A specialist studies his screens as he works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Oct. 10, 2008.
"We have the tools to manage the crisis"
Op-Ed, Wall Street Journal
October 10, 2008
Author: Paul Volcker, International Council Member, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Today, the financial crisis has reached a critical point. The sharp decline in the stock market and its volatility dramatically make the point. More important if less visible, the flow of credit through the banking system and the financial markets is seriously impaired -- even in part frozen.
For months, the real economy, apart from housing, had not been much affected by the developing crisis. Now, a full-scale recession appears unavoidable. Important state and local governments face deficits they may be unable to finance. Recessionary forces are apparent in other important countries and exchange rates are unstable.
Those are facts.
They are the culmination of economic imbalances, a succession of financial bubbles and financial crises that have been building for years. It's no wonder that confidence in markets, banks, and financial management has been badly eroded. Without effective action, fear might take hold, threatening orderly recovery.
Fortunately, there is also good reason to believe that the means are now available to turn the tide. Financial authorities, in the United States and elsewhere, are now in a position to take needed and convincing action to stabilize markets and to restore trust.
First of all, there is now clear recognition that the problem is international, and international coordination and cooperation is both necessary and underway. The days of finger pointing and schadenfreude are over. The concerted reduction in central bank interest rates is one concrete manifestation of that fact.
More important in existing circumstances is the clear determination of our Treasury, of European finance ministries, and of central banks to support and defend the stability of major international banks. That approach extends to providing fresh capital to supplement private funds if necessary.
In the U.S., with higher limits of deposit insurance in place, the FDIC has demonstrated its ability to protect depositors, to arrange mergers, and to provide capital for troubled banks. Most other countries now have a comparable capacity.
Recent U.S. legislation has provided authority for large-scale direct intervention by the Treasury in the mortgage and other troubled markets. Along with increased purchases by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, now under government control, means of restoring needed liquidity are at hand.
Other key sectors of financial markets are now protected or supported by either the Treasury or Federal Reserve, specifically by temporary insurance of money-market funds and by direct purchase of commercial paper.
Active efforts are underway to develop stronger netting, clearing and settlement arrangements for certain derivatives, in particular the notional trillions of credit default swaps, the absence of which has contributed to uncertainty and large demands for scarce collateral.
None of that is easy. Some of it poses risks for the taxpayer. All of it is decidedly unattractive in the sense of large official intervention in what should be private markets able to stand on their own feet. Unattractive or not in normal circumstances, the point is the needed tools to restore and maintain functioning markets are there. Now is the time to use them. To that end, the immediate and critical need is determined, forceful and persistent leadership -- extending across administrations and Congresses. Both the public and private sectors must be involved.
The inevitable recession can be moderated. The groundwork can be laid for reconstructing the financial system and the regulatory and supervisory arrangements from the bottom up. The extraordinary interventions by the government (and taxpayer) should be ended as soon as reasonably feasible.
That rebuilding will be the job of another day -- of a new administration here in the U.S., of finance ministries and central banks working together. It must draw upon the strength of the now chastened private sector. It will require more understanding of the risks embedded in so-called financial engineering and of the perverse compensation incentives that have exalted risk over prudence.
There is, and must be, recognition of the essential role that free and competitive financial markets play in a vigorous, innovative economic system. There needs to be understanding, in that context, that financial ups and downs -- and financial crises -- will be inevitable, even with responsible economic policies and sensible regulation. But never again should so much economic damage be risked by a financial structure so fragile, so overextended, so opaque as that of recent years.
Mr. Volcker was chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1979-1987.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.
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