Wikinvest Wire

Bubble Man

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Next Monday will mark eight months since Alan Greenspan stepped down as chairman of the Federal Reserve, yet he keeps popping up in the news - twice in the last week.

Last weekend, rumors swirled of his mention of interest rate cuts to help a very troubled housing market, then earlier this week he referred to the Sarbanes-Oxley rules as a "nightmare" that should be quickly undone since they discourage foreign companies from listing their shares on the NYSE (he favored SarBox back in 2002).

Now is as good a time as any to take a look back to see how things have progressed while he's been busy writing his memoirs and pulling down $150,000 for speeches in front of well-heeled audiences.

A Look Back

The good news is that nothing has blown up yet. Well, except for Amaranth Advisors, and a few emerging economy stock markets around the world - the latter seem to be recovering, however, hopes of a rebound for the former must be dimming.

Even if you had many millions to spare, would you still write a check to Amaranth Advisors after the events of the last couple weeks? With 8,999 other hedge funds where you could seek superior returns with a little more risk, why not shop around?

Some say a commodity bubble has burst, though you'll get arguments on that score here - it's hard to have a real bubble with P/Es of 10 and just hedge funds driving prices. To get a real bubble you really need ridiculous valuations driven by much broader public participation.

So how does the commodity-rich model portfolio at Iacono Research manage to hold onto 14 percent year-to-date gains after the supposed bursting of the commodity bubble?

To find out, you can sign up for a free two week trial. Just send mail to with the words FREE TWO WEEK TRIAL in the subject line and you can have a look for yourself.

And housing? That will be Mr. Greenspan's legacy. It must be maddening to be standing far away from the rudder of monetary policy, unable to cut rates to the bone after seeing some of the data coming out of the statistical reporting agencies.

It's too early to tell, but the odds of a soft landing for his last asset bubble do not appear to be improving with each new data release. Now that prices are actually going down nationally, that may put a whole different spin on individual home buying decisions (and home selling decisions too).

This chart from Northern Trust tells the story well.
Tim Geithner of the New York Fed seems a little worried lately - some of it probably involves the chart above. A few weeks ago he wondered if all the risk-mitigation built into the current system of hedge funds and structured finance was deceiving its many participants, allowing risks to build up that will ultimately lead to some unspecified, unhappy ending.

Earlier this week he wondered whether the Federal Reserve may have to extend its supervisory authority to get a better view of all the securities firms and hedge funds out there mitigating all that risk after taking on an ever-larger role in the financial system.

Ahh ... it's easy to long for the days when the Fed Chairman would reassure his detractors with soothing words like, "If there's a crisis, we'll all get together and solve it - or hopefully solve it".

When he marveled at the flexibility of the current financial system, some would ask one simple question, "Why did it take us so long to come up with a self-regulating system of ever increasing credit expansion?"

The Greenspan legacy is now taking shape.

Turn the Page

While the world awaits memoirs from the Maestro, two other books have appeared to help fill the void for those who miss the departed chairman so. Alan Greenspan: The Oracle Behind the Curtain came out immediately after the retirement send-off in February. It doesn't appear to be that popular - at not a single customer has reviewed it in the seven months that it has been for sale, and at $38, the price seems a bit steep.

Of more interest here is the tome that just arrived in the mail yesterday - Bubble Man. While its back has not yet been cracked, a little is known about this work.

Author Peter Hartcher appeared as a guest at Financial Sense Online a few weeks back and had an engaging interview with Jim Puplava. One of the more notable comments by Mr. Hartcher, something that should seem obvious to many yet is overlooked by almost all, "The handmaiden to any financial mania is cheap money - loose money - a relatively free flowing money supply."

It sounds even better with an Australian accent - the interview is still available here.

The reviews of this book over at tell an interesting story about the man and how he is perceived. To this day, there are those who still consider him to be the greatest central banker ever and the finest economist the world has ever seen. Bob Woodward's 2001 offering Maestro has served to cement this image.

This view is exemplified by Daniel W. Drezner of the Washington Post who in an editorial review wrote the following regarding the now famous 1996 "irrational exuberance" moment.

The problem is that Bubble Man assumes that, at the moment Greenspan uttered that sentence, his opinion was both fixed and true. Neither assertion holds up. Hartcher fails to demonstrate that Greenspan ever repeated his comment at any later Fed meeting. The record suggests that Greenspan was worried about asset-price inflation -- that is, skyrocketing stock and housing prices. Furthermore, he was not entirely sure he should be worried about it. As the 1990s progressed, he continually sought out diverse views on this point. The fact that his infamous caution against "irrational exuberance" was framed as a question symbolizes the extent of his uncertainty.

As it turns out, Greenspan was right to be unsure. For all the talk about stock market bubbles, the returns on tech stocks in the decade since 1996 have proven way higher than the historical average. Price-to-earnings ratios are now higher than the historical average, albeit significantly lower than they were at the peak of the dot-com era. When one takes a step back, Hartcher's case falls apart completely. To assert that Greenspan's Fed was the primary regulatory authority responsible for the dot-com bubble requires the reader to swallow an awful lot. For one thing, you need to accept that other government agencies -- say, the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Treasury Department -- should be completely exonerated for their roles in the mishap; for another, you need to accept that the Fed would somehow be able to deflate stock prices without harming the real economy.

