"By Phil Izzo
When talk at the Journal’s Future of Finance Initiative turned to inflation, participants turned the resident expert: Paul Volcker. He had a lot to say.
The former Federal Reserve chairman touched on a number of subjects ranging from the Fed’s communication strategy to China’s concerns about the U.S. debt load. The latter sparked questions over whether the U.S. could default on its debt — it effectively had done that at least once, Yale professor Robert Shiller noted. When President Roosevelt took the U.S. off the gold standard and unilaterally devalued the dollar, the move wiped out some 75% of dollar-denominated debt. “Maybe I shouldn’t even mention this,” Shiller joked.
Volcker, who as head of the White House’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board is a key adviser to President Obama, expressed concerns about inflation as a way of dealing with mounting debt. “One historic way of getting yourself out of this situation — or trying to — is to inflate. Either you do it deliberately or you allow it to happen,” he said. “And if we permit that to happen then I think all these dollars will come tumbling down on us.” He said the U.S.’s greatest strength is its history and reputation, and suggested that shouldn’t be put at risk.
He also critiqued the Fed. “I get a little nervous when I see the Federal Reserve announcements that they want have the amount of inflation that’s conducive to recovery,” Volcker said. “I don’t know what ‘the amount of inflation that’s conducive to recovery’ would be appropriate. I’d much rather they say that they want to maintain stability in the currency, which is conducive to confidence and recovery.”
As for China’s criticism of the U.S., Volcker was unsympathetic. “I think the Chinese are a little disingenuous to say, ‘Now isn’t it so bad that we hold all these dollars.’ They hold all these dollars because they chose to buy the dollars, and they didn’t want to sell the dollars because they didn’t want to depreciate their currency. It was a very simple calculation on their part, so they shouldn’t come around blaming it all on us.”
The 81-year-old elder statesman commented on the current state of the U.S. economy: “We’re in a government-dependent financial system; I never thought I would live to see the day… We’ve got to fight to get away from that.”