Global Banking Economist Warned of Coming Crisis By Beat Balzli and Michaela Schiessl William White predicted the approaching financial crisis years before 2007's subprime meltdown. But central bankers preferred to listen to his great rival Alan Greenspan instead, with devastating consequences for the global economy. William White had a pretty clear idea of what he wanted to do with his life after shedding his pinstriped suit and entering retirement. White, a Canadian, worked for various central banks for 39 years, most recently serving as chief economist for the central bank for all central bankers, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), headquartered in Basel, Switzerland. Then, after 15 years in the world's most secretive gentlemen's club, White decided it was time to step down. The 66-year-old approached retirement in his adopted country the way a true Swiss national would. He took his money to the local bank, bought a piece of property in the Bernese Highlands and began building a chalet. There, in the mountains between cow pastures and ski resorts, he and his wife planned to relax and enjoy their retirement, and to live a peaceful existence punctuated only by the occasional vacation trip. That was the plan in June 2008. And now this. White is wearing his pinstriped suits again. He has just returned from California, where he gave a talk at a large mutual fund company. Then he packed his bags again and jetted to London, where he consulted with the Treasury. After that, he returned to Switzerland to speak at the University of Basel, and then went on to Frankfurt to present a paper at the Center for Financial Studies. From there, White traveled to Paris to attend a meeting at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Finally, he flew back across the Atlantic to Canada. White is clearly in demand, including in North America. Since the economy went up in flames, the wiry retiree has been jetting around the globe like a paramedic for the world of high finance. He shows no signs of exhaustion, despite his rigorous schedule. In fact, White, with his gray head of hair, is literally beaming with energy, so much so that he seems to glow. Perhaps it is because someone, finally, is listening to him. Listening to him, that is, and not to his rival of many years, the once-powerful former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank, Alan Greenspan. Greenspan, who was reverentially known as "The Maestro," was celebrated as the greatest central banker of all time -- until the US real estate bubble burst and the crash began. Before then, no one in the world of central banks would have dared to openly criticize Greenspan's successful policy of cheap money. No one except White, that is. 'A Disorderly Unwinding of Current Excesses' White recognized the brewing disaster. The analysis department at the BIS has a collection of data from every bank around the globe, considered the most impressive in the world. It enabled the economists working in this nerve center of high finance to look on, practically in real time, as a poisonous concoction began to brew in the international financial system. White and his team of experts observed the real estate bubble developing in the United States. They criticized the increasingly impenetrable securitization business, vehemently pointed out the perils of risky loans and provided evidence of the lack of credibility of the rating agencies. In their view, the reason for the lack of restraint in the financial markets was that there was simply too much cheap money available on the market. To give all this money somewhere to go, investment bankers invented new financial products that were increasingly sophisticated, imaginative -- and hazardous. As far back as 2003, White implored central bankers to rethink their strategies, noting that instability in the financial markets had triggered inflation, the "villain" in the global economy. "One hopes that it will not require a disorderly unwinding of current excesses to prove convincingly that we have indeed been on a dangerous path," White wrote in 2006. In the restrained world of central bankers, it would have been difficult for White to express himself more clearly. Now White has been proved right -- to an almost apocalyptical degree. And yet gloating is the last thing on his mind. He, the chief economist at the central bank for central banks, predicted the disaster, and yet not even his own clientele was willing to believe him. It was probably the biggest failure of the world's central bankers since the founding of the BIS in 1930. They knew everything and did nothing. Their gigantic machinery of analysis kept spitting out new scenarios of doom, but they might as well have been transmitted directly into space. For years, the regulators of the global money supply ignored the advice of their top experts, probably because it would require them to do something unheard of, namely embark on a fundamental change in direction. The prevailing model was banal: no inflation, no problem. But White wanted central bankers to take things a step further by preventing the development of bubbles and taking corrective action. He believed that interest rates ought to be raised in good times, even when there is no risk of inflation. This, he argued, counteracts bubbles and makes it possible to lower interest rates in bad times. He also advised