Former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan, published an editorial in the Wall Street Journal yesterday that absolves himself of any wrong-doing in the housing bubble and its subsequent destructive aftermath. Latching onto a weak argument that circa 2002 long-term mortgage and short-term federal funds rates had statistically diverged in correlation, he suggests that the overcapitalization of housing resulting from cheap credit was not his fault. Many critics have pointed the finger at Greenspan for setting short-term rates too low for too long. Access to cheap credit, according to critics, sparked “irrational exuberance” in the housing market, flooding the sector with unprecedented capital and driving prices to ridiculous levels.
Rather, Greenspan blames global trade in boosting foreign savings rates and leaving the U.S. with large current account imbalances that were subsidized by our trading partners. The current account cash flows went almost exclusively into housing, driving long-term mortgage rates to unprecedented lows and encouraging speculation.
Hilariously, in his editorial Greenspan cites famous economist Milton Friedman as saying that during Greenspan’s tenure from 1985-2005, “There is no other period of comparable length in which the Federal Reserve System has performed so well. It is more than a difference of degree; it approaches a difference of kind.”
Friedman did not live to see the aftermath of Greenspan’s policies. Short-term federal funds and long-term mortgage rates did diverge in correlation, but they did so precisely because of Fed and other governmental policies. The structural distortions in our economy leading to sustained trade imbalances were caused by irresponsible monetary and fiscal policies. Congress legislated the creation of the secondary mortgage market, mandated that it funnel capital to subprime borrowers, and taxed away America’s industrial base. Couple this with a sustained period of negative real interest rates orchestrated by Greenspan, and the U.S. economy grew ridiculously distorted over time, channeling the world’s savings towards our consumption, leaving the country bereft of productive capacity. Housing is not productive, but consumptive.
Global trade is not the problem. Current account and trade deficits, of themselves, are not the problem. Artificial interest rate manipulation, social engineering legislation that drives consumption over production, and inflationary monetary policy that drives perpetual inflation and currency debasement are the issues.
Mr. Greenspan accuses his detractors of rewriting history, but that is precisely what he is attempting to do.