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Dodd-Frank and Paul Volcker
Back in July 2010 (Wall Street History, 7/2/10), I wrote about Dodd-Frank as it worked its way through the respective House and Senate committees. It’s a good time to review what was being said 1 ½ years ago.
Comments on the Financial Reform Legislation, from both sides.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT).
“This is a tremendous day,” said Dodd. “After great debate, we have produced a strong Wall Street reform bill that will fundamentally change the way our financial services sector is regulated.
“Over the past two years, America has faced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Millions of Americans have lost their homes, their jobs, their savings and their faith in our economy.
“The American people have called on us to set clear rules of the road for the financial industry to prevent a repeat of the financial collapse that cost so many so dearly.
“We have succeeded in creating an office to ensure American consumers get the clear, accurate information they need to shop for mortgages, credit cards, and other financial products, and protect them from hidden fees, abusive terms, and deceptive practices.
“We found a way to end too big to fail bailouts, ensuring that no financial institution will ever be capable of bringing down the economy.
“We closed loopholes in regulations and required greater transparency and accountability for over-the-counter derivatives, asset backed securities, hedge funds, mortgage brokers and payday lenders.
“I am proud of this bill, and I am proud of the open and transparent process that led to such a successful result.”
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY):
“Americans are in no mood to have Washington tell them, ‘trust me.’ And when Democrats in Washington claim that yet another 2,000-page bill and massive new regulations on consumers are the solution to the failings of Wall Street, they want them to prove it. So when the chief sponsor of the Wall Street bill says that ‘no one will know’ if their bill works until it’s already implemented, it doesn’t inspire confidence.
“Everyone recognizes the need to rein in Wall Street to prevent another crisis. And there are reforms we agree on that will benefit taxpayers. But while we will review this latest version carefully, it’s not encouraging that a bill that was supposed to address the problems of Wall Street and protect consumers is supported by the biggest banks, opposed by small business owners and still fails to address the government sponsored enterprises that were the root cause of the problem.”
Republican Senator Judd Gregg (NH), a member of the Senate Banking Committee:
“Nearly two years after the onset of one of the most serious economic meltdowns in our nation’s history, we finally have wrapped up conference proceedings on the Majority’s financial regulatory reform bill. Ironically, the most remarkable feature of this supposedly comprehensive measure is its failure to substantively address the root causes of the 2008 crisis – shoddy underwriting practices and the government sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The legislation also includes extraneous provisions which have little to do with preventing another financial crisis, such as the new Consumer Protection Agency, and more to do with carrying out the cause of the moment for politically driven special interest groups. Furthermore, the provisions on derivatives, capital requirements and the Volcker rule will lead to less lending, reducing the ability of American families and small businesses to access credit at a reasonable cost.
“In an effort that should be geared toward correcting deficiencies in our regulatory structure, and during a time when we should be focused on economic recovery, this legislation is a failure on both counts. It will not encourage much-needed stability and confidence in our financial markets. It will not significantly reduce systemic risk in our financial sector.
“On top of our country’s mounting debt and deficits and the Administration’s tax increases, this proposal is another step backward in our efforts to create jobs and revive the economy.”
Sources: senate.gov and individual senator sites.
Earlier, 11/13/2009, in this space, I wrote of the story of Paul Volcker…another tale worth repeating today in light of the debate over his new rule.
“Paul Volcker stands out as one of the great central bankers of the twentieth century.”
--Economist Henry Kaufman
Following is the story of a giant in the financial world, the former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. We will also detour once or twice to examine some of the other players who helped shape the Volcker era.
But first, here are some definitions of terms that may make it easier to understand the piece:
Discount Rate: The interest rate charged by the Federal Reserve on loans to its member banks.
Federal Funds Rate: The rate of interest on overnight loans of excess reserves among commercial banks.
M1: Measurement of the domestic money supply that incorporates only money that is ordinarily used for spending on goods and services. M1 includes currency, checking account balances, and travelers’ checks.
M2: A measure of the money supply that includes M1 plus savings and time deposits, overnight repurchase agreements, and personal balances in money market accounts. Thus, M2 includes money that can be used for spending (M1) plus items that can be quickly converted to M1.