the banks to beef up their reserves during a recovery so that they would be in a position to lend money in a downturn. If White's model had been applied, it might have been possible to avoid the collapse of the financial system -- or at least soften the fall. But there was simply no support for his ideas in the singular, and highly secretive, world of central bankers. Prima Donnas of the Banking World The BIS is a closed organization owned by the 55 central banks. The heads of these central banks travel to the Basel headquarters once every two months, and the General Meeting, the BIS's supreme executive body, takes place once a year. The central bankers -- from Alan Greenspan and his successor Ben Bernanke, to German Bundesbank President Axel Weber and Jean-Claude Trichet, the head of the European Central Bank (ECB) -- are fond of the Basel meetings. When they arrive, the BIS's dark office building at Centralbahnhof 2 in Basel suddenly comes alive. Secretaries inhabit the otherwise deserted offices of the governors, stenographers and chauffeurs stand at the ready and dark limousines wait outside. The penthouse at the top of the building, with its magnificent view of Basel, is decorated for the annual dinner, the nuclear shelter in the basement is swept out and the wine cellar is restocked with the best wines. At the BIS's private country club, gardeners prepare the tennis courts as if a Grand Slam tournament were about to be held there. The losers of matches can find comfort in the clubhouse, where the Indonesian guest chef serves up Asian delicacies à la carte. "Central bankers can sometimes be prima donnas," says former BIS Secretary General Gunter Baer. He remembers the commotion that erupted at one of the annual events when it became known that a certain vintage of Mouton Rothschild was unavailable. The corridors of the BIS headquarters buildings are lined with retro white leather chairs and sofas from the 1970s. The round table where the delegates address the problems of the global economy is polished to a high gloss. But the most impressive space of all is the auditorium, with its modern armchairs in white leather and chrome, the thousands of tiny LED lights, the booths in the back where the interpreters sit behind one-way glass, and the console where the financial masters of the world do their work, centrally positioned at the front of the room. The room is evocative of the control room in "Star Trek." It was supposed to be the hub from which the financial world was to be guided through every possible hazard. Naturally, the building is largely bugproof, the goal being to prevent anything from leaking to the outside and any unauthorized individuals from penetrating into its interior. There are no public minutes of the meetings. Everything that is discussed there is confidential. The word transparency is unknown at the BIS, where nothing is considered more despicable than an indiscreet central banker. Central bankers, proud of their independence, are intent on holding themselves above all partisan influences while taking all necessary measures to keep the global economy healthy. These traits make the BIS one of the world's most exclusive and influential clubs, a sort of Vatican of high finance. Formally registered as a stock corporation, it is recognized as an international organization and, therefore, is not subject to any jurisdiction other than international law. It does not need to pay tax, and its members and employees enjoy extensive immunity. No other institution regulates the BIS, despite the fact that it manages about 4 percent of the world's total currency reserves, or €217 trillion ($304 trillion), as well as 120 tons of gold. "Our strength is that we have no power," says BIS Secretary General Peter Dittus. "Our meetings are generally not oriented toward decision-making. Instead, their value consists in the exchange of views." There are no across-the-board agreements on the order of: "Let's raise the prime rate by a point." Opinions take shape in a much more subtle fashion, through something resembling osmosis. Central bankers are not elected by the people but are appointed by their governments. Nevertheless, they wield power that exceeds that of many political leaders. Their decisions affect entire economies, and a single word from their lips is capable of moving financial markets. They set interest rates, thereby determining the cost of borrowing and the speed of global financial currents. Their greatest responsibility is to prevent a bank or market crash from jeopardizing the viability of the financial system and, with it, the real economy. It is no accident that central bankers are also in charge of bank supervision in most countries. But this time they failed miserably. How could this community of central bankers, despite its access to insider information, have so seriously underestimated the dangers? And why on earth did it not intervene? "Somehow everybody was hoping that it won't go down as long as you don't look at the downside," William White told SPIEGEL. "Similar to the comic figure Wile E. Coyote, who rushes over a cliff, keeps running and only falls when he looks into the depth. Of course, this is nonsense. One falls, because there is an abyss." But why did they all refuse to recognize the abyss? Why did the central bankers, of all people -- those whose actions are above profit expectations, shareholder