It’s not everyday we see a 40 year ideology collapsing through a dramatic act of contrition. It has happened just a few hours ago (check video above), yesterday in the “financial crisis” congressional hearing in Washington (23. Oct. 2008). Moreover, what seems remarkable, is that the recognition comes from one of his most universally respected founding fathers and defenders.
Alan Greenspan was the longest serving chairman in the Federal Reserve board history (1987-2006), and during this 18-year period of time he were perhaps the leading proponent of de-regulation along with libertarian capitalism, vividly expressed on his “The Age of Turbulence – Adventures in a New World” 2007 book, advocating above all issues, Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” that markets can regulate themselves. As it’s known, for his whole adult life, the former Fed chairman has been a devotee of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who celebrated free-market capitalism as the world’s most moral economic order and advocated a strict laissez-faire approach to government regulation of the marketplace. Ironically, he was a regulator that did not believed in any regulation at all.
It is now quite a remarkable historic moment seeing former Federal Reserve chairman, a lifelong champion of free markets, publicly questioning the philosophy that guided him throughout his years as the world’s most powerful economic policymaker. A philosophy followed and strongly defended by him (along with many others like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan), at least in the last 40 years, as he himself acknowledged yesterday. Asked by the congressional committee chairman, whether his free-market convictions pushed him to make wrong decisions, especially his failure to rein in unsafe mortgage lending practices, Greenspan replied that indeed he had found a flaw in his ideology, one that left him very distressed. “In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology was not right?” he was asked:
“Absolutely, precisely“, replied Greenspan. “That’s precisely the reason I was shocked, because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence it was working exceptionally well“. Albeit he was surely one of the most influential voices for de-regulation: “There is nothing in Federal regulation that makes it superior to Market regulation”, said Greenspan back in 1994, in one among many of his past radical free-market statements.
I presume we now all wonder, where was Greenspan, when back in 2003 one of the most prestigiously recognized and legendary financial investors such as Warren Buffet, called credit default obligations and derivatives “weapons of financial mass destruction“? Or where was he when Princeton Professor of Economics, Paul Krugman – the recent Nobel laureate – said back in 2006 that “If anyone is to blame on the current situation (sub prime) is Mr Greenspan who poopooed warnings about an emerging bubble and did nothing to crack down on irresponsible lending“. Or what did he, Greenspan itself, said just a few days after ENRON collapsed?
People working in complex systems – and surely financial markets are one of them (yes, for the past 4-5 years including these present turbulent times I am working hard in this area as well) – for long know that any systemic structure could collapse if only positive-feedbacks are injected into them, creating an auto-catalytic snow-ball effect, leading among other things to a power-law like Black Swan. Indeed power-laws are a striking powerful signature. This is specially true when we address self-organization (read it in the present context as self-regulation). In order to be a truly self-regulated system, financial markets should also be embedded with negative-feedbacks as well, as I have addressed in a post about finance and complex systems one month ago. In fact, in order to emerge as a truly self-organized system, self-interest, should constitute just one among many of the ingredients over the entire financial system, and not the isolated unique ingredient. Self-interest promotes amplification and positive feedback, which is – as I recognize – necessary. However, left alone, promotes instead dramatic snowballing drifts over chaotic regimes, due to it’s intrinsic amplification. What’s amazing (at least for me), is that Alan Greenspan just recognized that in a tiny few seconds along his current discourse (check video above), pointing it to the precise key-word:
[…] I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organizations, specifically banks and others, was such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders. […] So the problem, here is something which looked to be as a very solid edifice, and indeed a critical pillar to market competition and free-markets, did breakdown and I think that, as I said, shock me. I still do not fully understand why it happened, and obviously to the extend, that I figure out where it happened and why, … aaaaaa, … I will change my views. If the facts change I will change. […]
As a result, “the whole intellectual edifice” of risk management collapsed, Greenspan said. In what regards his unexpected words yesterday at the congressional hearing, at least, I frankly praise him for his huge intellectual courage and present honesty. In the end, it seems that during the past 18 years, former FED chair was nothing else then a simple-man driven by his own blind faith on markets, from which he apparently comes out now. Unfortunately, only now at a very high price. Meanwhile as we know, severe consequences are here to stay, as was already evident when Greenspan addressed the House Financial Services Committee on 2003 (video below). Let’s hope that all these will not be forgotten in 3 decades from now (though, I doubt it – after all, nothing really serious came out from the entitled 3-man dream-team Bush-Sarkozy-Barroso “new global finance order” summit at Camp David last weekend, as expected):
“You have told the American people that you support a trade policy which is selling them out.” – Rep. Bernard Sanders to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan on 7/16/03. Rep. Bernard Sanders (Independent-Vermont), now a US Senator, dresses down Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in front of the House Financial Services Committee on 7/16/03.