I recently finished Alan Greenspan’s 2013 book, The Map and the Territory. The book is Greenspan’s attempt to explain what went wrong in 2008 and why it shocked most economists.
Since 2008, it has become quite fashionable to hate on Alan Greenspan. Right wingers in the mold of gold bugs and Ludwig von Mises acolytes look at him as someone who fine-tuned the economy into oblivion. Left wingers look at him as a libertarian ideologue who was close friends with Ayn Rand and stripped the financial sector of regulation and let banks do whatever they want, leading the economy into oblivion.
In the current environment of bipartisan vitriol, it seems crazy that back around the year 2000, Greenspan was lauded as a genius and the greatest Fed chairman of all time. The title of Bob Woodward’s 2000 book about Greenspan reflects the popular sentiment: Maestro. Greenspan was the Mozart of economics, solely responsible for the economic miracle of the late 1990s.
When someone’s reputation becomes that pumped up, it’s bound to mean revert.
Mean reversion can be quite nasty. The praise heaped on Greenspan in the late ’90s and early 2000s was more than he deserved. Similarly, the hatred heaped on him lately is also not deserved. What is amusing is that the recent criticism simultaneously paints him as both an interventionist and a libertarian ideologue. Greenspan hatred is bipartisan, but the reasons for the hatred are completely contradictory.
I think that Greenspan made some mistakes, but they have to be weighed against his triumphs. His record as Fed chairman was often exemplary, even considering the mistakes he made at the end. He wasn’t an ideologue. He was a pragmatist who tried to navigate the mess of our government to achieve the best possible result. My guess is that he started out as a gold-bug Ayn Rand libertarian, but realized that purist libertarian idealism wasn’t compatible with getting jobs in government where he could actually wield influence. He wanted to actually influence public policy, not just talk about it. To be effective, he had to be open to compromise.
That Greenspan era is referred to as “The Great Moderation“. The Great Moderation was an amazing economic achievement. The Greenspan era was one of infrequent shallow recessions, low inflation, low unemployment, climbing asset prices and resiliency in the face of multiple crises.
Resiliency is a key point. During his tenure, the United States faced the following crises: the crash of 1987, the Asian financial crisis, the demise of Long Term Capital Management, the collapse of the dot com bubble, the savings and loan crisis and 9/11. While the markets experienced some wild gyrations over these events, the real economy barely noticed. Even after the collapse of the dot com bubble and 9/11, unemployment peaked at only 6.3%. To put that in historical perspective, 6.3% was the unemployment rate in 1994 and 1987 during times of expansion.
The failures are the focus right now. The failures include: believing that banks wouldn’t take excessive risks with capital (a preposterous position in retrospect), fighting the regulation of derivatives (covered in this excellent Frontline documentary). He likely took interest rates too low for too long in the wake of 9/11 and the dot com bubble (as has been theorized by the economist John Taylor). Indeed, low rates in the early 2000s might be the very reason that the recession of that period was so shallow. The Great Recession might very well have been the bill coming due for having such a relatively easy recession earlier in the decade. None of that can be proven, of course.
Although, imagine if Greenspan did not respond to the collapse of the dot com bubble and 9/11 and didn’t let interest rates plummet. He would have been blamed for making a recession worse than it needed to be at a time when we had low inflation and could have handled lower rates because inflation was so low. It all would have been to lessen the severity of a future recession which, in this alternate universe, might never have even happened. Hindsight is 20/20, which is an advantage of being a pundit and a cost to getting your hands dirty and taking positions in the public arena, as Greenspan did.
As for regulations, Greenspan should have pursued tougher regulation of banks and regulated derivatives. Although, it is important to keep in mind that this would have put him at odds with all the banks and the entire Washington establishment. The Clinton administration and the Republicans in Congress back in the ’90s loosened restrictions on banking and didn’t want to regulate derivatives. There was a bipartisan consensus on these issues back then, as demonstrated by the passage of Gramm-Leach-Biley. The deregulation combined with public policy that actually encouraged risky lending as a form of social justice was simply toxic. A good example of this is the Community Reinvestment Act and its intensification under the Clinton adminstration.
If Democrats are on board with deregulating, then who is going to stop it? When it comes to tearing down regulations, Republicans are the gas and Democrats are the brakes. In the ’90s, there were no brakes. It was all gas, with predictable long term results. Greenspan should have sounded the alarms, but I don’t think that one man (albeit, a very influential man) could stop an out of control Mack truck barreling down a highway.
Everyone deserves blame for the financial crisis. Certainly some more than others, but most people had a hand in it. The regulators failed, Washington failed, the banks failed. More importantly and less discussed is the fact that we failed. We failed as citizens to appropriately monitor our institutions. Growing up back in the ’90s, I was always amazed at the complete and total lack of interest that most adults had in current affairs. Civic engagement fell off a cliff. The voters were asleep at the wheel while our politicians made reckless decisions. A democracy is only as strong as its participants. We weren’t paying attention when Washington was engaging in reckless actions. We gladly borrowed the money without doing the arithmetic, but then blamed the banks when the bills came due. Nearly everyone had a hand in what happened. Greenspan failed, but one man is not singularly responsible for our collective failing as a society to appropriately monitor our institutions and act with financial prudence.
