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World On Brink Of Ruin

NEW YORK - Alan Greenspan, that Matador of the Money Supply, the esteemed Impresario of Interest Rates, has suffered precious few slings or arrows over his many years as chairman of the Federal Reserve. Even the White House has had to offer its critiques off the record for fear of roiling the markets or upsetting the chairman's Elvis-in-Vegas-like following. So when the chief economist of one of the world's most prestigious banks calls Greenspan a bum, that's a big deal.

And yesterday it happened. Stephen Roach, the chief economist for Morgan Stanley & Co. (nyse: MWD - news - people ), one of the most powerful investment banks and one of the 50 largest companies in the world, says Greenspan has "driven the world to the economic brink."

Writing in an upcoming issue of Foreign Policy, Roach says that when Greenspan steps down as chairman of the Federal Reserve next year, he will leave behind a record foreign deficit and a generation of Americans with little savings and mountains of debt. Americans, Roach says, are far too dependent on the value of their assets, especially their homes, rather than on income-based savings; they are running a huge current-account deficit; and much of the resulting debt is now held by foreign countries, especially in Asia, which permits low interest rates and entices Americans into more debt.

The "economic brink" line is from the headline of a press release sent by Foreign Policy. In an interview this morning, Roach said, "That's a little extreme." He does admit the nation has prospered on Greenspan's watch. Still, he does not disavow the haymakers he directs at the chairman's chin.

"This is no way to run the global economy," Roach says. So far, the Fed has bucked the odds, Roach adds. But the longer the situation exists, the more chance there is that it will spell danger for the United States and the world.

Roach lays the blame for the peril at Greenspan's door. But first he takes out after his outsized reputation. Greenspan is not responsible for defeating inflation in the 1980s; Paul Volcker, his "tough and courageous predecessor," deserves more of the credit, Roach says. Greenspan's monetary policy deserves some accolades for the 1990s boom, but former President Bill Clinton's fiscal policy and other factors were equally responsible, Roach says. Greenspan may deserve some praise for softening the recession that followed the stock market meltdown, Roach concedes, but the chairman's cure may result in "bigger problems down the road" and "the biggest bubble of all: residential property."

Many have credited Greenspan with saving the world following the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. Time magazine went so far as to put the gnome of Constitution Avenue on its cover, under the headline "Committee to Save the World." Though it is the case that the world did not end, "In truth, the world weathered the Asian financial storm only to chart increasingly dangerous waters in the years that followed," Roach writes. "Global economic imbalances have intensified dramatically since 1999."

A good chunk of the U.S. prosperity is owed to these imbalances, Roach says: "Asian countries holding enormous stocks of U.S. dollars recycle this cash back into the United States by buying U.S. [Treasury bills]. This process effectively subsidizes U.S. interest rates, thus propping up U.S. asset markets and enticing American consumers into even more debt. Awash in newfound purchasing power, Americans then turn around and buy everything from Chinese-made DVD players to Japanese cars."

While the economist has nothing against DVD players, he does say, "Asia and Europe are increasingly dependent on overly indebted U.S. consumers, while those consumers are increasingly dependent on Asia's interest-rate subsidy. The longer these imbalances persist, the greater the likelihood of a sharp adjustment. A safer world? Not on your life."

Roach even questions Greenspan's political independence. He does not claim the chairman is a partisan Republican, but he does fault him for being a "cheerleader for policies such as tax cuts...that could make the endgame all the more treacherous."

Greenspan is to central banking what J. Edgar Hoover was to fighting crime. He will soon surpass the fondly forgotten William McChesney Martin as the longest-serving Fed chairman. But his term as a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors expires in just over a year from now, and America will have to do without. Roach says, "Greenspan will be a tough act to follow." But the difficulty may not be living up to the chairman's reputation so much as cleaning up his mess.

(7 January 2005)

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