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Reinvention of Alan Greenspan
Former chairman calls Fed balance sheet a tinder box, endorses private gold ownership
by Michael J. Kosares ; Late October, 2014
During the time Alan Greenspan and representative Ron Paul had their famous series of exchanges (some might have labeled them confrontations) during Congressional hearings from 1997 to 2005, the congressman made what turns out to have been a prescient observation. "My questions," he said, "are always on the same subject. If I don't bring up the issue of hard money versus fiat money, Greenspan himself does." I say "prescient observation" because here we are a decade or more later and the "new" post-Fed Greenspan sounds very much like the "old" pre-Fed Greenspan-––the one who consistently advocated gold before he became Fed chairman.
Greenspan has always come across as a conflicted figure forced to reconcile his responsibilities as chairman of the Federal Reserve––the epicenter of the fiat money universe––with a "nostalgia," as he put it, for the gold standard, its diametric opposite. As such, I always saw him as torn between the two––the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other.
Outside those memorable proddings by Congressman Paul, Greenspan rarely spoke publicly about the virtues of gold while Fed chairman, and when he did his approach seemed guarded. Even in the years following his tenure, he rarely broached the subject. In recent months though, as you are about to read, the gloves have come-off not just with respect to gold but with the dangers inherent to the fiat monetary system as well.
The reinvention of Alan Greenspan
Part one - an article in Foreign Affairs magazine
Greenspan's reinvention began with a surprising defense of gold in the October issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. In that article, titled "Golden Rule: Why Bejing Is Buying," he reminds top level policy makers of gold's role as a national asset of last resort. "If, in the words of the British economist John Maynard Keynes," he says, "gold were a 'barbarous relic,' central banks around the world would not have so much of an asset whose rate of return, including storage costs, is negative. . .Gold has special properties that no other currency, with the possible exception of silver, can claim."
So why is Bejing buying gold?
"If China were to convert a relatively modest part of its $4 trillion foreign exchange reserves into gold," he says, "the country's currency could take on unexpected strength in today's international financial system. It would be a gamble, of course, for China to use part of its reserves to buy enough gold bullion to displace the United States from its position as the world's largest holder of monetary gold. But the penalty for being wrong, in terms of lost interest and the cost of storage, would be modest."
In short, China sees gold reserves as a means to building the credibility of the yuan as a global reserve currency that would compete with the dollar. As I mentioned in a recent issue of this newsletter, China could purchase the U.S. gold reserve in its entirety with only 8% of its $4 trillion in currency reserves and the entirety of global gold reserves with 32% of its foreign exchange holdings––some sobering numbers.
Part two - a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)
Greenspan followed that article with a speech before the CFR in late October. In that speech, he raised questions about the effectiveness of the Fed's quantitative easing program. He also registered concern that the Fed might not be able to adequately control either a future rise in interest rates or the volatility (read downside) it might create in the markets. He also cast doubt on the viability of the euro in the absence of a European political union. In a surprise, he offered what I consider to be some very sound financial advice: "Gold is a good place to put money these days given its value as a currency outside of the policies conducted by governments."
Part three - an appearance at the gold-friendly New Orleans Investment Conference
Greenspan also spoke at the New Orleans Investment Conference in October and here he offered some important insights into the role of the Federal Reserve in the present political economy. Henry Bonner (Sprott Global) who was in attendance offers this summation:
"[Greenspan] fell into his role as Fed Chairman purely by accident, he claimed, and what he did there, he did it because he had to. He explained that the capital needs of the Federal government were so massive that the only way to prevent disaster for the rest of the economy was to keep feeding the beast with cheap money. If the Fed hadn't created and circulated new money, the Treasury's insatiable demand for capital would certainly have 'crowded out' the rest of the economy, wrecking the entire private credit system. Political realities, he explained, in the form of entitlement spending and off-balance sheet obligations of the US government, trump the need for sound money every time."
In this context, he explained, a gold standard is impossible. Greenspan added flatly that he "never said the Fed was independent and that its heavily monetized balanced sheet is "a pile of tinder but it hasn't been lit. . . Inflation will eventually have to rise."
Why Greenspan's reinvention is important to the average investor
So why go to the trouble of cataloguing Alan Greenspan's October, 2014 epiphany?
We need to keep in mind that this is an individual who actually sat at the controls of the most important central bank in the world. As such he saw first-hand how the monetary system operates––the good, the bad and the ugly. For him to graduate from that experience a proponent of gold reveals more about the efficacy of central banks than perhaps those institutions would like to be known. After all, the central bankers' stock and trade is trust and belief. Wall Street trusts that the central bank knows what it is doing and it believes that it is powerful enough to make its will stick.
