Mr. Volcker speaks his mind across a broad range of topics
including our business schools.“We had all our best business schools in the United States pouring out financial engineers, every smart young mathematician and physicist said ‘I don’t want to be a civil engineer, a mechanical engineer. I’m a smart guy, I want to go to Wall Street.’
By Damian Paletta
The Wall Street Journal
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker scrapped a prepared speech he had planned to deliver at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago on Thursday, and instead delivered a blistering, off-the-cuff critique leveled at nearly every corner of the financial system.
Standing at a lectern with his hands in his pockets, Volcker moved unsparingly from banks to regulators to business schools to the Fed to money-market funds during his luncheon speech.
He praised the new financial overhaul law, but said the system remained at risk because it is subject to future “judgments” of individual regulators, who he said would be relentlessly lobbied by banks and politicians to soften the rules.
“This is a plea for structural changes in markets and market regulation,” he said at one point.
Here are his views on a variety of topics.
- Macroprudential regulation — “somehow those words grate on my ears.”
- Banking — Investment banks became “trading machines instead of investment banks [leading to] encroachment on the territory of commercial banks, and commercial banks encroached on the territory of others in a way that couldn’t easily be managed by the old supervisory system.”
- Financial system — “The financial system is broken. We can use that term in late 2008, and I think it’s fair to still use the term unfortunately. We know that parts of it are absolutely broken, like the mortgage market which only happens to be the most important part of our capital markets [and has] become a subsidiary of the U.S. government.”
- Business schools — “We had all our best business schools in the United States pouring out financial engineers, every smart young mathematician and physicist said ‘I don’t want to be a civil engineer, a mechanical engineer. I’m a smart guy, I want to go to Wall Street.’ And then you know all the risks were going to be sliced and diced and [people thought] the market would be resilient and not face any crises. We took care of all that stuff, and I think that was the general philosophy that markets are efficient and self correcting and we don’t have to worry about them too much.
- Central banks and the Fed — “Central banks became…maybe a little too infatuated with their own skills and authority because they found secrets to price stability…I think its fair to say there was a certain neglect of supervisory responsibilities, certainly not confined to the Federal Reserve, but including the Federal Reserve, I only say that because the Federal Reserve is the most important in my view.”
- The recession — “It’s so difficult to get out of this recession because of the basic disequilibrium in the real economy.”
- Council of regulators — “Potentially cumbersome.”
- On judgment — “Let me suggest to you that relying on judgment all the time makes for a very heavy burden whether you are regulating an individual institution or whether you are regulating the whole market or whether you are deciding what might be disturbing or what might not be disturbing. It’s pretty tough and it’s subject to all kinds of political and institutional blockages as well.”
- On procyclicality — “It’s the hardest thing as a regulator in my opinion…when things are really going well, the economy is going well, the market is not disturbed, but you see developments in an institution or in markets that is potentially destabilizing, doing something about it is extremely difficult. Because the answer of the people in the markets is, ‘what are you talking about? Things are going really well. We know more about banking and finance than you do, get out of my hair, if you don’t get out of my hair I’m going to write my congressman.’”
- Risk management — “Markets that are prone to excesses in one direction or another are not simply managed under the assumption that we can assume that everybody follows a normal distribution curve. Normal distribution curves — if I would submit to you — do not exist in financial markets. Its not that they are fat tails, they don’t exist. I keep hearing about fat tails, and Jesus, it’s only supposed to occur every 100 years, and it appears every 10 years.”
- Derivatives — “I’ve heard so many stories about how important” derivatives are but “there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that the creation of derivatives has far exceeded any pressing need for hedging.”
- Money market funds — “Money market funds have encroached so much on the banking market. They are nothing, in my view, but a regulatory arbitrage. The purpose that they serve in handling payments and short term paper is a commercial banking function” but they don’t hold the capital or face the regulation of banks.
- The Fed and Dodd-Frank — Volcker said it was a “miracle” that despite all the criticism aimed at the Fed the central bank “came out with enhanced regulatory authorities rather than reduced regulatory authorities.”