March 10, 2009 / 12:45 PM / 11 years ago

Bernanke's speech to Council on Foreign Relations

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The following is the full text of U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s speech on Tuesday to the Council on Foreign Relations on “Financial Reform to Address Systemic Risk.”

The world is suffering through the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, a crisis that has precipitated a sharp downturn in the global economy. Its fundamental causes remain in dispute. In my view, however, it is impossible to understand this crisis without reference to the global imbalances in trade and capital flows that began in the latter half of the 1990s. In the simplest terms, these imbalances reflected a chronic lack of saving relative to investment in the United States and some other industrial countries, combined with an extraordinary increase in saving relative to investment in many emerging market nations. The increase in excess saving in the emerging world resulted in turn from factors such as rapid economic growth in high-saving East Asian economies accompanied, outside of China, by reduced investment rates; large buildups in foreign exchange reserves in a number of emerging markets; and substantial increases in revenues received by exporters of oil and other commodities. Like water seeking its level, saving flowed from where it was abundant to where it was deficient, with the result that the United States and some other advanced countries experienced large capital inflows for more than a decade, even as real long-term interest rates remained low.

The global imbalances were the joint responsibility of the United States and our trading partners, and although the topic was a perennial one at international conferences, we collectively did not do enough to reduce those imbalances. However, the responsibility to use the resulting capital inflows effectively fell primarily on the receiving countries, particularly the United States. The details of the story are complex, but, broadly speaking, the risk-management systems of the private sector and government oversight of the financial sector in the United States and some other industrial countries failed to ensure that the inrush of capital was prudently invested, a failure that has led to a powerful reversal in investor sentiment and a seizing up of credit markets. In certain respects, our experience parallels that of some emerging-market countries in the 1990s, whose financial sectors and regulatory regimes likewise proved inadequate for efficiently investing large inflows of saving from abroad. When those failures became evident, investors lost confidence and crises ensued. A clear and highly consequential difference, however, is that the crises of the 1990s were regional, whereas the current crisis has become global.1

In the near term, governments around the world must continue to take forceful and, when appropriate, coordinated actions to restore financial market functioning and the flow of credit. I have spoken on a number of occasions about the steps that the U.S. government, and particularly the Federal Reserve, is taking along these lines.2 Until we stabilize the financial system, a sustainable economic recovery will remain out of reach. In particular, the continued viability of systemically important financial institutions is vital to this effort. In that regard, the Federal Reserve, other federal regulators, and the Treasury Department have stated that they will take any necessary and appropriate steps to ensure that our banking institutions have the capital and liquidity necessary to function well in even a severe economic downturn. Moreover, we have reiterated the U.S. government’s determination to ensure that systemically important financial institutions continue to be able to meet their commitments.

At the same time that we are addressing such immediate challenges, it is not too soon for policymakers to begin thinking about the reforms to the financial architecture, broadly conceived, that could help prevent a similar crisis from developing in the future. We must have a strategy that regulates the financial system as a whole, in a holistic way, not just its individual components. In particular, strong and effective regulation and supervision of banking institutions, although necessary for reducing systemic risk, are not sufficient by themselves to achieve this aim.

Today, I would like to talk about four key elements of such a strategy. First, we must address the problem of financial institutions that are deemed too big—or perhaps too interconnected—to fail. Second, we must strengthen what I will call the financial infrastructure—the systems, rules, and conventions that govern trading, payment, clearing, and settlement in financial markets—to ensure that it will perform well under stress. Third, we should review regulatory policies and accounting rules to ensure that they do not induce excessive procyclicality—that is, do not overly magnify the ups and downs in the financial system and the economy. Finally, we should consider whether the creation of an authority specifically charged with monitoring and addressing systemic risks would help protect the system from financial crises like the one we are currently experiencing. My discussion today will focus on the principles that should guide regulatory reform, leaving aside important questions concerning how the current regulatory structure might be reworked to reduce balkanization and overlap and increase effectiveness. I also will not say much about the international dimensions of the issue but will take as self-evident that, in light of the global nature of financial institutions and markets, the reform of financial regulation and supervision should be coordinated internationally to the greatest extent possible.

Too Big to Fail

In a crisis, the authorities have strong incentives to prevent the failure of a large, highly interconnected financial firm, because of the risks such a failure would pose to the financial system and the broader economy. However, the belief of market participants that a particular firm is considered too big to fail has many undesirable effects. For instance, it reduces market discipline and encourages excessive risk-taking by the firm. It also provides an artificial incentive for firms to grow, in order to be perceived as too big to fail. And it creates an unlevel playing field with smaller firms, which may not be regarded as having implicit government support. Moreover, government rescues of too-big-to-fail firms can be costly to taxpayers, as we have seen recently. Indeed, in the present crisis, the too-big-to-fail issue has emerged as an enormous problem.

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