Money Supply: The amount of money in the economy. Since the money supply is considered by some to be a critical element in determining economic activity, from time to time the financial markets place great importance on the Federal Reserve’s reports of changes in the supply. For example, consistently large increases in the money supply can lead to future inflation.
Prime Rate: A short-term interest rate quoted by a commercial bank as an indication of the rate being charged on loans to its best commercial customers. While banks frequently charge more than the quoted ‘prime rate,’ it is a benchmark against which other rates are measured.
Paul Volcker is a career civil servant and central banker who, among his various positions, served as Under Secretary of the Treasury under Richard Nixon and then president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank.
Volcker is an imposing figure, 6’7” to be exact, and a major player on the world financial stage as the year 1979 unwound. With his broad background, and the international markets in a state of flux, it was time for him to take the spotlight.
1979 was a bleak year for America. The economic news was not good: soaring interest rates, inflation, and a rising foreign trade deficit led to a moribund stock market.
Events overseas were attracting attention, particularly in Iran, where in January the Shah had been toppled and a fundamentalist Islamic dictatorship installed under the rule of Ayatollah Khomenei. By November, Islamic revolutionaries seized the U.S. Embassy, taking 90 hostages.
It was a time of malaise, the Jimmy Carter era. Optimism was not in strong supply.
And within the Carter administration there was a lot of infighting over the nation’s economic policy. Inflation was to hit 13.3% in 1979. Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal advocated higher interest rates to bring inflation under control. But the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, G. William Miller, thought monetary policy was just fine and resisted raising rates. Miller believed inflation would eventually peter out all by itself.
In these situations, arguments between the Fed and the administration are not to be carried out in public. There is a history of upholding the Fed’s independence and to de-politicize their role as much as possible. But Blumenthal and Miller took their differences of opinion outside. They exchanged barbs in speeches and in publications from about April to July.
Through it all, Wall Street was losing confidence in Miller. The stock market was in the midst of a long period of mediocrity. In recovering from the ‘73-‘74 bear market low of 577 on the Dow Jones, the market had peaked at 1014 in September of 1976. From there it was a steady drip, drip down and by the summer of 1979, the market had been trading in the 800’s for months. [Actually, outside of two days in November, the Dow, as measured by the closing average, traded in the 800’s all year!]
So on July 19, President Carter decided that it was time to make a change and Blumenthal was fired (as well as three other cabinet members, with a fifth resigning) to be replaced at Treasury by Miller. Then on July 25 Carter nominated Paul Volcker to be the new chairman of the Federal Reserve. Wall Street celebrated by rallying 10 points that day, 829 to 839.
Historian Charles Geisst comments:
“Volcker was selected because he was the candidate of Wall Street. This was their price, in effect. What was known about him? That he was able and bright and it was also known that he was conservative. What wasn’t known was that he was going to impose some very dramatic changes.”
[As I read this passage, I was struck by the similarity with the process of selecting Supreme Court nominees. Presidents often think they know where a particular judge stands before they are selected. But then often the “conservative” becomes a “liberal” jurist, and vice versa.]
Volcker was confirmed by Congress on August 2 and then sworn in on August 6. He got to work.
While the U.S. economy was growing, when you took out inflation the growth was minimal. It was a period of “stagflation,” inflation with slow to zero growth. As the data rolled in, Volcker made it clear that inflation was “public enemy number one.”
On October 4, the September Producer Price Index showed a rise of 17%, the largest increase in five years.
On October 5, the Labor Department reported unemployment had declined slightly to 5.8%.
Meanwhile, the money supply had been expanding rapidly. The markets grew increasingly skittish and overseas, investors were uneasy over the U.S. seeming inability to solve the inflation problem. The dollar was weak and the trade deficit was soaring.
Volcker commenced an attack on the money supply as soon as he took control. He began to set a target for the growth of money in the hopes that demand for credit would begin to dry up. The federal funds rate was increased in the belief banks would eventually cut back on their loan lending. If it became difficult to find new capital, a company’s expansion plans would be put on hold.
