Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Paul Volcker argues for splitting commercial and investment banks

In a recent speech, Paul Volcker, former Federal Reserve Chairman and current economic adviser to President Barack Obama, argues that we need to separate traditional commercial banking from investment banking in order to get a more stable banking system:

I think a primary characteristic of the system ought to be a strong, traditional, commercial banking-type system. Probably we ought to have some very large institutions -- or at least that's the way the market is going -- whose primary purpose is a kind of fiduciary responsibility to service consumers, individuals, businesses and governments by providing outlets for their money and by providing credit. They ought to be the core of the credit and financial system.

This kind of system was in place in the United States thirty years ago and is still in place in Canada, and may have provided support for the Canadian system during this particularly difficult time. I'm not arguing that you need an oligopoly to the extent you have one in Canada, but you do know by experience that these big commercial banking institutions will be protected by the government, de facto. No government has been willing to permit these institutions, or the creditors and depositors to these institutions, to be damaged. They recognize that the damage to the economy would be too great.

What has happened recently just underscores that. And I think we're at the point where we can no longer fool ourselves by saying that is not the case. The government will support these institutions, which in turn implies a closer supervision and regulation of those institutions, a more effective regulation than we've had, at least in the United States, in the recent past. And that may involve a lot of different agencies and so forth. I won't get into that.

But I think it does say that those institutions should not engage in highly risky entrepreneurial activity. That's not their job because it brings into question the stability of the institution. They may make a lot of money and they may have a lot of fun, in the short run. It may encourage pursuit of a profit in the short run. But it is not consistent with the stability that those institutions should be about. It's not consistent at all with avoiding conflict of interest.

These institutions that have arisen in the United States and the UK that combine hedge funds, equity funds, large proprietary trading with commercial banks, have enormous conflicts of interest. And I think the conflicts of interest contribute to their instability. So I would say let's get rid of that. Let's have big and small commercial banks and protect them – it's the service part of the financial system.

And then we have the other part, which I'll call the capital market system, which by and large isn't directly dealing with customers. They're dealing with each other. They're trading. They're about hedge funds and equity funds. And they have a function in providing fluid markets and innovating and providing some flexibility, and I don't think they need to be so highly regulated. They're not at the core of the system, unless they get really big. If they get really big then you have to regulate them, too. But I don't think we need to have close regulation of every peewee hedge fund in the world.

So you have this bifurcated -- in a sense -- financial system that implies a lot about regulation and national governments. If you're going to have an open system, you have got to get much more cooperation and coordination from different countries. I think that's possible, given what we're going through. You've got to do something about the infrastructure of the system and you have to worry about the credit rating agencies.

These banks were relying on credit rating agencies while putting these big packages of securities together and selling them. They had practically – they would never admit this – given up credit departments in their own institutions that were sophisticated and well-developed. That was a cost centre – why do we need it, they thought. Obviously that hasn't worked out very well.

This leaves open the question of whether commercial banks could offer retail brokerage services. I think they could. In today's model, retail brokerage has traditionally been a "sales" function for investments banks, but that is no longer working out very well for most consumers.

They key thing is that banks would once again be true banks, with a focus on absolute protection of the value of cash.

-- Jack Krupansky


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