Despite its more unified structure for regulating financial institutions, the United Kingdom has been less coordinated in its responses to the crisis than the United States, former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker said Monday.
During a press conference in New York to discuss a new report on financial regulation by the Group of 30, Mr. Volcker and other members of the nonprofit advisory group refrained from making specific recommendations. Such an undertaking was outside of the scope of a project the group launched last year, the presenters said.
Nevertheless, they offered some pointed observations about the financial crisis.
Mr. Volcker, who led the task force that produced the report, said the United Kingdom, "which has the most unified banking regulatory system, seemed to have trouble coordinating, in the midst of the crisis, between the Treasury, the central bank," and the Financial Services Authority.
That lack of coordination "I guess demonstrates the complications of this area, even when you think you have a highly integrated system," he said. "In a way, I think maybe the communication in the United States between Treasury and the central bank was closer than it was in the U.K."
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the U.K. system, the U.S. regulatory structure is "loosely diversified," Mr. Volcker said. There have been "a great many regulatory agencies working together or not working together in the past."
In this crisis, the Fed "has exercised authority which goes well beyond anything I thought was normal for the central bank," he said. "And then the Treasury … has become the lender of last resort in the United States, which, I think, is appropriate in this particular crisis, when the value of assets is at risk and the taxpayer is clearly at risk."
In the longer term, "sorting that out — that distinction — is, I think, important," he said. "It's been sorted out on the fly, but not with any feeling of consistency or longevity."
Another salient feature of the crisis is that "everybody is running back to mother — 'mother' meaning commercial banks with a kind of stable base and a stable supervisory system," said Mr. Volcker, who ran the Fed from 1979 to 1987. "And I think that is a very interesting phenomenon that any new regulatory system, nationally or internationally, is going to take account of."
In recent years "in the United States, commercial banks had diminished sharply in importance in the provision of credit," he said. "The market took over, and it's fair to say the market has flopped. And we are going to have to reconsider the nature of the system and bring reasonable control and supervision, probably with the commercial banks still at the core."
Jacob Frenkel, the chairman of the Group of 30, a vice chairman of American International Group Inc., and the former governor of the Bank of Israel, said central bankers increasingly believe in the need for the primacy of central banks. "The experience of the last few months really moves the consensus into the conviction that it is essential that bank supervision in the fundamental context should rest within the central bank."
But Mr. Volcker said the report takes no position on that idea. "The central bank, given its key role, needs to have a clear flow of information and access, but it takes no position as to whether it should be the primary supervisor."
He also offered a brief appraisal of Ben Bernanke's stewardship of the Fed during the crisis.
"It's a wonder he stays awake all night and deals with this the best he can in a very adequate way," Mr. Volcker said. "Given the limited powers and the pressures he is under, I admire what all these people are doing."