The man once called the Maestro for guiding the U.S. economy as smoothly as an orchestra leader admitted Thursday that he “made a mistake” in trusting that free markets could regulate themselves without government oversight.
Badgered by lawmakers, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan denied that the nation's economic crisis was his fault, but he conceded that the meltdown had revealed a flaw in a lifetime of economic thinking and left him in a “state of shocked disbelief.”
Greenspan, who stepped down in 2006, called the banking and housing chaos a “once-in-a-century credit tsunami” that led to a breakdown in how the free-market system functions. And he warned that things would get worse before they get better, with rising unemployment and no stabilization in housing prices for “many months.”
Gloomy economic reports backed him up.
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New jobless claims soared to just under 500,000 for last week, and Goldman Sachs, Chrysler and Xerox all said they were cutting thousands more workers. On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrials bounced erratically all day before finishing up 172 points — after a two-day drop of nearly 750.
The financial crisis even prompted Greenspan, a Republican who's a staunch believer in free markets, to propose that government consider tougher regulations, including requiring financial firms that package mortgages into securities to keep a portion as a check on quality.
He said other regulatory changes should be considered, too, in such areas as fraud.
Also looking for solutions, another banking regulator told Congress the government was working on a loan-guarantee plan that could help many homeowners escape foreclosure as part of the $700 billion bailout legislation. That plan is being discussed by the Treasury Department and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., said FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair, who is pushing the idea.
Greenspan's interrogation by the House Oversight Committee was a far cry from his 181/2 years as Fed chairman, when he presided over the longest economic boom in the country's history. He was viewed as a free-market icon on Wall Street and held in respect bordering on awe by most members of Congress.
Not now. At an often contentious four-hour hearing, Greenspan, former Treasury Secretary John Snow and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox were repeatedly accused by Democrats on the committee of pursuing an anti-regulation agenda that set the stage for the biggest financial crisis in 70 years.
“The list of regulatory mistakes and misjudgments is long,” said panel Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
Greenspan, 82, acknowledged under questioning that he had made a mistake in believing that banks, operating in their own self-interest, would do what was necessary to protect their shareholders and institutions. He called that “a flaw in the model … that defines how the world works.”
He acknowledged that he had also been wrong in rejecting fears that the five-year housing boom was turning into an unsustainable speculative bubble that could harm the economy when it burst. Greenspan maintained during that period that home prices were unlikely to post a significant decline nationally because housing was a local market.
He said Thursday that he held to that belief because until the current housing slump there had never been such a significant decline in prices nationwide. He said the current financial crisis had “turned out to be much broader than anything that I could have imagined.”