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Il Maestro's Failed Magic | The Nation

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Il Maestro's Failed Magic

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An awakened sense of outrage has reporters and members of Congress playing a fierce game of hounds and hares with Enron executives and other bandits, which is most fortunate for Alan Greenspan. If the Federal Reserve were not treated with such deferential sanctimony, its chairman would also face browbeating questions concerning his role in unhinging the lately departed prosperity. Newly available evidence supports an accusation of gross duplicity and monumental error in the ways that Greenspan first permitted the stock market's illusions to develop into an out-of-control price bubble and then clumsily covered his mistake by whacking the entire economy. These offenses are not as sexy as criminal fraud but had more devastating consequences for the country.

The supporting evidence is found in newly released transcripts of the private policy deliberations of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) back in 1996--the fateful season when the froth of asset-price inflation was already visible in the stock market. In a series of exchanges, one Fed governor, Lawrence Lindsey (now the President's chief economic adviser), described with prescient accuracy a dangerous condition that was developing and urged Greenspan to act. Greenspan agreed with his diagnosis, but demurred. If Greenspan had acted on Lindsey's observations, the last half of the nineties might have been different--a less giddy explosion of stock market prices without the horrendous financial losses and economic dislocations that are still unwinding.

Lindsey described back in 1996 a "gambler's curse" of excessive optimism that was already displacing rational valuations on Wall Street. The investment boom in high-tech companies and the rising stock prices were feeding off each other's inflated expectations, he explained, and investors embraced the improbable notion that earnings growth of 11.5 percent per year would continue indefinitely. "Readers of this transcript five years from now can check this fearless prediction: profits will fall short of this expectation," Lindsey said. Boy, was he right. The Federal Reserve has the power to cool off such a price inflation by imposing higher margin requirements on stock investors, who borrow from their brokers to buy more shares. That is what Lindsey recommended.

"As in the United States in the late 1920s and Japan in the late 1980s, the case for a central bank ultimately to burst the bubble becomes overwhelming," he told his Fed colleagues. Acting pre-emptively is crucial; if the regulators wait too long, any remedial measure may be destabilizing. "I think it is far better to do so while the bubble still resembles surface froth and before the bubble carries the economy to stratospheric heights," Lindsey warned.

Greenspan lacked the nerve (or the wisdom) to follow this advice. The chairman did make a celebrated speech in December 1996 observing the danger of "irrational exuberance" in the stock market, but he did nothing to interfere with it. In the privacy of the FOMC, the chairman agreed with Lindsey's diagnosis. "I recognize that there is a stock-market bubble problem at this point [the fall of 1996], and I agree with Governor Lindsey that this is a problem we should keep an eye on," Greenspan said. Raising the margin requirements on stock market lending would correct it, he agreed, but he worried about the impact on financial markets. "I guarantee that if you want to get rid of the bubble, whatever it is, that will do it," Greenspan said. "My concern is that I am not sure what else it will do."

In hindsight it's clear the Federal Reserve chairman got it wrong. But his private remarks in 1996 also reveal flagrant duplicity. As the market bubble grew more extreme and many called for action by the Fed, Greenspan repeatedly dismissed criticism by explaining that raising the margin requirements would have no effect. In testimony before the Senate Banking Committee in January 2000, Greenspan said that "the reason over the years that we have been reluctant to use the margin authorities which we currently have is that all of the studies have suggested that the level of stock prices have nothing to do with margin requirements."

By 1999 the stock market was in the full flush of the gambler's curse--remember Dow 36,000?--and at that point Greenspan finally did act. But instead of tightening credit for stock investors, Greenspan proceeded to tighten credit for the entire economy, steadily raising interest rates in 1999 and 2000 until the long-running expansion expired. So did the stock market bubble (although stock prices remain very high by historical standards). Greenspan has always denied that this action was designed to target the bubble, but Bob Woodward, who wrote an admiring account of Greenspan's years at the Fed, reported that the "Maestro" was stealthily deflating the bubble by slowing the economy. Greenspan got that wrong too, since a recession resulted.

Millions of Americans are now paying the price, either as hapless investors or unemployed workers. The democratic scandal is that public officials are supposed to be held accountable for their actions, including human error. Accountability is impossible when the Fed chairman is allowed to make policy decisions in closed meetings and keep his true opinions secret for five years. The FOMC's verbatim meeting minutes should be shared with the citizens who will be affected and made available for timely political debate. When reformers get finished with the funny-money accounting at Enron, they might turn their attention to some holy illusions surrounding the Federal Reserve.

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