Remarks before the Economic Club of Washington, DC
|February 9, 2005
Timothy F. Geithner, President and Chief Executive Officer
Good evening. I am honored to be here. It’s good to be back in Washington and to have a chance to talk with such a distinguished group.
Much of our nation’s financial history and the history of our central bank is a story of contest for influence and over ideas between political leaders in Washington and the financial center of New York. I think it is important that ideas shuttle back and forth between our cities, and I am pleased to have a chance to share a few tonight.
My overall argument this evening is this. We face a delicate balance between genuinely positive near-term economic conditions, and some fundamental challenges. If we are to increase the likelihood of continued strong growth in living standards, we should use this time of relative prosperity to address the imbalances that hang over our economy. Even with good policy choices, and with considerable luck, these imbalances will take time to unwind. During this time we face some risk of a more volatile and less benign overall financial environment. This makes it important that we continue to invest in making our financial system stronger and more resilient.
This prospect makes this a good time to examine the health of the financial system. The strength of the financial system is a major factor in determining how well economies respond to shocks -- weak financial systems amplify the damage to growth.
The stronger the financial system, the more effective policy -- monetary policy in particular -- can be in cushioning the effects of those shocks and helping to restore expansion.
We are fortunate in the United States today to have a strong financial system. This system has a tremendous capacity to match capital to ideas, reward innovation, and channel savings to the highest return. And it has demonstrated a capacity for very considerable resilience and stability in face of shocks.
What are the main sources of these strengths? Our banks are stronger than they have been in the past. Their larger earnings capacity, higher capital cushions, and the greater diversity of their activities help shield them from a broader range and greater magnitude of shocks than in the past. Capital markets play a comparatively larger role in our financial system. As a consequence, shocks get diffused more broadly, and weakness in traditional intermediation channels can be offset by the strength in other channels.
Here in the United States, financial innovation has advanced farther and more rapidly than elsewhere. This reflects a regulatory model that is more supportive of competition, of financial innovation, and of market-driven improvements in risk management. The U.S. financial system has embraced opportunities for risk transfer much more rapidly and extensively than other systems.
Finally, we have larger and more developed venture capital, private equity, and hedge fund segments within our financial system. These are important sources of liquidity, they add depth and breadth to capital markets, and they play a valuable arbitrage role in reducing or eliminating mispricing in the financial markets.
However, no system is invulnerable to stress and crisis. Recent U.S. financial history is not a history of the uninterrupted achievement of ever higher returns. The stock market crash of ’87, the stress that surrounded the Russian default and the collapse of Long Term Capital Management, and the more recent fall in equity prices that came with the collapse of the technology boom all posed significant potential threats to financial stability. In each case, however, with a swift monetary policy response and other actions the process of recovery and repair was reasonably quick.
The relative ease with which we managed through these events has reinforced confidence in the stability of the system. This confidence is justified. But one of the consequences of the resilience of the system in the face of past shocks is a higher degree of confidence in a benign and stable future. And this confidence itself can increase the risk of future instability.
It is critically important, then, that we continue to strengthen our financial system. The most important dimension of this challenge is to ensure that the size and the quality of the cushions maintained by financial institutions against the risk of adverse outcomes are sufficiently strong.
This is particularly important in the case of the relatively small number of bank-centered financial institutions that now play a much more central role in our financial system. Their extraordinary size and diversity diminishes their vulnerability to shocks. However, it also exposes them to a broader array of potential shocks, and magnifies the potential damage to the system should one of these institutions stumble or fail.
We need to ensure that the level of insurance these core institutions maintain against risk – insurance in the form of their capital and liquidity cushions, their operational resilience, and the quality of their risk management and control systems – are calibrated to reflect their greater systemic significance and the greater complexity of the challenges they face in managing more diverse businesses.
This is true not only for the largest banks, but also for GSEs like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and also for those non-bank financial institutions that play a critical role in the wholesale financial markets.
The payments system we live with today is a complex mix of national and cross border systems originally designed for a safer, slower, less complex, more segmented financial world. While many improvements have been made to this system over time, it is important that we work to strengthen further the core infrastructure of the payments system.
We also need to promote further evolution in the framework of supervision and regulation of our more complex and integrated global financial system. To paraphrase Bob Rubin in a different context, we need a framework for supervision and regulation that is “as modern as the markets” and that stays abreast of the pace of change and innovation.
Perhaps the greatest challenge we face – in macroeconomic policy and in financial supervision -- is a challenge of imagination: How do we best prepare for the low probability of an extreme event; a crisis not captured by past experience? How do we generate the will today to build a greater degree of insurance against a more uncertain future, particularly if the risk of adversity seems remote and the immediate future looks strong?
We can take considerable reassurance from apparent moderation in overall macroeconomic volatility recently, and from the ease with which our system has handled recent stress.
Prudent macroeconomic policy actions will increase the likelihood that these beneficial circumstances will continue. But we cannot know with confidence that the future will bring an enduring reduction in volatility and risk, and it would be imprudent to plan for such a world.
All this suggests we should complement sensible macroeconomic policy choices with further investments to strengthen the financial system.
Let me end by thanking Vernon Jordan and the Economic Club of Washington for providing a forum for thinking about the economic agenda of the country, and for giving me the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you tonight.