Tragedy
Laura Leigh
This Land is Your Land, Except If You’re a Wild Horse Advocate
Hervé Kempf
Macron, Old World President
Michael J. Sainato
Devos Takes Out Her Hatchet
L. Ali Khan
I’m a Human and I’m a Cartoon
May 22, 2017
Diana Johnstone
All Power to the Banks! The Winners-Take-All Regime of Emmanuel Macron
Robert Fisk
Hypocrisy and Condescension: Trump’s Speech to the Middle East
John Grant
Jeff Sessions, Jesus Christ and the Return of Reefer Madness
Nozomi Hayase
Trump and the Resurgence of Colonial Racism
Rev. William Alberts
The Normalizing of Authoritarianism in America
Frank Stricker
Getting Full Employment: the Fake Way and the Right Way 
Jamie Davidson
Red Terror: Anti-Corbynism and Double Standards
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange, Sweden, and Continuing Battles
Robert Jensen
Beyond Liberal Pieties: the Radical Challenge for Journalism
Patrick Cockburn
Trump’s Extravagant Saudi Trip Distracts from His Crisis at Home
Angie Beeman
Gig Economy or Odd Jobs: What May Seem Trendy to Privileged City Dwellers and Suburbanites is as Old as Poverty
Colin Todhunter
The Public Or The Agrochemical Industry: Who Does The European Chemicals Agency Serve?
Jerrod A. Laber
Somalia’s Worsening Drought: Blowback From US Policy
Michael J. Sainato
Police Claimed Black Man Who Died in Custody Was Faking It
Clancy Sigal
I’m a Trump Guy, So What?
Gerry Condon
In Defense of Tulsi Gabbard
Weekend Edition
May 19, 2017
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Getting Assange: the Untold Story
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Secret Sharer
Charles Pierson
Trump’s First Hundred Days of War Crimes
Paul Street
How Russia Became “Our Adversary” Again
Andrew Levine
Legitimation Crises
Mike Whitney
Seth Rich, Craig Murray and the Sinister Stewards of the National Security State 
Robert Hunziker
Early-Stage Antarctica Death Rattle Sparks NY Times Journalists Trip
Ken Levy
Why – How – Do They Still Love Trump?
Bruce E. Levine
“Hegemony How-To”: Rethinking Activism and Embracing Power
Robert Fisk
The Real Aim of Trump’s Trip to Saudi Arabia
Christiane Saliba
Slavery Now: Migrant Labor in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia
Chris Gilbert
The Chávez Hypothesis: Vicissitudes of a Strategic Project
Howard Lisnoff
Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain
Brian Cloughley
Propaganda Feeds Fear and Loathing
Stephen Cooper
Is Alabama Hiding Evidence It Tortured Two of Its Citizens?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail