The Man Nobody Wanted to Hear Global Banking Economist Warned of Coming Crisis

Part 4: One Villain Replaced by Another


His destination was Jackson Hole in Wyoming, a kind of Mecca for financial experts. It was August 2003.

Once a year, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City invites leading economists and central bankers to a symposium in Jackson Hole. Against the magnificent backdrop of the Grand Teton National Park, the world's financial elite spends its time unwinding on hiking trails and in canoes, before retreating into conference rooms to discuss the state of the global economy. Only those who can hold their own in front of this audience are considered important in the industry.

"This is an opportunity we can't afford to miss," BIS economist Claudio Borio told his boss, White, as he wrote himself a few last-minute notes in his room at the Jackson Lake Lodge in preparation for his speech to the symposium.

Greenspan was in the audience when Borio and White presented their theories -- theories that had absolutely nothing in common with the powerful Fed chairman's worldview, or that of most of his colleagues.

White and Borio described the dramatic changes that had taken place since deregulation of the financial markets in the 1980s. Price stability was no longer the problem, they argued, but rather the development of imbalances in the financial markets, which were increasingly causing earthquake-like tremors. "It is as if one villain had gradually left the stage only to be replaced by another," White and Borio wrote in the paper they presented at Jackson Hole. As it turned out, it was a villain with the ability to unleash devastatingly destructive forces.

It was created by what the two BIS economists called the "inherently procyclical" nature of the financial system. What they meant is that perceptions of value and risk develop in parallel. People suffer from a blindness to future dangers that is intrinsic to the system. The better the economy is doing, the higher the ratings issued by the rating agencies, the laxer the guidelines for approving credit, the easier it becomes to borrow money and the greater the willingness to assume risk.

A bubble develops. When it bursts, the results can be devastating. "In extreme cases, broader financial crises can arise and exacerbate the downturn further," White wrote in his analysis. The consequences, according to White, are high costs to the real economy: unemployment, a credit crunch and bankruptcies.

All it takes to predict such imbalances, White argued, is to monitor "excessive credit expansion and asset price increases," and to take corrective action early on, even without a pending threat of inflation.

This task, the authors concluded, must be performed by monetary policy, among other things. The central banks, according to White and Borio, could limit credit expansion and thus avoid adverse effects on the global economy.

The Jackson Hole paper was an assault on everything Greenspan had preached and, as everyone knew, he was not fond of being contradicted. Other members of the audience glanced surreptitiously at the Maestro to gauge his reaction. Greenspan remained impassive, his face expressionless behind his large spectacles, as he listened to White. Later, during a more relaxed get-together, he refused to even look at White.

White suspected he had failed to convince his audience.

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink," he says.

'All We Could Do Was to Present our Expertise'

Now that the US prime rate is bobbing up and down between zero and 0.25 percent, and the Fed is pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into the market, White's words at the 2003 conference have undoubtedly come back to haunt many a central banker.

In that speech, White had prophesied that if the "worst scenario materializes, central banks may need to push policy rates to zero and resort to less conventional measures, whose efficacy is less certain."

He warned that the money supply could dry up. Markets, he wrote, "can freeze under stress, as liquidity evaporates." He also identified -- a full four years before the bursting of the real estate bubble -- the disturbing developments in the US real estate market as a consequence of lax monetary policy.

"Further stimulus has not come free of charge and has raised questions about the sustainability of the recovery," he warned. From today's perspective, White's predictions are almost frightening in their accuracy.

But when push came to shove, he was unable to overturn the prevailing ideology. "We were staff," he says. "All we could do was to present our expertise. It was not within our power how it was used."

Despite the disappointment at Jackson Hole, White didn't give up on supplying data, facts and analyses. Perhaps, he reasoned, this constant flow of information could help to break through mental barriers.

He would repeatedly refer to the "Credit Risk Transfer" report published by the BIS's Committee on the Global Financial System in 2003. The publication describes how loans were packaged into tranches using so-called collateralized debt obligations and then marketed worldwide. For banks, the experts wrote, "CRT instruments may reduce banks' incentives to monitor their borrowers and alter their treatment of distressed borrowers."

That, in a nutshell, was the underlying problem that would eventually trigger the mother of all crises. Many US bankers lowered their guard when it came to issuing subprime mortgages, because they could be repackaged and quickly resold, for example to unsophisticated bankers at German state-owned Landesbanken in places like Dresden, Hamburg and Munich.

The central bankers were also not exactly taken by surprise by the failure of the rating agencies. In their report, the BIS experts derisively described the techniques of rating agencies like Moody's and Standard & Poor's as "relatively crude" and noted that "some caution is in order in relation to the reliability of the results."

But nothing happened.

A Greek Tragedy in the Making

In the 2004 BIS annual report, White was unusually frank in criticizing the Fed's lax monetary policy. Although Greenspan sat on the bank's board of directors at the time, the board never sought to influence the analyses of its experts. But neither did it take them seriously.

In January 2005, the BIS's Committee on the Global Financial System sounded the alarm once again, noting that the risks associated with structured financial products were not being "fully appreciated by market participants." Extreme market events, the experts argued, could "have unanticipated systemic consequences."

Graphic: The curse of cheap money
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: The curse of cheap money

They also cautioned against putting too much faith in the rating agencies, which suffered from a fatal flaw. Because the rating agencies were being paid by the companies they rated, the committee argued, there was a risk that they might rate some companies too highly and be reluctant to lower the ratings of others that should have been downgraded.

These comments show that the central bankers knew exactly what was going on, a full two-and-a-half years before the big bang. All the ingredients of the looming disaster had been neatly laid out on the table in front of them: defective rating agencies, loans repackaged to the point of being unrecognizable, dubious practices of American mortgage lenders, the risks of low-interest policies. But no action was taken. Meanwhile, the Fed continued to raise interest rates in nothing more than tiny increments.

"You can see all the ingredients of a Greek tragedy," says White. The downfall was in sight, and yet no one dared disrupt the party, no one except White, the lone BIS economist, who says: "If returns are too good to be true, then it's too good to be true."

And yet the economy was humming along, and billions in bonuses were being handed out like candy on Wall Street. Who would be willing to put an end to the orgy?

Clearly not Greenspan.

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