Then on October 6, Volcker acted even more forcefully. Holding a rare Saturday night news conference, he unleashed his own version of the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Pointing to the recent economic releases, Volcker said, “Business data has been good and better than expected. Inflation data has been bad and perhaps worse than expected.”
The Chairman announced that the discount rate was being increased a full percentage point to a record 12%. “We consider that (this) action will effectively reinforce actions taken earlier to deal with the inflationary environment.”
But Volcker wasn’t just looking to slow inflation, he was seeking to smash it! It was just the start and the Carter administration was none too pleased. Neither were the financial markets.
When the Dow Jones opened on Monday, October 8, it fell from 898 to 884. Within a month it would be below 800. [Those two aforementioned days in November.] Meanwhile, in the bond pits, rates soared. The 3-month Treasury Bill, yielding around 8% in late September, climbed to 12.5% by year end.
One sidelight to the market maneuverings around the October 6 Fed announcement. On October 5, IBM had brought to market the largest corporate bond offering ever, $1 billion. Of course the fixed income market was roiled that following Monday. Many of the 225 investment banks in on the deal were left with large amounts of inventory. [Not having anticipated any problems, the firms had taken down positions in the IBM bonds in the full confidence that it would be easy to resell them to their clients. The sudden rise in rates on Monday, and the commensurate decline in the value of bonds, meant that some firms faced large losses on their positions of unsold paper. Ironically, Salomon, the co-lead in the offering, had sold virtually all of its bonds before Volcker’s announcement, thus losing little, which fanned speculation that they had inside information. This was never proved to be the case.]
“It’s easy for a central banker to be popular during euphoric financial times. But the political perils are severe when tough measures are needed - measures that extract a high short-term toll in the interest of longer-term economic health - as they were in the late 1970s.”
As we pick up our story it’s the fall of 1979 and Volcker has put his stamp on Fed policy by raising the discount rate a full percentage point while emphasizing that killing inflation was his number one priority. The chairman realized he risked putting the economy into recession.
Interest rates soared. While the 3-month Treasury Bill was climbing from 8% in September of ‘79 to 12.5% by year end, the Fed wasn’t counting on long-term rates rising as well, from the 9.2% level on the then benchmark 30-year in September to 10.1% by December 31st.
[In most normal environments, as the Fed is increasing short interest rates (the only part of the yield curve they can influence directly), the longer end responds positively. Since the longer end represents “inflation expectations,” by raising short rates you would expect to eventually slow the economy and dampen inflation fears. Thus, the premium that investors demand for buying longer-term instruments should narrow, not widen.]
Into early 1980, interest rates across the board continued to rise and the economy tipped into recession (a mild but an important one as far as the presidential election of 1980 was concerned). By the end of the first quarter, the long bond was yielding 12.3%. Treasury Bills were to peak that year in the second quarter, 15.6%. The inflation rate for the first quarter of 1980, as measured by the CPI was 14.6%.
Awful news. But what we didn’t know at the time, as is often the case during events such as these, was that the back of inflation had been broken. By the middle of 1981, it was running at a 9.7% clip and for the year was below 9%. Volcker was winning.
But the times were tough on the chairman. Henry Kaufman went to visit him in 1980 and observed that construction bricks were filling an outer office, yet no renovation appeared to be taking place. It turns out that the Brick Layers Union had sent them over, along with a note saying that they were no longer needed. A rather vicious reminder of the troubled economic environment.
1980 was a miserable year for President Carter as well: Inflation, unbelievably high interest rates, a desultory stock market, and the Iranian hostage crisis. Carter went against the policy of the Fed and instituted his own policy of “special credit controls” whereby special requirements were placed on the reserves of banks and credit card companies. Volcker sat by, not wanting to be seen playing politics. Like the price controls of President Nixon, the credit controls worked for a spell and rates declined, only to soar anew.
Ronald Reagan won the election that November and, as soon as the votes were tabulated, Volcker began to tighten interest rates more. The federal funds rate, which had averaged 11.2% in 1979, peaked at 20% in June 1981. The prime rate rose to 21.5% in ‘81 as well. Treasury Bills hit 17.3% and the long bond was on its way to 15.3%.
