While both Greenspan and Bernanke merit considerable blame for helping to inflate the housing bubble, it is worth mentioning what Greenspan did get right: bringing to the attention of Congress and the public the risk posed to our financial system from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
During Bernanke’s confirmation hearing last week, Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd criticized the Fed for not doing enough to warn Congress on systemic risks facing the economy. Given Dodd’s attendance record, both as Chair and before, he can perhaps be forgiven if he missed one of Greenspan’s many appearances before the Banking Committee.
To help remind us, on Feb. 24, 2004, Greenspan told the Banking Committee:
Concerns about systemic risk are appropriately focused on large, highly leveraged financial institutions such as the GSE’s…to fend off possible future system difficulties, which we assess as likely…preventive actions are required sooner rather than later.” In Greenspanspeak, that translates to “do something now.
Again on April 6, 2005, Greenspan warned the Banking Committee:
When these institutions were small, the potential for such risk, if any, was small. Regrettably, that is no longer the case. From now on, limiting the potential for systemic risk will require the significant strengthening of GSE regulation.
These are just a few of Greenspan’s many warnings to Congress on the risks posed by Fannie and Freddie. In addition, economists at the Fed published numerous studies, during Greenspan’s tenure, on the nature of Fannie and Freddie.
Sadly, upon taking over as Chair of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke scaled back these efforts. Gone was the published economic research on GSEs. Gone was the loud voice of authority from a Fed Chairman on GSE policy. Instead, Bernanke choose to appease the GSE’s protectors in Congress.
While the Federal Reserve does not maintain primary regulatory authority over Fannie and Freddie, the Fed has long been viewed as the most credible voice in Washington on issues of systemic risk. When faced with the choice of protecting the Fed, or protecting the financial system, by raising the pressure on GSE reform, Bernanke punted. How he can be trusted to find the courage to taken on the next “Fannie Mae” is beyond me.