Sun, Feb 22, 2009 - Page 11 News List

Top economic advisers scratch their heads

AGENCIES , NEW YORK

Paul Volcker, chair of the US president’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, listens to speakers at Columbia University in New York on Friday.

PHOTO: AFP

“Even the experts don’t quite know what’s going on,” said Paul Volcker, a top economic adviser to US President Barack Obama when speaking to a number of those experts on Friday, while renowned investor George Soros said the world financial system has effectively disintegrated.

Volcker 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 said industrial production is falling in countries across the globe faster than in the US, 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 said.

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.

“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.

Separately, renowned investor George Soros said on Friday the world financial system has effectively disintegrated, adding that there is yet no prospect of a near-term resolution to the crisis.

Soros said the turbulence is actually more severe than during the Great Depression, comparing the current situation to the demise of the Soviet Union.

He said the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September marked a turning point in the functioning of the market system.

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