Greenspan in the course of thirty days has dispelled both notions. He tells us unambiguously that the Fed's power is limited; that its policies by and large are dictated by forces outside its control (as mentioned earlier, he exclaimed at one point that he "never said the Fed was independent"); and that the Fed's options are restricted by the overwhelming needs of a government fiscally out of control. What's more he recommends gold to the citizenry as a financial defense. Tellingly, the man who was once called "maestro" for his apparent mastery of economic orchestration appears to have been humbled by his experience. His born again embrace of gold, and as one of the Fed's most vocal critics, should be viewed as one of the more important curtain calls of the modern era. I am surprised that more has not been made of it.
As a young man Greenspan wrote what has become a famous tract––one widely referenced by gold advocates even now and one that still ranks among the most highly visited pages at USAGOLD. "Gold and Economic Freedom" is a strongly worded, no-holds-barred attack on fiat money and the welfare state written in the late 1960s. It also endorses the gold standard as a means to restraining those impulses.
Former Congressman Ron Paul once told the story of his owning an original copy of "Gold and Economic Freedom" and asking Greenspan to sign it. While doing so, Paul asked him if he still believed what he wrote in that essay some forty years earlier. Greenspan, then still Fed chairman, responded that he "wouldn't change a single word." True to his word, and after serving a 19-year stint as chairman of the Federal Reserve, he comes back to the place where he began. At nearly 89 years of age, he squares the books and adds a new and, in my view, useful chapter to his legacy. At the New Orleans conference Greenspan was asked where he thought gold would be in five years. He answered "higher." When asked how much, he said "measurably."
Welcome back, Mr. Greenspan.
The Paul-Greenspan Congressional hearing transcripts.
Gold and Economic Freedom by Alan Greenspan (1967)
The remarkably ironic pronouncement from Sandy Weill that the U.S. should resurrect some form of the Glass-Steagall Act -- which he worked assiduously to tear asunder in the 1990s as he created Citigroup Inc. (C) -- has touched off another a debate about how to control the worst instincts on Wall Street.”
Bloomberg Opinion By William D. Cohan Aug 5, 2012 6:36 PM ET :
Don’t Fall For Sandy Weill’s Crocodile Tears
The Long Demise of Glass-Steagall.
What an Ex-FOMC Governor Wants to Tell You about the Fed
Hunting season is off to a good start this week, and I’m not just talking about deer hunting. It seems that former Fed officials declared open season on their ex-colleagues.
Every reader needs to understand and grasp what is being said here. We have been on the wrong economic path for five years, and without the desired results, our leadership says “FULL SPEED AHEAD”. We have wasted so much time and money that future generations will point to us and say this is how a great country can be destroyed in less than a decade with no shots even being fired. Deplorable.
Moosa hit the nail on the head, and we recommend reading the op-ed in its entirety if you haven’t already done so.
As for Warsh’s editorial, it was tough to read without wondering what he’s thinking. Warsh is a former Morgan Stanley investment banker whose 2006 to 2011 stint on the FOMC spanned the end of the housing boom and the first few years of “unconventional” policy measures. After such a solid grounding in the ways of the Fed and Wall Street, he recently morphed into a critic of the status quo. His criticisms are welcome and we believe accurate, but they’re also oh so carefully expressed. They’re written with the polite wording and between-the-lines meanings that you might expect from such an establishment figure. He seems to be holding back.
So, what does he really want to say?
Here are our guesses, alongside excerpts from the editorial on each of nine topics that Warsh covered:
“The purchase of long-term assets from the U.S. Treasury to achieve negative real interest rates is extraordinary, an unprecedented change in practice since the Treasury-Fed Accord of 1951.
What he really wants to say:
We’d all be better off if the central banking gods (myself included) hadn’t been so damn arrogant to think that we actually understood QE. We don’t, and it never should have been attempted.
“Low measured inflation and anchored inflationary expectations should only begin the discussion about the wisdom of Fed policy, not least because of the long and variable lags between monetary interventions and their effects on the economy. The most pronounced risk of QE is not an outbreak of hyperinflation. Rather, long periods of free money and subsidized credit are associated with significant capital misallocation and malinvestment—which do not augur well for long-term growth or financial stability.”
What he really wants to say:
The inflation target is stupid. It’s not the CPI that’s killing us, it’s the credit booms and busts. The best way out of this mess is to lose the inflation target and go back to the old-fashioned approach of “taking the punch bowl away when the party gets going.”
“[T]he foremost attributes needed by the Fed to end its extraordinary interventions and, ultimately, to raise interest rates, are courage and conviction. The Fed has been roundly criticized for providing candy to spur markets higher. Consider the challenge when a steady diet of spinach is on offer.”
What he really wants to say:
Pundits who praise the courage of our central bankers are clueless. The true story is that we consistently take the easy way out. If the current cast of characters wanted to show courage, they’d man up and replace the short-term sugar highs with long-term thinking.
