Former Fed boss says it wasn't his fault

WASHINGTON — 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 — is getting a critical look as his successor Ben 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 Thursday, 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.

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 1987-91, 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 Thursday. "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.

Share This Story