Alan Greenspan, writing in the current issue of the Economist, argues that in the future banks will need more of a capital cushion than they needed before the crisis because holders of bank liabilities will require them to hold more capital. “Today, fearful investors clearly require a far larger capital cushion to lend” to financial intermediaries. In other words, there’s no need for additional regulations requiring banks to have more capital. The financial market will take care of itself. Greenspan has learned nothing at all.
In 2004 and 2005, when many economists warned that a speculative bubble in home prices and home construction posed a risk to the financial system, Greenspan brushed aside such worries, saying housing prices never declined. Before that he had resisted calls for tighter regulation of subprime mortgages and other instruments which allowed people to borrow far more than they could afford. He had also opposed tougher regulation of derivatives. Almost a decade earlier, Greenspan had urged Congress to knock down the regulatory walls that separated investment and commercial banks, thereby inviting investment banks to place huge bets with other peoples’ money.
Barely two months ago, when Greenspan appeared before Congress to explain what had happened to the economy, Representative Henry Waxman asked him pointedly: “Were you wrong?”
“Partially,” Greenspan responded. “This crisis has turned out to be much broader than anything I could have imagined.”
It might be argued that Alan Greenspan’s failure of imagination was not just about the scale of the crisis. More basically, his ideology had made it difficult for him to imagine what could happen when financial markets are left to themselves. He had supposed that the interplay of millions of self-seeking individuals would make government regulation unnecessary – except to prevent outright fraud or theft. To Greenspan and others like him, the global financial market represented the almost perfect form of the free market, because buyers and sellers were could gather almost unlimited information about one another, at almost instantaneous speed, at very low cost. Not only would the financial market be self-correcting, but it would automatically give us everything we might reasonably wish from it.
Greenspan’s real failure of imagination was his inability to believe there are useful market rules beyond those that protect private property and prevent outright fraud. This, presumably, was why he kept insisting for so long that government be held at bay.
But now the United States has chosen to deal with the financial crisis by buying up a significant fraction of the shares of the nation’s major banks and its largest insurance company, underwriting the loans of a large portion of the nation’s home-lending industry, and is on the verge of underwriting the nation’s largest automobile makers. Yet little if any of this largesse has found its way to the broader public – to homeowners in danger of defaulting on their mortgages and losing their homes, small businesses close to insolvency, state and local governments cutting public services because of budget shortfalls, families unable to afford health insurance, or young people unable to obtain loans to finance university tuition.
The ideology of a perfectly self-correctly free market has given way to what might be described as a raid by America’s biggest banks and corporations on the public purse, supposedly justified by benefits to the broader public which seem never to materialize. What happened to the ideology? On closer inspection, it turned out to be something of a cover all along.
During the same years Greenspan called for deregulation of financial markets, Wall Street was accelerating its bankrolling of the U.S. Congress. Securities and investment firms contributed larger and larger amounts of money – not just to conservative Republicans who might expect such support but also to Democrats who had never been so graced before. According to Center for Responsive Politics, Wall Street firms dramatically increased their contributions to both parties during these years. Their share of total donations to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, for example, rose continuously, from 5 percent during the 1999-2000 election cycle to 15 percent by the 2007-2008 cycle.
The money was accompanied, and often raised, by Wall Street lobbyists who pushed Congress in the same direction Greenspan urged – blocking regulation of derivatives, weakening oversight of subprime mortgage lending, and preventing the Securities and Exchange Commission from doing its job.
To take but one example, the collapses of Enron, WorldCom, and several other giant corporations in 2002 revealed a troubling pattern of credit-rating agencies repeatedly assuring investors that such companies were good investments until just before they went under. When the Securities and Exchange Commission asked Congress for additional authority to oversee the credit-rating agencies, Wall Street and its lobbyists blocked the measure. With hindsight, it’s clear why. Wall Street investment banks were paying the agencies to rate various mortgage backed securities after first advising the firms that issued them – and collecting fees – on how to package them to get high ratings. Years later many of these same securities, based on risky loans, would prove to be worthless, threatening financial institutions worldwide.
Apparently Greenspan hasn’t learned anything from all this, but the rest of us have no excuse. The real choice ahead is between democratic capitalism and authoritarian capitalism. China is perfecting the latter. But unless we are careful we – the citizens of democratic capitalist nations – will discover that our form of capitalism has become more authoritarian than democratic. The current economic crisis surely poses a test for capitalism. But it is also a test of democracy.