Monday, March 17, 2008
From the Financial Times comes more self-serving revisionist history from former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan - it is as if he was just a casual observer at the time.
We will never have a perfect model of riskYou hear a lot more about "cumulative economic failure" these days than you do about "market flexibility", in fact, markets appear to be quite "in-flexible" at the moment.
By Alan Greenspan
The current financial crisis in the US is likely to be judged in retrospect as the most wrenching since the end of the second world war. It will end eventually when home prices stabilise and with them the value of equity in homes supporting troubled mortgage securities.
The American housing bubble peaked in early 2006, followed by an abrupt and rapid retreat over the past two years. Since summer 2006, hundreds of thousands of homeowners, many forced by foreclosure, have moved out of single-family homes into rental housing, creating an excess of approximately 600,000 vacant, largely investor-owned single-family units for sale. Homebuilders caught by the market’s rapid contraction have involuntarily added an additional 200,000 newly built homes to the “empty-house-for-sale” market.
Home prices have been receding rapidly under the weight of this inventory overhang.
The crisis will leave many casualties. Particularly hard hit will be much of today’s financial risk-valuation system, significant parts of which failed under stress.
We will never be able to anticipate all discontinuities in financial markets. Discontinuities are, of necessity, a surprise. Anticipated events are arbitraged away. But if, as I strongly suspect, periods of euphoria are very difficult to suppress as they build, they will not collapse until the speculative fever breaks on its own. Paradoxically, to the extent risk management succeeds in identifying such episodes, it can prolong and enlarge the period of euphoria. But risk management can never reach perfection. It will eventually fail and a disturbing reality will be laid bare, prompting an unexpected and sharp discontinuous response.
In the current crisis, as in past crises, we can learn much, and policy in the future will be informed by these lessons. But we cannot hope to anticipate the specifics of future crises with any degree of confidence. Thus it is important, indeed crucial, that any reforms in, and adjustments to, the structure of markets and regulation not inhibit our most reliable and effective safeguards against cumulative economic failure: market flexibility and open competition.
And as for risk, a few years ago, the Greenspan Fed marveled at the very same "financial risk-valuation system" that is being blamed for many of the world's ills today. Just in case anyone needs to be reminded, here's a speech from three years ago when the housing boom was still booming:
"Where once more-marginal applicants would simply have been denied credit, lenders are now able to quite efficiently judge the risk posed by individual applicants and to price that risk appropriately. These improvements have led to rapid growth in subprime mortgage lending; indeed, today subprime mortgages account for roughly 10 percent of the number of all mortgages outstanding, up from just 1 or 2 percent in the early 1990s."Apparently the risk judging "efficiency" stopped when home prices stopped rising.
As we reflect on the evolution of consumer credit in the United States, we must conclude that innovation and structural change in the financial services industry have been critical in providing expanded access to credit for the vast majority of consumers, including those of limited means. Without these forces, it would have been impossible for lower-income consumers to have the degree of access to credit markets that they now have.