Monday, February 1, 2010

NY Times Op-Ed: How to Reform Our Financial System - By Paul Volcker

What we do need is protection against the outliers. There are a limited number of investment banks (or perhaps insurance companies or other firms) the failure of which would be so disturbing as to raise concern about a broader market disruption. In such cases, authority by a relevant supervisory agency to limit their capital and leverage would be important, as the president has proposed.

To meet the possibility that failure of such institutions may nonetheless threaten the system, the reform proposals of the Obama administration and other governments point to the need for a new “resolution authority.” Specifically, the appropriately designated agency should be authorized to intervene in the event that a systemically critical capital market institution is on the brink of failure. The agency would assume control for the sole purpose of arranging an orderly liquidation or merger. Limited funds would be made available to maintain continuity of operations while preparing for the demise of the organization.

To help facilitate that process, the concept of a “living will” has been set forth by a number of governments. Stockholders and management would not be protected. Creditors would be at risk, and would suffer to the extent that the ultimate liquidation value of the firm would fall short of its debts.

To put it simply, in no sense would these capital market institutions be deemed “too big to fail.” What they would be free to do is to innovate, to trade, to speculate, to manage private pools of capital — and as ordinary businesses in a capitalist economy, to fail.

I do not deal here with other key issues of structural reform. Surely, effective arrangements for clearing and settlement and other restrictions in the now enormous market for derivatives should be agreed to as part of the present reform program. So should the need for a designated agency — preferably the Federal Reserve — charged with reviewing and appraising market developments, identifying sources of weakness and recommending action to deal with the emerging problems. Those and other matters are part of the administration’s program and now under international consideration.

In this country, I believe regulation of large insurance companies operating over many states needs to be reviewed. We also face a large challenge in rebuilding an efficient, competitive private mortgage market, an area in which commercial bank participation is needed. Those are matters for another day.

What is essential now is that we work with other nations hosting large financial markets to reach a broad consensus on an outline for the needed structural reforms, certainly including those that the president has recently set out. My clear sense is that relevant international and foreign authorities are prepared to engage in that effort. In the process, significant points of operational detail will need to be resolved, including clarifying the range of trading activity appropriate for commercial banks in support of customer relationships.

I am well aware that there are interested parties that long to return to “business as usual,” even while retaining the comfort of remaining within the confines of the official safety net. They will argue that they themselves and intelligent regulators and supervisors, armed with recent experience, can maintain the needed surveillance, foresee the dangers and manage the risks.

In contrast, I tell you that is no substitute for structural change, the point the president himself has set out so strongly.

I’ve been there — as regulator, as central banker, as commercial bank official and director — for almost 60 years. I have observed how memories dim. Individuals change. Institutional and political pressures to “lay off” tough regulation will remain — most notably in the fair weather that inevitably precedes the storm.

The implication is clear. We need to face up to needed structural changes, and place them into law. To do less will simply mean ultimate failure — failure to accept responsibility for learning from the lessons of the past and anticipating the needs of the future.