Can you possibly stand another article about Greenspan? If the answer is â€œnoâ€ I completely understand â€“ I too am ready to let the man take his place in history next to the buggy whip â€“ but he was responsible for something that will be resonating in your life for a very long time.
Since Iâ€™ve already typed two complete sentences and am still on topic, I think itâ€™s time for a detour. So let me tell you that I am cursed with a brain that connects dots. Worse, my brain likes to store things up as though random news items were potatoes and a particularly vicious Polish winter were on the way. The fact that I live in the US only confuses things all the more.
But thatâ€™s not the point. The point is that Alan Greenspan is either depraved or a fool and, of the two, I am not sure which I feel worse about as describing the man who was at the helm of the monetary bobsled during the longest stretch of paper credit expansion the world has ever seen.
Letâ€™s play â€˜connect the dotsâ€™:
- In December 2002, private bankers warned Greenspan that consumers were taking on worrisome amounts of debt and that an unsustainable, interest rate driven housing bubble was fueling this behavior (page 22 of this linked document).
- In July of 2003 Greenspan lowered interest rates to one-percent (as in 1.0%, or one-point-oh), an emergency rate, and held it there for over a year (see chart below).
- In February of 2004 Greenspan advised Americans that theyâ€™d be better off with adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) than they would with fixed rate mortgages.
- In October of 2005, the new bankruptcy law, largely written by private banking lobbyists and insiders, was passed.
To summarize; (1) Mr. Greenspan was warned that he was igniting an unsustainable asset bubble, (2) he threw more gasoline on the fire, (3) he then advised consumers to switch to ARMs right before what he knew (for certain) would be a protracted period of rising interest rates, and then (4) kept mum while bankers worked feverishly to pass bankruptcy legislation that was indisputably banking-friendly but a consumer nightmare. Kind of sounds odd when you put out there like that doesnâ€™t it?
Now hereâ€™s the interesting part about the story. To consumers, Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs) are good or bad depending on whether interest rates are rising or falling. When interest rates fall the ARM adjusts down with them. The reverse is true when rates are rising.
As the following highly technical table makes clear, you really, really donâ€™t want to be holding an ARM during a rate hiking campaign.
Clearly, when interest rates are about to embark on a sustained rise the best advice to consumers would be to lock in a low rate conventional mortgage.
But when we refer to the four data points in the chart above, we observe that Mr. Greenspan advised consumers to take advantage of ARMs right before the onset of what he knew would be a multi-year rate hiking campaign. Obviously he advised people to do the exact opposite of what they should have done. Why did he do that?
We can look at this two ways. On the one hand we could assume that Mr. Greenspan is a very poor banker and that despite his long career in banking he did not have access to the requisite highly technical information (see Table 1, above) and was simply unaware that it was very bad advice to steer people towards ARMs mere months before the onset of a protracted rate hiking campaign. On the other hand we could assume Greenspan knew exactly what he was doing and conclude that his motivations lay with shielding the banking industry from rising interest rates by cajoling consumers into ARMs at the very worst possible moment in the past 50 years.
Naturally, Iâ€™d like to assume the best but given the two options, Iâ€™m not sure which horse to root for. If I hope he was just a fool, what hopes should I pin on our chances for an agreeable resolution to the credit bubble he created? And If Iâ€™m to assume that all his actions were a depraved attempt to shield large banking institutions from a bit of risk then I need to accept the possibility that all of his policies were geared towards promoting institutions over people.
So which is it?
History will tell, but the early returns suggest you would be better off getting your financial advice off the back of a Wheaties box than you would from Mr. Greenspan.
As for me, Iâ€™m wondering what to do with all these potatoes.
Trivia question: Who was in attendance at that 2002 meeting with Greenspan?
Answer: Ben Bernanke.