I think Peggy Noonan's "now he tells us!" criticism of Alan Greenspan is right on the nose. The money-graphs:
The book has merits--it is blessedly lucid on how the Fed works and how Fed-heads think--but there is within it a great disconnect. I was thinking about this when I got a note from a former U.S. senator who groused about "the phenomena of high-level public officials 'bravely speaking out' after they have left office." He scored Mr. Greenspan as "perfectly free to have spoken out about the need for the President to veto more spending bills on numerous occasions when he was testifying in public." My correspondent says Mr. Greenspan's "total silence" while in office does not exactly qualify as "bravely speaking out."
The former senator has a point. It can be summed up as: Now you tell us? It doesn't take courage to speak clearly when no one can hurt you. It takes guts to be candid when candor can earn powerful enemies.
U.S. government officials owe the people who pay them, and who have raised them high--that would be the American taxpayer--real-time wisdom. They owe us their best thinking. Sometimes this is uncomfortable. But that's the price you pay for the car and the honors and the security detail and the special U.S. Army jet that flies you home, alone, across the Atlantic, on the day after 9/11.
Mr. Greenspan was reappointed for a three-year term by President Clinton in 2000. He allowed himself to be painted as a supporter of the Bush tax cuts in 2001. He was reappointed by President Bush in 2003. Mr. Bush is now deeply unpopular. Mr. Greenspan, retired and selling a book, has discovered Mr. Bush's deep flaws. The timing is all so convenient.
I'm less qualified to comment on Jim Cramer's accusations of poor interest rate manipulation, but they sound reasonable when you like up the facts like he does.
What was Bernanke saving us from? What caused the mess that forced him to take drastic action, not one of those itty-bitty quarter-point interest-rate jobs? How about a chaotic, frozen, dysfunctional economy fueled by defaulting mortgages based on irresponsible teaser rates that his predecessor pushed hard and often for every prospective home buyer to take, including those who could ill afford them? Whereâ€™s that in the book? And then, after hooking millions of unqualified buyers to take low-interest teasers that would reset in two years, Greenspan gaffed the borrowers with fourteen straight interest-rate hikes that put the reset mortgage rates out of reach for all but the wealthiest. Those vicious and, I believe, foreseeable resetsâ€”foreseeable if you are going to set the rates, as Greenspan didâ€”are causing a national wave of defaults the likes of which havenâ€™t been seen since the Great Depression. And why did Mr. Prudent champion these reckless teasers almost as heavily as the endless Ditech and Countrywide television pitchmen who buried us in these adjustable-rate nooses did? Because he needed to work his way out of the dot-com crash by stoking the housing market. And what had caused the dot-com bubble? That would be the low margin rates that fueled ridiculous speculation in junk stocksâ€”rates controlled by, you guessed it, our lovable hero, Alan Greenspan. At any given time the author of The Age of Turbulence could have prevented, well, the Age of Turbulence, by simply raising margin rates, by discouraging the use of exotic teaser mortgages, and by encouraging regulations that would have ended the travesty of giving money to speculators to flip houses. But Greenspan, an acolyte of libertarian Ayn Rand, disdains regulations. Instead, he seemed to like the power and mystery of endlessly taking rates up and down, disrupting the whole economy instead of managing discrete stock-market or house-speculation bubbles. Just a little regulation could have avoided both of those bubbles, with no need to overstimulate and then wreck the overall economy with crushing rate increases like the ones with which Greenspan stuck Bernanke.
Hindsight is 20/20 and all that; I think Ms. Noonan's observation that our public servants aren't willing to share their honest opinions in real-time is more important than dissecting specific policy decisions from the past.