Greenspan’s habit of mind made his enthusiasm for information technology inevitable. The long-time Chairman of the Federal Reserve never met a number he didn’t love. In his lifelong search for new knowledge and insights about the economy, he liked nothing better than absorbing large quantities of economic data. Lack of emotional bias was central to his search. In his twenties he was attracted to logical positivism, a school of thought popular with Manhattan Project scientists. According to logical positivism, knowledge could only be obtained from facts and numbers. Values, ethics, personal behavior were not logical in nature. Rather they were shaped by the dominant culture and hence not past of serious thinking on any subject. Greenspan would later emend this view, particularly regarding values, but the idea that facts and numbers were the path to knowledge remained part of his core beliefs.
A course he took in 1951 in mathematical statistics provided him with a scientific basis for his beliefs. Mathematical statistics proposed that the economy can be measured, modeled, and analyzed mathematically. (It was a nascent form of what is known today as econometrics.) Greenspan was immediately attracted to this discipline—and he excelled in it. Here was a forecasting method based on mathematics and empirical facts. Many prominent economists at the time, Greenspan observed, relied on “quasi-scientific intuition” in their forecasting, but he himself was inclined to develop his thinking in a different way: “My early training was to immerse myself in extensive detail in the workings of some small part of the world and infer from that detail the way that segment of the world behaves. That is the process I have applied throughout my career.”
Little wonder that when digital computers began to invade the business world, Greenspan naturally saw them as extremely effective in gathering and ordering vast amounts of data and numbers: It is after all what computers do best. In fact, the span of Greenspan’s career did coincide with a revolution in financial markets based on digital computers. He like many others saw in the innovations and improved efficiency that technology brought to the markets great progress. As long as technology was contributing to productivity growth and to general wealth, he could see nothing wrong with it. In fact, he often makes assumptions and even illogical arguments all in the name of technological progress. One example involves his attitude toward increased debt levels for both individuals and businesses. Yes, he admits there has been a long-term increase in leverage. But the appropriate level of leverage is a relative value that varies over time. Greenspan further minimizes the ramifications of increased leverage by arguing that people are steadfastly and innately averse to risk. Technology has simply added more flexibility in the system. Thus, Greenspan concludes, the general willingness of investors, businesses, and households to take on more leverage must mean that the additional financial “flexibility” allows for increased leverage without increased risk. “Rising leverage,” Greenspan blithely concluded, ”appears to be the result of massive improvements in technology and infrastructure, not significantly more risk-inclined humans.”
In the end, Greenspan was forced to change his mind about technology after the recent financial crisis. In his testimony to Congress in April of this year, he found two major ways in which technology had indeed failed the markets and helped precipitate the crisis. First of all the models that sophisticated investors used to assess risks were wrong. Those models had no relevant data that would have allowed them to forecast the impact of an event such as the failure of Lehmann Brothers. Investors and analysts had relied on pure—and incorrect—conjecture: They decided that they would be able to anticipate such a catastrophic event and retrench to avoid exposure. They were wrong.
Secondly, financial models for assessing risks, combined with huge computational capacities to create highly complex financial products, had left most of the investment community in the dark. They didn’t understand the products or the risks involved. Their only option was to rely on the rating agencies, which were in effect no better at assessing the risks of these products than anyone else. Technology and those brilliant Ph. D.s known as the “quants” had effectively created their own monsters in the form of credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations, which were far too opaque for even sophisticated investors to understand.
So much for technological innovations and flexibility. In the end it was in part technology that set up the conditions for the worst economic crisis since the Depression. One is left to wonder where that “international invisible hand” has gone to now.