This is a book review, so I suppose I should actually review the book and stop talking about Greenspan!
The book itself is a real tour-de-force of ideas. Greenspan takes the reader through a tour of his thoughts and insights into the economy, which are too numerous to list them all. The book does contain a few very big ideas, which I’ll discuss here.
Much of the book is devoted to retelling the story of the crisis and the mistakes made. Greenspan doesn’t come out and say: “I screwed up and I am sorry”, but I think it amounts to that. He discusses how we need stronger regulations. He laments the bailout and the actions of the banks. He also makes a strong argument that we need to address the risks posed by too big to fail institutions.
He even talks about better ways to deal with the environment and takes the reader through a seemingly crazy experiment of trying to determine the actual weight of GDP.
It’s clear that Alan Greenspan spent most of his career trying to reduce the economy to equations, to mathematical arrangements that can be measured. That’s why it is fascinating in the book to see him examine the importance of flesh and blood human beings to the economy. John Maynard Keynes referred to human emotions driving economic activity as animal spirits. Humans don’t always make sense. 2008 helped Greenspan wake up and realize that animal spirits are key even if they can’t be measured.
That’s why the first chapter is called “Animal Spirits”, as Greenspan catalogs all of the ways that human emotions affect our economic judgement, which isn’t a surprise to most of us, but is indeed a revelation to economics that have spent their careers trying to reduce human behavior to beautiful mathematical models.
Greenspan tries to quantify some of these emotional judgments. For instance, he observes that the yield curve (where longer maturities supply higher interest rates), has been firmly in place throughout the history of civilization. The earnings yield of the US stock tends to stay around 5-6% over long stretches of time, implying that this is the human preference of return for the risk of owning equities. (Sidenote: This might explain why Jeremy Siegel observes that the long-term return of equities after inflation is around 6% for nearly 200 years in his book Stocks for the Long Run.)
Greenspan marvels throughout the book at the extent to which human emotions drive economic behavior. He observes that the cultural diversity of Europe is a major reason for the Euro’s struggles as a currency to unite the region. Culture plays a role in determining the savings rate of a country (does the country value consumption in the present over long term saving?) as well as the effectiveness of regulation (is the culture permissive towards corruption and cheating?).
The Entitlements-Savings Trade Off
The most interesting point that Greenspan makes in the book is that there is a trade-off between entitlement spending and savings. This makes intuitive sense because in societies with generous entitlement programs, there is less incentive for people to save money. If you know that the government will pay for your retirement, what is the point of foregoing consumption in your youth to save for retirement? Should a 30 year old pick a vacation or increased 401(k) contributions? Our tendency is definitely towards the vacation and a generous safety net only makes that choice more appealing.
In fact, Greenspan demonstrates that the sum of total savings and entitlement spending adds up to 28-32% of GDP. Over time, as entitlement programs expand and the population becomes older, increases in entitlement spending reduce the nation’s savings rate. Every dollar that we spend on entitlement programs like social security and Medicare is one less dollar that we save.
In 1965, for instance, about 5% of GDP was social benefits and 25% of GDP was saved. A total of 30%. By 1992, about 10% of GDP was devoted to social benefits and 20% of GDP was saved. Again, a total of 30%, with the increased social spending crowding out private savings. In 2010, the amounts converged. 15% of our GDP went to social spending and 15% of our economy was devoted to savings.
Due to increased entitlement spending, national savings declined from 25% to 15%.
This is bad because savings is the raw fuel of investment. That’s less money for banks to lend, that’s less money available to issue corporate bonds, that’s less money that can be raised in the equity markets. The less capital that is available, the less investments are being made in the future productive capacity of our economy.
I think Greenspan argues pretty conclusively that there is very likely a trade off between the two. Does this mean we should tear down our entitlement programs completely to maximize our savings rate? Of course not. With that said, entitlement reform should be pursued to contain the growth of entitlement spending before it endangers the federal budget and crowds out private savings.
I think this shows a larger trade off at the core of all public policy, which we like to pretend doesn’t exist. What liberalism offers in its most extreme form is a society with maximum safety and public comfort (i.e., generous safety nets, government funded retirement, a universal basic income). What conservatism offers in its most extreme form is a society with maximum dynamism (i.e., high economic growth and creative destruction). It seems foolish to think that we can have it all: have government take care of everyone’s materials need in a dynamic and fast growing economy. This trade off is at the core of our public policy debate. We should stop pretending that the trade off doesn’t exist.
You should read this book! Even if you dislike Greenspan (I’m imagining Ron Swanson on the right and Lisa Simpson on the left), it doesn’t hurt to get his perspective. He was at the center of most economic policy for the last 50 years and has some useful insights. I also think it’s impressive that he took the time to write this book and take us down his own intellectual journey in the wake of 2008. Most people develop their opinions about the world around the age of 20 and barely budge after that. Greenspan is 91 years old and approaches everything with an open mind, ready to look at the data and reevaluate his opinions. The world would be a better place if we all took that approach.
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