Longevity in an office is no automatic guarantee of worth. So the fact that Dr Alan Greenspan, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, has been in the post for 18 years and is shortly to step down, does not mean he must qualify for greatness. But even a sceptic of the need for central banking like me believes that Greenspan, who is nearly 80 years old, is a remarkable man. His career spans the financial crash of 1987, the recession of the early 90s, the long stock market boom, the Asian financial crisis, the Russian debt default and the rescue of hedge fund Long Term Capital Management, and of course, 9/11 and its aftermath.
I am not going to chart every nip and tuck of his tenure to state whether he was a monetary policy genius, a wise man who realised his limitations and that of his office, or just very lucky. I suspect that luck played a part but what jumps out at me, from reading articles like this, or this fine biography by Jerome Tuccille, is that Greenspan was a very wise operator indeed. America, and indeed most of the western industrialised world, has enjoyed a relatively long period of economic growth and low inflation. The United States has certainly done so. And Greenspan, being at heart a classical liberal, had the intelligence and humility to chalk up 99 percent of the credit to entrepreneurs and their employees rather than to the supposed fine arts of macro-economic policy.
I remain a sceptic, though, of the need for central banking. Greenspan has left no ideological or operative legacy that could be enshrined in doctrine and used as a clear guide to future policy. Although determined to protect price stability, he could be daring and flexible when required, far more so than the more conventionally monetarist European Central Bank. The problem though is that Greenspan’s replacement could be made in a far different mould.
America, and indeed the world, has been very lucky to have a man as wise as Greenspan at the helm. But it is surely dangerous that an economy as big as that of the United States should allow so much economic power to be held, ultimately, in the hands of one man – even if he does have very smart folk working with him. Of course, the business of “doing monetary policy” has become better over the past decades. Britain’s own central bank runs monetary policy with a studied approach unimaginable in the horror years of the 1970s when money was treated as a metaphysical abstraction. But things could go wrong. Sooner or later the men with the interest rate levers are going to make a big mistake and the results could last a while.