Greenspan's response in 2005 to skyrocketing housing values demonstrates another difficulty with Hartcher's broadside. Despite Greenspan's speeches about the "frothiness" of the housing market and the Fed's repeated increases of short-term interest rates, the Fed has had a minimal impact on both housing prices and long-term interest rates. Even if Greenspan had wanted to lower stock prices, it is not clear, in retrospect, that he would have succeeded.

Bubble Man does contain some interesting questions. How can a central bank simultaneously manage inflation in both the goods market and the asset market? How can asset-price inflation be distinguished from a genuine shift in the real value of assets? Unfortunately, Hartcher never digs into these questions. Instead, he seems determined to write a literary retort to Maestro, Bob Woodward's 2000 paean to Greenspan's financial acumen. Every trait that Woodward praises, Hartcher scorns. For example, Woodward paints Greenspan's political network as essential for doing his job; to Hartcher, the chairman's contacts are merely evidence that Greenspan was like every other politician, subject to pressure and eager to be liked.
Diametrically opposed to this view are the thoughts of Justice Litle of The Daily Reckoning notoriety.
The emotional pinnacle of the book is the "irrational exuberance" moment: the point at which Greenspan must decide whether to fulfill his duty as leader and protector, and risk sacrificing all he holds dear, or preserve popularity at the cost of his soul. We know which path he chose. If Hartcher's account were made into a movie it could be an Oliver Stone docu-drama, with all the elements of a Greek tragedy and the conflicted Chairman at center stage.

As Bubble Man demonstrates with great attention to detail, the brilliant Maestro turned out to be a coward. In a job that required backbone above all, Greenspan failed us. (Though we the people, by way of our elected politicians, first failed him.) To make things worse, once the decision to sell out was made, all sense of propriety went out the window. Greenspan expressed bubble concerns as early as 1996, but later denied those concerns completely. Instead of providing sober adult supervision, he cheered Wall Street's madness from 1996 on. Instead of encouraging thoughtful discussion at policy meetings, he neutered debate as much as possible. Instead of trying to maintain political objectivity, he cut implicit deals and grew closer to the White House with each passing year. By electing to go with the flow when he should have been fighting it, this banker's banker wound up a rock star, an economic hero "so square he was cool," and to those Wall Streeters who made millions from his easy money policies, a god.

Greenspan's eventual bitter defense that bubbles cannot be spotted in advance was self-serving, self-contradicting, and something he probably did not believe himself. His successor, Ben Bernanke, has inherited an unbelievable mess--one that is probably too big to be cleaned up. Hartcher's clear-eyed account, and others to follow, will hopefully inform history and help set the record straight on the Bubble Man's true legacy.
Yes, an unbelievable mess to be sure.

In thinking about the many memorable musings of the old guy, the one that comes most easily to mind after taking this little stroll down memory lane came in response to questions about the transition from the stock market bubble to the housing bubble.

When asked whether unleashing the forces of easy money in response to one bubble might set in motion an even bigger one, the response came that the course of action chosen was deemed better than the alternative.

Hairshirts are both unpopular and uncomfortable.

The book awaits, as does the fate of the U.S. economy.


Anonymous said...

What a hatchet-job by Drezner. His entire review is predicated upon dismissive tactics, e.g., "how can we say that asset values weren't inflated?", or "this book is simply a retort to Woodward" (never mind that it might actually be right).

I'll wager that the real substantive difference between Woodward and Hartcher's books is that Woodward looked more at what the Fed was saying, and Hartcher looked at what they were doing.

These paint two very different pictures whenever you look at the Fed--by design: the Fed has spent almost a century learning how to make itself look innocent of the regular large-scale debacles occuring in the economy, despite the fact that it controls it all from the ground up (and despite the fact that they were founded to eliminate said debacles).

How maddening.

jmf said...

this is a little ot but i urge evrybody to see what is happening with the housing market in billings.

this is a video that shows how mad things have gone (condos, overbuiling, inventories etc)

it is really really good. i think it is a must see!

Housing Boom in Billings / billings is everywhere

Anonymous said...

People are far too charitable in their assessment of Sir Alan. He was a fabulous front man but really had no idea what he was doing. While orbiting Rand, he would parrot her insights. While at the Fed, he would parrot those. It is that simple.

Anonymous said...

"Even if Greenspan had wanted to lower stock prices, it is not clear, in retrospect, that he would have succeeded."
Huh? All AG had to do was tighten his Banks' mtg. lending criteria AND, at the same time, use his bully pulpit to admonish the Administration & Congress that he would not be a consort to their shenanigans & that if they didn't clean up their act, he would. But, that was way too much to ask from the most spineless & powerful political groupie of the 20th century.

Anonymous said...

I agree with all the commentors above. You know, I was talking with this great journalist from Gemany who was here in LA covering the opening of a Civics Arts Center, and we got to talking about German history. The German middle class was destroyed three times with inflation, in quick succession: by the ravages of WWI, the hyper-inflationary period of 1923 through 1925 to pay down the war debt, and the post WWII period. Because of their elephantine memory, inflation is the dirtiest word in the German language, and any above 2% is a scandal likely to topple a government. He mentioned that Germany helped to structure the EU Central Bank as a totally non-political entitiy. Greenspan's boot-licking trips to the White House after 2001 would have been incocievable there. Meanwhile, as if to prove themselves a part of asset inflation, once valuable journalists like Woodward have morphed into giant appologist gas bags, cashing out by working double time in the hagiography dept of the West Wing and the Central Bank.


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