A reader wants to know what I think is behind Paul Volcker’s banking reform proposals.
Paul Volcker (1927- )—yes, the same Paul Volcker who was the chief architect of the “Volcker Shock” a generation ago, and a long-time Democrat—is currently head of President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. On January 21, Obama with Volcker at his side proposed a series of reforms that Obama dubbed the “Volcker Rule.”
Volcker’s proposed new regulations would ban commercial banks from owning or investing in hedge funds and private equity firms. Essentially, Volcker’s proposed rule would ban, or at least limit, any firm engaged in commercial banking from owning and trading stocks, corporate bonds, commodities and derivatives for its own account.
Unlike his predecessor, Republican Alan Greenpan (1926- ), Volcker is highly dubious about so-called “financial innovation.” He has remarked that “the only useful banking innovation was the invention of the ATM.”
In August 1979, then U.S. Democratic President Jimmy Carter appointed Volcker to be chairman of the Federal Reserve Board—the government body that controls the U.S. Federal Reserve System. Volcker reversed the Keynesian policy of attempting to keep interest rates low by increasing the rate of growth in the quantity of token money that the Fed creates. Instead, he allowed interest rates to increase to a level never seen before—or since.
For example, at one point under Volcker, the federal funds rates—the rate of interest that commercial banks pay on overnight loans they make to one another—hit 20 percent, a far cry from the Fed’s current federal funds target of between 0 and 0.25 percent! These unprecedentedly high interest rates sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin pushing even the official unemployment figures into the double digits for the first time since the end of the 1930s Depression.
But the high interest rates—known as the “Volcker Shock”—did halt the depreciation against gold of the U.S. dollar and the other paper currencies linked to it under the dollar system, bringing the 1970s “stagflation” to an end.
The Volcker Shock marked the transition from the reformist “Keynesian” era of making concessions to the working class and to the oppressed countries to the period of “neo-liberalism” with its rising imperialist exploitation of the oppressed countries combined with the global offensive by the ruling capitalist class against the world working class aimed at raising the rate of surplus value. The abnormally high interest rates, which lingered for many years after the Volcker Shock, also witnessed the emergence of the phenomena now called “financialization.” I plan to examine financialization in a future reply.