WASHINGTON — For 18½ years as Federal Reserve chairman, he was rhapsodized for helping drive a robust U.S. economy. Yet in the years after he stepped down in 2006, he was engulfed by accusations that he helped cause the 2008 financial crisis – the worst since the 1930s.
Now, Alan Greenspan has struck back at any notion that he – or anyone – could have known how or when to defuse the threats that triggered the crisis. He argues in a new book, “The Map and the Territory,” that traditional economic forecasting is no match for the irrational risk-taking that can inflate catastrophic price bubbles in assets such as homes or tech stocks.
In an interview, Greenspan reflected on his book, his Fed tenure and the risks that still endanger the financial system. At 87, he spoke for an hour in the home he shares with his wife, Andrea Mitchell, the NBC News anchor and chief foreign affairs correspondent.
Reaching back to the administration of Gerald Ford, when he led the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, Greenspan remembers a different Washington. He recalls it as a time when political leaders dared to trust their opponents and collaborated to reach common goals.
It didn’t hurt, Greenspan said, that the Democratic speaker of the House, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, would drop by the West Wing of the White House some nights “and have a bourbon with Jerry.”
Here are excerpts of the Greenspan interview, edited for length and clarity:
Q: You write that you were shaken by the 2008 financial crisis because of the failure of one of the pillars of a stable financial market – “rational financial risk management.” What did you discover in your research for the book about this issue?
A: Fear and euphoria are dominant forces, and fear is many multiples the size of euphoria. Bubbles go up very slowly as euphoria builds. Then fear hits, and it comes down very sharply. When I started to look at that, I was sort of intellectually shocked. Contagion is the critical phenomenon which causes the thing to fall apart.
Q: When you published your last book, “Age of Turbulence,” in 2007, you were being hailed as a “maestro” of the global economy. Then the worst financial crisis since the 1930s erupted. Your policies as Fed chair were blamed for sowing the seeds for that crisis. How did the criticism affect you personally?
A: I’ve been around long enough to know that a good deal of the praise heaped on me I had nothing to do with. The only thing I did object to was the fact that where the criticism was actually wrong. Did it bother me? Of course it bothered me. But I’ve been around long enough to have ups and down. So you get over it.
Q: With the knowledge you gained from the financial crisis, has it changed your own assessment of how well you performed as Fed chairman?
A: The real question is, should I have done something different? And the answer to that question is no. Did we make mistakes? You bet we made mistakes. But I thought our record was fairly good. Remember, we stepped in, probably at just the right time after Oct. 19, 1987, when the market went down 22 percent. It was pretty rocky for awhile, but I thought we maneuvered that better than I expected we would be able to do. There were a lot of things of that nature where I thought we did well. And there were other things we didn’t do well.
Q: A lot of criticism centers around the failure of the Fed and other regulators to deal with the explosion of subprime mortgages, which were packaged into securities that then turned bad and were at the center of the troubles. Should the Fed have handled subprime mortgage regulation differently?
A: The problem is that we didn’t know about it. It was a big surprise to me how big the subprime market had gotten by 2005. I was told very little of the problems were under Fed supervision. But still, if we had seen something big, we would have made a big fuss about it. But we didn’t. We were wrong. Could we have caught it? I don’t know.
Q: You’re not a big fan of the Dodd-Frank Act (the 2010 financial regulation law that aims to prevent another crisis). Why not?
A: It was written politically, in a way that the regulators get the responsibility to solve the problem. There is a whole list of things the act wants done, and it specifies how individual regulators are going to solve the problems. Regulators are now required to do vastly more and to square it with other agencies.
Q: You got to know Larry Summers during his eight years at the Treasury Department during the Clinton administration, and you also worked with Janet Yellen when she was a member of the Fed board. Can you talk about both of them? (Summers and Yellen were rivals for the Fed chairmanship.)
A: The one thing about Larry is that we had breakfasts a couple of times a week for years. And never did a word get out. Those were important meetings. You get a certain trust for somebody. I know Larry’s shirts stick out the back of his belt. Who cares? The guy is very smart, and he is unquestionably qualified for most any job you can think of. But then so is Janet. There were times when I came to her and I said, ‘I don’t understand what this academic is saying.’ And she would explain it to me. That is a valuable resource. She is very sharp.
Q: What advice would you give Yellen, who has served the Fed as a board member, president of the San Francisco regional bank and since 2010 as vice chair?
A: I had a learning curve on a lot of different aspects of how the Fed operates. Janet clearly doesn’t need that. Don Kohn (a longtime Fed staffer and vice chairman) mentored me through the early stages.
Q: The size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet stands at a record $3.7 trillion, reflecting all the Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities the Fed has bought to push long-term interest rates down. You have expressed concerns about this size, which is more than four times where the balance sheet stood before the start of the financial crisis. What are your worries?
A: My basic concern is that we have to rein this thing in well before the demand for funds picks up and makes it very difficult to rein in. (Inflation) is not immediate. It is down the road. But historically, there are no cases where central banks blow up their balance sheets or where countries print money which doesn’t hit (with higher inflation).
Q: You write that our highest priority should be to fix our broken political system. How?
A: Unless you are willing to compromise, society cannot live together. What is happening now is an increasing proportion of positions are getting beyond the point where the system can effectively hold together. I am concerned about it. It’s not long ago when a Howard Baker and Bob Dole and Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Lloyd Bentsen spoke to each other. In the Ford administration, Jerry Ford used to be at Tip O’Neill – toe to toe, bang, bang – and then Tip would come over to the West Wing at 6 o’clock and have a bourbon with Jerry. That’s what I mean that the system is broken. We have got to find a way back to the comity that we had not long ago.