Volcker sees greater international cooperation on regulations growing from economic crisis
Eileen Aj Connelly, AP Business Writer
EW YORK (AP) -- "Even the experts don't quite know what's going on."
Speaking to a number of those experts Friday, Paul Volcker, a top economic adviser to President Barack Obama, cited not only the lack of understanding of the global financial meltdown but the "shocking" speed with which it had spread across the world.
"One year ago, we would have said things were tough in the United States, but the rest of the world was holding up," Volcker told a conference featuring Nobel laureates, economists and investors at Columbia University in New York. "The rest of the world has not held up."
In fact, the 81-year-old former chairman of the Federal Reserve said, "I don't remember any time, maybe even the Great Depression, when things went down quite so fast."
He noted that industrial production is falling in countries across the globe faster than in the U.S., one result of the decline caused by the breakdown of unbridled financial markets that operated on a global scale.
"It's broken down in the face of almost all expectation and prediction," he noted.
Volcker didn't offer specifics on how long he thinks the recession will last or what will help start a recovery. But he predicted there will be some lasting lessons from the experience.
"I don't believe it will be forgotten ... and we will revert to the kind of financial system we had before the crisis," he said.
While he assured his audience of his confidence that capitalism will survive, Volcker said stronger regulations are needed to protect the world economy from such future shocks.
And he said he is concerned about the amount of power central banks, treasuries and regulatory agencies have acquired while trying to contain the meltdown.
"It is evident in the United States, and not just in the United States, the central bank is taking on a role that is way beyond what a central bank should be taking," he said.
Volcker stressed the importance of international cooperation in creating a new regulatory framework, particularly for major banks that operate across national boundaries -- the reverse of what's happened in recent years.
"The more international agreement we have on where we want to get to, the better off we'll be," Volcker said.
And while major banks should be more tightly controlled and less able to make the sort of risky bets that led to their current debacle, Volcker said there should also be more oversight of some kind for hedge funds, equity funds and the remaining investment banks.
He scoffed at the notion that those entities must be free to innovate -- stating that financial "innovations" like asset backed securities and credit default swaps have brought few benefits. The most important "innovation" in banking for most people in the last 20 or 30 years, he maintained, is the automatic teller machine.