الجمعة، أكتوبر 24، 2008

Congressional Confessions 4

John Cassidy
New Yorker/ Conde Nast Portfolio

He stands accused of making two major mistakes: one, keeping interest rates low for too long and allowing a housing bubble to occur; and, B, abdicating his responsibility as a regulator.



Blame belongs to many
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Alice Rivlin, is this essentially what Alan Greenspan has said before, we just didn't hear it clearly enough?

ALICE RIVLIN: I don't think so. And I wouldn't be as harsh as Mr. Cassidy. We can't blame all of this on one person. There was blame to go around.

We were victims, the whole country, of a collective delusion that housing prices would keep on going up. And I think we lost control of our common sense.

Many people who bought mortgage-backed securities, who bought other securities that were related to them, didn't ask one simple question, which was, what happens to the value of these securities when housing prices go down, as they eventually would?

Now, Mr. Greenspan said that today, basically. He said the models were based -- the models of risk were based on the past. And that's right.

But you didn't have to be a genius to know that this couldn't continue forever and that the question -- what happens when prices go down? -- should have been asked by a lot of people in the whole system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're saying beyond the Fed?

ALICE RIVLIN: Certainly beyond the Fed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Cassidy, the other -- go ahead.

JOHN CASSIDY: I mean, I agree with that. I don't think Greenspan is wholly responsible. Obviously, he's not.

You know, the investors were responsible; the bankers were responsible; the media was responsible for not reporting more aggressively on this.

But, you know, the head of the Federal Reserve is meant to be the most senior regulator in the country. And in this instance, you know, he stands accused of making two major mistakes: one, keeping interest rates low for too long and allowing a housing bubble to occur; and, B, abdicating his responsibility as a regulator.

He didn't really address the first of those things today. He did address the second and said he made a partial mistake in not agreeing to the regulation of credit default swaps. But that was the first time he said anything like that. And it was a semi-mea culpa, I guess you'd call it, but I don't think it went all the way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Alice Rivlin, what about that? I mean, he did acknowledge today -- he said he's found a flaw in his understanding, what had been his understanding of how credit markets work. Is that -- how significant...

ALICE RIVLIN: Oh, I think that's very significant, and it isn't just Alan Greenspan. A lot of people were very committed to an ideology, to use that word, that said markets work perfectly or almost perfectly to channel capital into the right places and to correct mistakes.

Well, they don't. When we get into a situation where we have this collective delusion that something that can't go on forever is going to go on forever, we need something to pull us back from the brink.

And I think we'll now have more sensible regulation. I hope we don't over-regulate, but regulation that is somewhere in the middle between "markets always work" and "markets don't work at all."

We need markets. But we need to correct the rules and modernize the regulation so it keeps up with the fast changes.



Alice Rivlin
Former Vice Chair, Federal Reserve Board

And the real question is, should they have used interest rates to slow down a housing bubble and punish the rest of the economy? I don't think that would have been possible.





Debating Greenspan's influence
JUDY WOODRUFF: John Cassidy, is it so clear that, if the decisions that the committee was grilling Alan Greenspan and John Snow and Chris Cox about today, if those decisions had been different, that everything we're going through now could have been avoided or what?

JOHN CASSIDY: I mean, that's an impossible question to answer. I mean, Greenspan's supporters would say that he couldn't have made the difference. I'd say I don't think -- the counterfactual is impossible to define, but I think it would have made some difference.

I mean, these markets just weren't regulated, the credit default swaps. And as Alice says, the mortgage markets were only regulated at the local level.

There were people inside the Fed who were raising issues about these things. Ned Gramlich, the late Ned Gramlich, who was a Fed governor, did issue some warnings to Greenspan and was ignored.

Brooks Lee Bonn, the ex-head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, tried to get her agency to regulate some of these derivatives and Greenspan brushed her off.

Now, would that have made all the difference? I don't know. It is very, very difficult to deal with a speculative bubble once it gets going. But what you can try and do is try and stop one beginning in the first place. And I think, you know, most of the mistakes were made early on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much difference do you think it would have made?

ALICE RIVLIN: I think it would have made some difference. I don't agree that keeping interest rates too low, too long was a major part of it. With hindsight, it might seem to be.

But the Fed was in a difficult situation, because the economy wasn't growing very well. There wasn't any inflation. They're supposed to look after the whole economy.

And the real question is, should they have used interest rates to slow down a housing bubble and punish the rest of the economy? I don't think that would have been possible.

It would have meant raising interest rates so high that it would have killed economic growth. And some of the same people that are fussing it, Mr. Greenspan now, would have begun outraged by that.





John Cassidy
New Yorker/ Conde Nast Portfolio

I think today was more about, you know, what happened in the past. Everybody -- even Greenspan, it appears -- now agrees that there needs to be some form of regulation of these products.





Steps for the future
JUDY WOODRUFF: Does today -- John Cassidy, does what we heard today provide clarity, in terms of what should be done in the future?

JOHN CASSIDY: I think today was more about, you know, what happened in the past. Everybody -- even Greenspan, it appears -- now agrees that there needs to be some form of regulation of these products.

When you get into the details, it's very complicated about what actually needs to be done. I think what's going to have to happen is the next president is going to have to appoint some sort of bipartisan panel or some experts panel, perhaps led by Greenspan's predecessor, Paul Volcker, or somebody of that stature, to come up with a set of detailed suggestions which Congress can then deal upon.

Because one thing we've seen -- I know Greenspan stressed today quite correctly -- the financial system is now incredibly complicated, with all sorts of markets in all sorts of places interconnected. So, you know, you can't rush into regulating.

And as Alice said, there is a danger of over-regulating. But I think something needs to be done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alice Rivlin, as we referred in the report there, Alan Greenspan was called the Oracle, the Maestro. What is his reputation -- how has all this affected him and the regard in which he's held?

ALICE RIVLIN: Well, I personally have a high regard for Alan Greenspan. I worked with him. I enjoyed it. He's very smart.

But he is ideological. He did stand in the way of modernizing our regulatory system. And I believe that was a mistake and maybe he does now, too.

The financial structure was changing very, very rapidly, new products, new institutions, and we didn't modernize the regulatory system to keep up with that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are going to leave it there. Alice Rivlin, John Cassidy, thank you both.

JOHN CASSIDY: Thank you.


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