“The administration and Congress are unwilling or unable to agree on tax and spending priorities, or long-term structural reforms. They avoid making tough choices, confident the Fed’s asset purchases will ride to the rescue. In short, the central bank has become the default provider of aggregate demand. But the more the Fed acts, the more it allows elected representatives to stay on the sidelines. The Fed’s weak tea crowds out stronger policy measures that can only be taken by elected officials. Nobel laureate economist Tom Sargent has it right: ‘Monetary policy cannot be coherent unless fiscal policy is.’”
What he really wants to say:
“Most do not question the Fed’s good intentions, but its policies have winners and losers, which should be acknowledged forthrightly.
The Fed buys mortgage-backed securities, thereby providing a direct boost to balance sheet wealth of existing homeowners to the detriment of renters and prospective future homeowners. The Fed buys long-term Treasurys to suppress yields and push investors into riskier assets, thereby boosting U.S. stocks.
The immediate beneficiaries: well-to-do households and established firms with larger balance sheets, larger risk appetites, and access to low-cost credit. The benefits to workers and retirees with significant fixed obligations are far more attenuated. The plodding improvement in the labor markets offers little solace.”
What he really wants to say:
Unbelievably, my ex-colleagues still don’t acknowledge their policies are killing the middle class to support the plutocracy. Their silence on this is wholly unacceptable and has to stop (and so do the policies).
“[T]he U.S. is the linchpin of an integrated global economy. Fed-induced liquidity spreads to the rest of the world through trade and banking channels, capital and investment flows, and financial-market arbitrage. Aggressive easing by the Fed can be contagious, inclining other central banks to ease as well to stay competitive. The privilege of having the dollar as the world’s reserve currency demands a broad view of global economic and financial-market developments. Otherwise, this privilege could be squandered.”
What he really wants to say:
We really need to climb out of our shell and look at things from a global perspective. The rest of the world knows that we’re selling a bill of goods and won’t continue buying it forever. If we don’t change, you can kiss the dollar goodbye.
“Since QE began, Fed policy makers have tried to explain that asset purchases and interest rates are different. Hence their refrain that tapering is not tightening, and that very low interest rates will continue after QE. Investors do not agree. Once the Fed begins to wind down its asset purchases, these market participants are likely to reassert their views with considerable force.
Recently, the Fed has elevated forward guidance as a means of persuading investors that it will indeed keep interest rates exceptionally low even after QE. Forward guidance is intended to explain how the central bank will react to incoming data. Fed projections for example, may show below-target inflation and a residual output gap justifying very low interest rates several years from now. But words are not equal to concrete policy action. And the Fed hasn’t received many awards for prescience in recent years.”
What he really wants to say:
Forward guidance is a load of crap. First, you won’t convince the market of any of your dumb ideas. Investors can and will think for themselves. Second, talk is cheap. And talk that’s based on the Fed’s ability to foresee the future? C’mon now, that’s ridiculous.
“[T]ransparency in communications about future policy is not a virtue unto itself. The highest virtue is getting policy right. Given manifest uncertainties about the state of the economy, oversharing policy deliberations is not useful if markets are led astray, or if public commitments reduce policy makers’ flexibility to call things the way they see them.”
What he really wants to say:
Transparency, shmansparency. I’ve had it up to here with taper, untaper, maybe taper, maybe not taper. I’ll trade a transparent central bank for one that knows what it’s doing any day.
“The president has nominated a person with a well-deserved reputation for probity and good judgment. The period ahead will demand these qualities in no small measure.”
What he really wants to say:
The president made a bad choice.
These are only our guesses, not actual thoughts from Kevin Warsh, who hasn’t told us what he really wants to say. We don’t even know if he hunts. (We’re guessing no.)
Andrew Huszar: Confessions of a Quantitative Easer
We went on a bond-buying spree that was supposed to help Main Street. Instead, it was a feast for Wall Street.
Nov. 11, 2013 7:00 p.m. ET
I can only say: I'm sorry, America. As a former Federal Reserve official, I was responsible for executing the centerpiece program of the Fed's first plunge into the bond-buying experiment known as quantitative easing. The central bank continues to spin QE as a tool for helping Main Street. But I've come to recognize the program for what it really is: the greatest backdoor Wall Street bailout of all time.
Five years ago this month, on Black Friday, the Fed launched an unprecedented shopping spree. By that point in the financial crisis, Congress had already passed legislation, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, to halt the U.S. banking system's free fall. Beyond Wall Street, though, the economic pain was still soaring. In the last three months of 2008 alone, almost two million Americans would lose their jobs.
The Fed said it wanted to help—through a new program of massive bond purchases. There were secondary goals, but Chairman Ben Bernanke made clear that the Fed's central motivation was to "affect credit conditions for households and businesses": to drive down the cost of credit so that more Americans hurting from the tanking economy could use it to weather the downturn. For this reason, he originally called the initiative "credit easing."
