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Volcker Urges Dividing Investment, Commercial Banks
By Matthew Benjamin and Christine Harper
March 6, 2009


Commercial banks should be separated from investment banks in order to avoid another crisis like the U.S. is experiencing, according to former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.

“Maybe we ought to have a kind of two-tier financial system,” Volcker, who heads President Barack Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, said today at a conference at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

Commercial banks would provide customers with depository services and access to credit and would be highly regulated, while securities firms would have the freedom to take on more risk and practice trading, “relatively free of regulation,” Volcker said.

Volcker’s remarks indicated his preference for reinstating some of the divisions between commercial and investment banks that were removed by Congress’s repeal in 1999 of the Great Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act.

Volcker’s proposals, included in a January report he wrote with the Group of 30, would allow commercial banks to continue to do underwriting and provide merger advice, activities traditionally associated with investment banking, he said.

Still, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley, which converted to banks in September, would have to exit some businesses if they were to remain as commercial banks, he said.

‘Separation’

“What used to be the traditional investment banks, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs so forth, which used to do some underwriting and mergers and acquisitions, are dominated by other activities we would exclude -- very heavy proprietary trading, hedge funds,” he said. “So there’s some separation to be made.”

Jeanmarie McFadden, a spokeswoman for Morgan Stanley, declined to comment. A Goldman spokesman couldn’t be immediately reached.

Volcker also said international regulations on financial firms are probably an inevitable consequence of the industry’s current problems.

“In this world, I don’t see how we can avoid international consistency” on securities regulations going forward, he said. “The U.S. is no longer in a position to dictate that the world does it according to the way we’ve done it.”

Volcker’s comments come as President Barack Obama seeks legislative proposals within weeks for a regulatory overhaul of finance, especially companies deemed vital to the stability of the financial system.

Glass-Steagall

The new regulatory framework may stop short of reinstating Glass-Steagall, analysts say, though banks may separate their business lines in order to avoid strong regulatory scrutiny.

Volcker, who ran the Fed from 1979 to 1987, said the financial industry’s problems stem from larger issues. “I don’t think this is just a technical problem, it’s a societal problem,” he said. He cited bankers on Wall Street receiving multimillion-dollar bonuses for engineering failed mergers.

“There’s something wrong with the system,” Volcker said. “What are the incentives, what’s going on here?”