He said the bond-buying program was ultimately a mixed bag. He said that the purchases of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities did help lift asset prices and lower borrowing costs. But it didn’t do much for the real economy.
“Effective demand is dead in the water” and the effort to boost it via bond buying “has not worked,” said Mr. Greenspan. Boosting asset prices, however, has been “a terrific success.”
Mr. Greenspan, who ran the Fed from 1987 to 2006, was generally downbeat on the economy and the state of central bank policy around the world. Once lauded as the “The Maestro” for his stewardship of central bank policy, he has come in for criticism for his handling of monetary policy during the housing market bubble that burst and was followed by the most severe financial crisis and economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Asked whether he regrets not doing more with Fed policy to stop the financial-market bubbles that preceded the crisis, Mr. Greenspan said “no.”
He observed that history shows central banks can only prick bubbles at great economic cost. “It’s only by bringing the economy down can you burst the bubble,” and that was a step he wasn't willing to take while helming the Fed, he said.
The Fed has held its benchmark short-term interest rate near zero since the crisis in an effort to spur economic activity. Many investors believe the central bank will start raising rates in the middle of next year, a view some top officials have encouraged.
The question of when officials should begin raising interest rates is “one of those questions I cannot answer,” Mr. Greenspan said.
He also said, “I don’t think it’s possible” for the Fed to end its easy-money policies in a trouble-free manner.
“We’ve never had any experience with anything like this, so I’m not going to sit here and tell you exactly how it’s going to come out,” Mr. Greenspan said. But he noted that markets often react to changes in central bank policy unpredictably and not entirely rationally. Recent episodes in which Fed officials hinted at a shift toward higher interest rates have unleashed significant volatility in markets, so there is no reason to suspect that the actual process of boosting rates would be any different, Mr. Greenspan said.
He said the Fed may not even have that much power over the timing of interest-rate increases. The problem as he sees it is an interest rate the Fed pays on the money banks park at the central bank, called reserves. Fed officials plan to use this tool as their primary lever for raising interest rates when the time comes. If bankers decide to put this money to work, creating inflation risks, the Fed may be forced to raise rates, even if the economy isn't ready for it, he warned.
“I think that real pressure is going to occur not by the initiation by the Federal Reserve, but by the markets themselves,” Mr. Greenspan he said.
Mr. Greenspan said gold is a good place to put money these days given its value as a currency outside of the policies conducted by governments.
He was also downbeat about Europe and said the only way the euro can survive over the long run is through full political integration of the 18-country area that shares the currency. Anything short of that will allow imbalances to fester and build, eventually leading to a collapse of the currency, he said.