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Simon Johnson

Simon Johnson

Posted: January 21, 2010 12:58 AM

Paul Volcker Prevails

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Paul Volcker, legendary central banker turned radical reformer of our financial system, has won an important round. The WSJ is now reporting:

President Barack Obama on Thursday is expected to propose new limits on the size and risk taken by the country's biggest banks, marking the administration's latest assault on Wall Street in what could mark a return -- at least in spirit -- to some of the curbs on finance put in place during the Great Depression.

This is an important change of course that, while still far from complete, represents a major victory for Volcker - who has been pushing firmly for exactly this.

Thursday's announcement should be assessed on three issues.

  1. Does the president provide a clear statement of why we need these new limits on banks? The administration's narrative on what caused the crisis of 2008-09 has been lame and completely unconvincing so far. The president must take it to the banks directly - tracing the origins of our "too big to fail" vulnerabilities to the excessive deregulation of banks following the Reagan Revolution and emphasizing how much worse these problems became during the Bush years.
  2. Are the proposed limits on the total size (e.g., assets) of banks, or just on part of their operations - such as proprietary trading? The limits need to be on everything that banks do, if they are to be meaningful at all. This is not a moment for technocratic niceties; the banks must be reined in, simply and directly.
  3. Is there a clear strategy for (a) taking concrete workable proposals directly to Congress, and (b) win, lose, or draw in the Senate, running hard with this issue to the midterm elections?

Push every Republican to take a public stand on this question, and you will be amazed at what you hear (if they stick to what they have been saying behind closed doors on Capitol Hill.)

The spin from the White House is that the president and his advisers have been discussing this move for months. The less time spent on such nonsense tomorrow the better. The record speaks for itself, including public statements and private briefings as recently as last week - this is a major policy change and a good idea.

The major question now is - will the White House have the courage of its convictions and really fight the big banks on this issue? If the White House goes into this fight half-hearted or without really understanding (or explaining) the underlying problem of unfettered banks that are too big to fail, they will not win.