Monday, December 14, 2009

Imagine Mr. Spock playing Mr. Volker

And boldly go where no US central banker has gone before, or since.
What we see is the government and the Federal Reserve pouring money into the economy. If one looks beyond that money, one sees that the economy is in fact still shrinking.

Volcker: What should I say? That’s right. We have not yet achieved self-reinforcing recovery. We are heavily dependent upon government support so far.

my overall impression is that you have not come anywhere near close enough to responding with necessary vigor or structural changes to the crisis that we have had.

If it is really true that financial weaknesses brought us to the brink of a great depression that would have ended your livelihood and destroyed a lot of the global economy, then let me explain.

You concluded with financial-services executives showing cultural sensitivity and responsible leadership.

I hear about these wonderful innovations in the financial markets, and they sure as hell need a lot of innovation. I can tell you of two—credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations—which took us right to the brink of disaster. Were they wonderful innovations that we want to create more of?

You want boards of directors to be informed about all of these innovative new products and to understand them, but I do not know what boards of directors you are talking about. I have been on boards of directors, and the chance that they are going to understand these products that you are dishing out, or that you are going to want to explain it to them, quite frankly, is nil.

I mean: Wake up, gentlemen. I can only say that your response is inadequate. I wish that somebody would give me some shred of neutral evidence about the relationship between financial innovation recently and the growth of the economy, just one shred of information.

A few years ago I happened to be at a conference of business people,and I found myself sitting next to one of the inventors of financial engineering. I didn't know him, but I knew who he was and that he had won a Nobel Prize, and I nudged him and asked what all the financial engineering does for the economy and what it does for productivity.

Much to my surprise, he leaned over and whispered in my ear that it does nothing—and this was from a leader in the world of financial engineering. I asked him what it did do, and he said that it moves around the rents in the financial system—and besides, it's a lot of intellectual fun.

Now, I have no doubts that it moves around the rents in the financial system, but not only this, as it seems to have vastly increased them.

ERAJ SHIRVANI: So, is your hypothesis that corporate bonds, the securitization market—none of these financial innovations have done anything to help the economy? What shocks me about today is the number of people in this room who have all been architects of the economy as we have it today who have now decided that all of a sudden everything they have worked on over the past 30 years is all bad and the pendulum has swung too far.

I worry when we say that nothing good can come from innovation. Have there been excesses? Absolutely. Have there been inappropriate products? Absolutely. Are there investors who should be held accountable for buying things they didn't understand? Absolutely. However, that does not make it right to say that innovation in itself is a bad thing.

MR. VOLCKER:
I am not sure that I said innovation in itself is a bad thing. I said that I have found very little evidence that vast amounts of innovation in financial markets in recent years have had a visible effect on the productivity of the economy. Maybe you can show me that I am wrong. All I know is that the economy was rising very nicely in the 1950s and 1960s without all of these innovations. Indeed, it was quite good in the 1980s without credit-default swaps and without securitization and without CDOs.

I do not know if something happened that suddenly made these innovations essential for growth. In fact, we had greater speed of growth and particularly did not put the whole economy at risk of collapse.

If it is really true that the world economy was on the brink of a great depression that was greatly complicated by financial problems, then we have a rather basic problem that calls for our best thinking, and structural innovation if necessary. I do not want to stop you all from innovating, but do it within a structure that will not put the entire world economy at risk.

MR. VOLCKER: First, let us agree that we have a problem with moral hazard. I do not think that there is any perfect answer in dealing with it, but I would suggest that we can approach an answer by recognizing that elements of finance have always been risky and that's certainly true of the commercial-banking system.

The commercial-paper market is totally dependent on the commercial banking market. They are an essential financial institution that has historically been protected. It has been protected on one side and regulated on the other side.

I think that fundamental is going to remain. People are going to think it is important, it is important, it needs regulation and in extremis it needs protection—deposit insurance, lender of last resort and so forth.

I think that it is extraneous to that function that they do hedge funds, equity funds and that they trade in commodities and securities, and a lot of other stuff, which is secondary in terms of direct responsibilities for lenders, borrowers, depositors and all the rest.

There is nothing wrong with any of those activities, but let you nonbank people do it and you can provide fluidity in markets and flexibility. If you fail, you're going to fail, and I am not going to help you, and your stockholders are going to be gone, and your creditors will be at risk, and that is the way that it should be.

Excerpts from Paul Volcker: Think More Boldly

Volcker: We Need to Think More Boldly

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