My part of the story began a few months later. Having been at the Fed for seven years, until early 2008, I was working on Wall Street in spring 2009 when I got an unexpected phone call. Would I come back to work on the Fed's trading floor? The job: managing what was at the heart of QE's bond-buying spree—a wild attempt to buy $1.25 trillion in mortgage bonds in 12 months. Incredibly, the Fed was calling to ask if I wanted to quarterback the largest economic stimulus in U.S. history.
This was a dream job, but I hesitated. And it wasn't just nervousness about taking on such responsibility. I had left the Fed out of frustration, having witnessed the institution deferring more and more to Wall Street. Independence is at the heart of any central bank's credibility, and I had come to believe that the Fed's independence was eroding. Senior Fed officials, though, were publicly acknowledging mistakes and several of those officials emphasized to me how committed they were to a major Wall Street revamp. I could also see that they desperately needed reinforcements. I took a leap of faith.
In its almost 100-year history, the Fed had never bought one mortgage bond. Now my program was buying so many each day through active, unscripted trading that we constantly risked driving bond prices too high and crashing global confidence in key financial markets. We were working feverishly to preserve the impression that the Fed knew what it was doing.
It wasn't long before my old doubts resurfaced. Despite the Fed's rhetoric, my program wasn't helping to make credit any more accessible for the average American. The banks were only issuing fewer and fewer loans. More insidiously, whatever credit they were extending wasn't getting much cheaper. QE may have been driving down the wholesale cost for banks to make loans, but Wall Street was pocketing most of the extra cash.
From the trenches, several other Fed managers also began voicing the concern that QE wasn't working as planned. Our warnings fell on deaf ears. In the past, Fed leaders—even if they ultimately erred—would have worried obsessively about the costs versus the benefits of any major initiative. Now the only obsession seemed to be with the newest survey of financial-market expectations or the latest in-person feedback from Wall Street's leading bankers and hedge-fund managers. Sorry, U.S. taxpayer.
Trading for the first round of QE ended on March 31, 2010. The final results confirmed that, while there had been only trivial relief for Main Street, the U.S. central bank's bond purchases had been an absolute coup for Wall Street. The banks hadn't just benefited from the lower cost of making loans. They'd also enjoyed huge capital gains on the rising values of their securities holdings and fat commissions from brokering most of the Fed's QE transactions. Wall Street had experienced its most profitable year ever in 2009, and 2010 was starting off in much the same way.
You'd think the Fed would have finally stopped to question the wisdom of QE. Think again. Only a few months later—after a 14% drop in the U.S. stock market and renewed weakening in the banking sector—the Fed announced a new round of bond buying: QE2. Germany's finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, immediately called the decision "clueless."
That was when I realized the Fed had lost any remaining ability to think independently from Wall Street. Demoralized, I returned to the private sector.
Where are we today? The Fed keeps buying roughly $85 billion in bonds a month, chronically delaying so much as a minor QE taper. Over five years, its bond purchases have come to more than $4 trillion. Amazingly, in a supposedly free-market nation, QE has become the largest financial-markets intervention by any government in world history.
And the impact? Even by the Fed's sunniest calculations, aggressive QE over five years has generated only a few percentage points of U.S. growth. By contrast, experts outside the Fed, such as Mohammed El Erian at the Pimco investment firm, suggest that the Fed may have created and spent over $4 trillion for a total return of as little as 0.25% of GDP (i.e., a mere $40 billion bump in U.S. economic output). Both of those estimates indicate that QE isn't really working.
Unless you're Wall Street. Having racked up hundreds of billions of dollars in opaque Fed subsidies, U.S. banks have seen their collective stock price triple since March 2009. The biggest ones have only become more of a cartel: 0.2% of them now control more than 70% of the U.S. bank assets.
As for the rest of America, good luck. Because QE was relentlessly pumping money into the financial markets during the past five years, it killed the urgency for Washington to confront a real crisis: that of a structurally unsound U.S. economy. Yes, those financial markets have rallied spectacularly, breathing much-needed life back into 401(k)s, but for how long? Experts like Larry Fink at the BlackRock investment firm are suggesting that conditions are again "bubble-like." Meanwhile, the country remains overly dependent on Wall Street to drive economic growth.
Even when acknowledging QE's shortcomings, Chairman Bernanke argues that some action by the Fed is better than none (a position that his likely successor, Fed Vice Chairwoman Janet Yellen, also embraces). The implication is that the Fed is dutifully compensating for the rest of Washington's dysfunction. But the Fed is at the center of that dysfunction. Case in point: It has allowed QE to become Wall Street's new "too big to fail" policy.
Mr. Huszar, a senior fellow at Rutgers Business School, is a former Morgan Stanley managing director. In 2009-10, he managed the Federal Reserve's $1.25 trillion agency mortgage-backed security purchase program.