Paul Volcker: Obama’s other economic advisor
I caught a story in the Wall Street Journal today about Paul Volcker’s impact on the Obama campaign that bears passing on (hat tip Barry Ritholtz). One reason people have become more comfortable with Obama over time is because his economic team is absolutely the best: Austan Goosbee, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Warren Buffett and Paul Volcker.
For me, the addition of Volcker to Obama’s team is especially impactful. The former Fed chair is known as responsible monetary steward and the man who stopped runaway inflation in the early 1980s. As much as Alan Greenspan’s star has fallen, Paul Volcker’s has risen.
Mr. Volcker has emerged as a top economic adviser to Sen. Barack Obama during a presidential campaign dominated by a global financial crisis. Their growing bond is paying dividends for each man.
Mr. Volcker delivers gravitas and credibility to Sen. Obama, people in the Obama camp say, as well as ideas and approaches to the economic crisis. “Volcker whispering in Obama’s ear will make even Republicans comfortable, because he’s a hero of the right and a supporter of a strong dollar,” says John Tamny, a supply-side economist and Republican….
For Mr. Volcker, a connection with Sen. Obama could help burnish his record as Fed chairman. The cigar-chomping central banker from 1979 to 1987, he received blame for driving up interest rates and tipping the U.S. into the deepest recession since the Great Depression. But Mr. Volcker is just as well known for taming the runaway inflation of that era. His stock has risen in recent months as his gruff warnings about the risks of deregulating the financial sector have come to look prescient. His successor’s reputation, meanwhile, has come under a cloud. Alan Greenspan is under criticism that the low interest rates and deregulatory ideology of his tenure contributed to today’s crisis….
The two men have developed an ease with each other, say aides, even as their styles appear to differ: Sen. Obama, who tends to use the Socratic method from his law-school training, examines all points of view and debates them. With a more formal and direct demeanor, Mr. Volcker likes to go straight to solutions.
In last week’s final presidential debate, after Republican John McCain raised questions about his rival’s ties, Sen. Obama said, “Let me tell you who I associate with. On economic policy, I associate with Warren Buffett and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker…who have shaped my ideas and who will be surrounding me in the White House….”
“I just want to be helpful, because I believe Sen. Obama — in his person, in his ideas and in his ability to understand and articulate both our needs and our hopes — brings the strong and fresh leadership we need,” Mr. Volcker said in an interview in New York. Mr. Volcker wouldn’t provide details of his policy suggestions or his personal relationship with Sen. Obama….
The bond between Messrs. Obama and Volcker started with a dinner invitation. In June 2007, Mark Gallogly, co-founder of Centerbridge Partners, a New York private-investment firm, and an early supporter of Sen. Obama, invited a dozen financial executives to meet the senator, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. President Gary Cohn, Merrill Lynch & Co. President Greg Fleming and Mr. Volcker.
Along with the invitation, Mr. Volcker received from Mr. Gallogly a “briefing package” containing some speeches by Sen. Obama and news articles about him. Mr. Volcker also read the two books written by the senator.
In the private dining room at a Capitol Hill restaurant, Mr. Gallogly seated Mr. Volcker directly across from Sen. Obama, who at the time was considered a long shot to win the Democratic nomination over Sen. Hillary Clinton. Returning late that night on a flight to New York, Mr. Volcker told the group he was “genuinely impressed” with the Illinois senator….
Starting in late summer 2007, Mr. Goolsbee had regular discussions with Mr. Volcker. He incorporated Mr. Volcker’s ideas, including his early concern that the housing downturn would snowball into a larger financial crisis, into Sen. Obama’s policy positions. In a September 2007 speech at Nasdaq, Sen. Obama predicted that because of oversight lapses and abusive practices that cause the public to doubt financial results, “the markets will be ravaged by a crisis in confidence.”
In early January 2008, when Sen. Clinton was pounding her rival over his lack of experience and stature, Sen. Obama phoned Mr. Volcker to ask for his endorsement. (At that time, billionaire investor Warren Buffett had refused to take sides between the Democratic contenders, saying he would support whoever got the nomination.) Mr. Volcker, a long-time Democrat who had mostly stayed out of partisan politics, agreed, and wrote out his statement in longhand.
The presidential candidate’s first big economic address took place in March at Cooper Union in New York. Mr. Volcker’s fingerprints were evident in the speech. The onetime central banker had long been vigilant about strong regulatory oversight; as Fed chairman he rejected big banks’ attempts to repeal Depression-era laws to engage in more risky practices like investment banking. New financial institutions and instruments have since led to the repeal or relaxation of those laws, and Mr. Volcker told Sen. Obama that the U.S. regulatory structure must be strengthened and updated for the 21st century.
With Mr. Volcker sitting in the front row, Sen. Obama told the audience at Cooper Union that the current financial-regulatory framework must be “revamped.” He faulted deregulation for the growing economic crisis. “Our free market was never meant to be a free license to take whatever you can get, however you can get it……”