Volcker Says China’s Rise Highlights Relative U.S. Decline

Bloomberg | September 29, 2009 | 00:01 EDT

Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker said the rise of China and other emerging economies has underscored a decline in the comparative economic and intellectual leadership of the U.S. “I don’t know how we accommodate ourselves to it,” Volcker, an economic adviser to President Barack Obama, said in an interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose taped yesterday in New York. “You cannot be dependent upon these countries for three to four trillion dollars of your debt and think that they’re going to be passive observers of whatever you do.” The former Fed chairman also said unemployment at 9.7 percent will slow the pace of recovery from the U.S. recession as Americans default on mortgages and consumer loans. Moreover, commercial real estate loans are likely to cause further losses for banks. “This recovery will be slower,” he said. “We can’t just pump up consumption and pump up housing again.” Group of 20 leaders, meeting in Pittsburgh last week, announced plans for more durable economic growth, including reducing U.S. dependence on overseas capital and cutting the reliance of emerging nations such as China on exports. World leaders decided that the G-20, which includes emerging economies such as China and Brazil, will replace the Group of Eight as the main forum for global economic coordination. The shift illustrates how the excesses that led to the financial crisis have compelled industrial nations to share governance of the world economy.    

Less Dominant

The growth of emerging economies is “symbolic of the relative, less dominant position the United States has, not just in the economy but in leadership, intellectual and otherwise,” Volcker said. The G-20 accounts for about 85 percent of global gross domestic product and was created after a spate of currency devaluations plagued emerging markets from Russia to Thailand in the 1990s. The G-8, which comprises the most advanced industrial economies of Europe and North America plus Japan and Russia, accounts for about half of global GDP. China has overtaken Germany to become the world’s third- largest economy and may soon become the biggest exporter. It passed Japan a year ago as the main foreign investor in U.S. government debt. China, Russia, Brazil and India together hold about 42 percent of international reserve assets, excluding gold.

Herding Cats

“I would like to think that given the history of the past, given the strength, actual and potential of the American economy, we can still provide a kind of indispensable element of leadership here,” Volcker, 82, said. “But it’s not going to be dictatorial, I’ll tell you that. It is very hard to herd these cats together.” Volcker repeated that under a new regulatory structure the Fed should be given primary responsibility for supervising banks rather than a council of regulators led by the U.S. Treasury. The Treasury has “no professional background and no traditions in the area of banking supervision,” Volcker said. “In the distribution of authorities among regulatory institutions, it’s really the Federal Reserve that naturally should to be surveying the whole world, so to speak,” he said. Volcker has criticized the Obama administration’s plan to give the Fed authority to supervise “systemically important” financial firms. Such a designation would imply government readiness to support the firms in a crisis, encouraging excessive risk-taking, he said in testimony to the House Financial Services Committee on Sept. 24.

Independent Agency

The central bank should instead oversee bank regulation carried out by an independent agency, Volcker has said. The chairman of that agency could also be a vice chairman of the Fed, to increase accountability and ensure the Fed is fully informed. Volcker is chairman of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board, a body created by Obama in February to recommend responses to the crisis. Since January, Volcker has advocated that regulators prohibit financial companies whose collapse would pose a risk to the economy — those considered “too big to fail” — from engaging in certain types of trading and investing. The administration wants stricter oversight for such companies and tighter capital and liquidity requirements. Volcker said the Fed and the White House “were right in providing massive support” to financial markets after the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. Sept. 15, 2008, and to bail out American International Group. “Faced with those emergencies, they did what they had to do at the time,” he said.

Giving Succor

While more might have been done ahead of time to prevent Lehman’s demise, “I think if it had been rescued somehow and kept alive, I still think you would have had an attack on the other institutions,” he said. The government’s actions give “succor to the next institution that gets in trouble and to their creditors in particular,” Volcker said. The interview will air in two parts, on Tuesday and Wednesday on PBS, and will be rebroadcast on Wednesday and Thursday on Bloomberg Television channels around the world as part of a new partnership between Rose and Bloomberg.


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