Upon taking office, Reagan said the country faced the threat of economic calamity. But many countered his preferred policies of tax cuts would encourage spending and investment and thus hamper Volcker’s effort to kill inflation, once and for all.
Reagan, though, understood the importance of ending the inflation threat and he was willing to endure a deep recession to accomplish this. Already, early in 1981 there were reports that he would be a one-term president. [That spring John Hinckley almost had his own say on this view.]
But while Reagan would remark at cabinet meetings, “Why do we need the Federal Reserve at all?” he let Volcker operate with little interference. [Incidentally, no one was ever able to answer Reagan’s question. Another example of his simplistic brilliance.]
By July 1981, the nation was in recession and it would be a long, ugly one. [Economists choose November 1982 as the month the recession ended.] The manufacturing sector was decimated plus the combination of high interest rates and an expensive dollar sharply reduced American exports, particularly hurting farmers. In 1982 the unemployment rate hit 9.7%.
Reagan didn’t waver. He insisted that if the nation “stayed the course” it would emerge healthier and more prosperous in the end.
Meanwhile, Paul Volcker stuck to his own guns as well, convinced that firm control of the money supply was the key to a sound economy. Plus inflation was heading lower. A CPI that registered 13.3% for 1979 was to plummet to 3.8% for all of 1982.
The stock market, which had reacted positively to Reagan’s victory in November 1980, with the Dow Jones closing at 953 on the first trading day after the election, was to become a victim of the deep recession of ‘81-‘82. By the summer of 1982 the Dow would plummet to 776 on August 12, but Volcker was increasingly convinced the time was near to reverse course.
And another figure who was about to turn positive was “Dr. Doom,” economist Henry Kaufman of Salomon Brothers. Kaufman’s pronouncements on the financial markets were legendary back in the late ‘70s - early ‘80s. When Henry spoke, people listened.
I started my career in the financial services industry working in the same building where Salomon’s headquarters were and I used to ride the elevator with Mr. Kaufman as our companies were in the same elevator bank. He always looked so glum and we felt like saying, “Hey, nice comment, Henry!” as the market tanked after a particularly negative missive from the Doctor.
But by the summer of 1982, Kaufman was becoming increasingly convinced that a significant interest rate decline lay ahead. The recession, financial blockages and intense international competition augured for a more favorable environment in bond land, and by inference, the stock market. Kaufman decided to turn bullish.
On August 17, Dr. Doom issued a memo proclaiming the worst was over. The financial markets went ballistic. The Dow Jones rallied 38.81 that day (792 to 831) or 4.9%, the largest single-day rise in the history. A near record 93 million shares changed hands and there were 10 stocks up for every 1 down. Over in the bond pits, short-term rates fell about half a point in one day. The Fed cut the discount rate in August and the great bull market was under way.
Ironically, as the Fed relaxed policy, money supply growth soared. The Reagan budget deficits began to soar as well. Interest rates were to take another hit to the gut in 1984 as the yield on the long bond hit 14% but, as the realization was also sinking in that inflation was not going to return to the levels of 1979-81, rates resumed their downtrend and the great bull market in bonds was under way.
Paul Volcker stayed on as Fed Chairman until his retirement in June 1987, to be replaced by Alan Greenspan. While Volcker has remained active in the financial arena, perhaps his highest profile stance since his Fed days was taken during the Long-Term Capital Management fiasco of 1998. Volcker questioned the “bailout” of LTCM by the consortium of investment banks. “Why should the weight of the federal government be brought to bear to help out a private investor?”
I guess they were just too big to fail, Paul. A nasty precedent was set.
[The Fed was adamant it wasn’t involved in the LTCM bailout and that this was not government interference in the free markets.]
“Monopolies in America,” Charles Geisst
“Wall Street: A History,” Charles Geisst
“The Presidents,” edited by Henry Graff
“On Money and Markets,” Henry Kaufman
“New York Times: Century of Business,” Floyd Norris and
“The Pursuit of Wealth,” Robert Sobel
“Wall Street Words,” David Scott
Wall Street History will return in two weeks.