pressure and the need to please voters -- keep their eyes tightly shut? Did they too succumb to the general herd instinct? "As long as everything goes well, there is a great reluctance to (make) any kind of change," says White. "This behavior is deeply rooted in the human mind." White calls it the human factor. And that factor had a name: Alan Greenspan. The Killjoy Vs. the Party Animal Greenspan was long a member of the BIS board of directors and was effectively White's superior. As a fervent champion of the free market, he advocated the model of minimal intervention. In his view, the role of central banks was to control inflation and price stability, as well as to clean up after burst bubbles. Because no one can know when bubbles are about to burst, he argued, it would be impossible to intervene at the right moment. In his eyes, the instrument of sharply raising interest rates to counteract market excesses routinely failed. Leaning "into the wind," he argued, was pointless. He could even cite historical proof for his thesis. Between the beginning of 1988 and the spring of 1989, the Fed raised the prime rate by three percentage points, the goal being to curtail lending by raising the cost of borrowing. The textbook conclusion was that this would be toxic to the markets, but precisely the opposite occurred: Prices continued to rise. This supposed paradox repeated itself five years later. Once again, the Fed raised interest rates and, again, the market shot up. These experiences only strengthened Greenspan's conviction that raising interest rates was an ineffective tool to counteract bubbles. However he never tried raising interest rates to a significantly greater degree than had previously been done, to see what would happen. The question of who was right, Greenspan or White, didn't exactly lead to a power struggle in Basel. The forces were too unevenly distributed for that. On the one side was the admonishing chief economist, with his seemingly antiquated model that advocated the establishment of reserves, and on the other side was the glamorous central banker, under whose aegis the economy was booming -- the killjoy vs. the party animal. The central bankers certainly discussed the competing models. But most of them were behind Greenspan, because his system was what they had studied at their elite universities. They refused to accept White's objections that the economy is not a science. There was no way of verifying his model, they said. Besides, who was about to question success? Greenspan was their superstar, the inviolable master, a living legend. "Greenspan always demanded respect," White recalls, referring to the Maestro's appearances. Hardly anyone dared to contradict the oracular grand master. And why should they have contradicted Greenspan? "When you are inside the bubble, everybody feels fine. Nobody wants to believe that it can burst," says White. "Nobody is asking the right questions." He even defends his erstwhile rival. "Greenspan is not the only one to blame. We all played the same game. Japan as well as Europe followed the low interest policy, almost everybody did." Meanwhile, White noted with concern what the central bankers were triggering as a result. Their policy of cheap money led to the Asian financial crisis in 1997. When the debt that banks had accumulated went into default, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other donors had to inject more than $100 billion (€71 billion) to rescue the world economy. In describing the failure of the markets as far back as 1998, White wrote that it is naïve to assume that markets behave in a disciplined way. But Greenspan, the champion of free markets, remained impassive. A few weeks later, the market demonstrated its destructive power once again, when Russia plunged into a financial crisis, bringing down the New York hedge fund Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) along with it. The New York Fed hurriedly convened a meeting of the heads of international banks, initiating a bailout that remains unprecedented to this day. The global economy was saved from a systemic crisis -- at a cost of $3.6 billion (€2.6 billion). And what did Greenspan do? He lowered interest rates. Then the next bubble, the so-called New Economy, began to grow in Silicon Valley. It burst in the spring of 2000. What did Greenspan do? He lowered interest rates. This time the reduction was massive, with the benchmark rate dropping from 6 percent to 1 percent within three years. This, according to White, was the cardinal error. "After the 2001 crash, interest rates were lowered very aggressively and left too low for too long," he says. While the economy was recovering from the demise of the dotcom sector and from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, cheap money was already on its way to triggering the next excess. This time it took place in the housing market, and this time it would be far more devastating. White was losing his patience. Was there no other option than to regularly allow the economy to collapse? Didn't the policy of operating without a safety net border on stupidity? And wasn't it written, in both the Bible and the Koran, that it was important to provide for seven years of famine during seven good years? This time, White didn't just want to discuss his views behind closed doors. This time, he decided to seek a broader audience.