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Volcker: The Triumph of Persistence Hardcover – September 4, 2012
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“…Comes at the perfect time…Mr. Silber offers fascinating subplots and revelations along the way--not to mention a portrait of a tough and colorful man--but his main storyline concerns two of the most dramatic policy changes in economic history, one international, the other domestic. Mr. Volcker played a key role in both.” ―John B. Taylor, The Wall Street Journal
“This detailed account of the economist Paul Volcker's public service in five administartions shows how he maintained his integrity.” ―New York Times (named an Editors Choice)
“Mr Volcker barely made it through his eight years at the Fed. He nearly failed to be reappointed in 1983 and almost resigned in 1986, when defeated on a key vote. It was only in retrospect that his reputation grew; Mr Silber's well-written book should help cement it.” ―Economist
“William L. Silber has written a rich and detailed new biography of a man who has left as deep an imprint on the world economy as anyone of his generation.” ―Neil Irwin, Washington Post
“William Silber, a financial historian and professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University, has the challenge of fitting this lopsided story--his subject, who turned 85 last month, enjoyed his most fruitful years before age 60--into a coherent narrative. He succeeds admirably in Volcker: The Triumph of Persistence. Silber, who had Volcker's cooperation, emphasizes the former Fed chief's independence and willingness to take unpopular stances, a trait as laudable in public life as it is uncommon.” ―Roger Lowenstein, Bloomberg BusinessWeek
“What [Silber] does bring is a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of monetary policy and international finance, along with that rare ability among academics to explain it while weaving an interesting tale.” ―Washington Post
“Paul A. Volcker has finally been awarded a meticulous historical account of exactly how he reached his exalted position … this book is a treasure trove for policy wonks…” ―New York Times Book Review
“Paul Volcker was chairman of the Fed from 1979 to 1987. His foe was inflation--the opposite of the high unemployment fought by Ben Bernanke today. But the pressues on the two men from purists academics and interfering politicians are eerily similar. That makes this fine new biography especially timely.” ―Robin Harding, Financial Times
“I have just finished reading the book Volcker: The Triumph of Persistence by William L. Silber. It is an excellent book, well written, and a book that I could not put down.” ―John Mason, Seeking Alpha
“William Silber weaves a subtle link between the three crises that tested Paul Volcker: gold in 1971, inflation in 1979, and sub-prime mortgages in 2007. He tells the story of Volcker's success in a lively and authoritative style, but unless America heeds the lessons for fiscal responsibility that Silber draws from Volcker's record, the crisis that lies ahead could make those past upheavals seem tame by comparison. Every member of Congress and concerned citizen should read this book.” ―Nouriel Roubini, Chairman, Roubini Global Economics and author of Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance
“By observing the life of Paul Volcker, an extraordinary public servant, William Silber has created an absorbing story about how theories and personalities affect public policies and economic outcomes. This book presents a novel explanation for how Volcker defeated inflation, and at the same time, delivers an important message for the complex economic problems we face today.” ―Thomas Sargent, 2011 Nobel Laureate in Economics
“This book shows how much the character and purpose of a single man can play a fundamental role in economic history. The end of the gold-dollar standard in 1971 and the end of out-of-control inflation after 1979 are the dominant economic events of the last half century. But standard economic models do not tell us why these things happened. William Silber shows strikingly how much the leadership of Paul Volcker lay behind these events.” ―Robert J. Shiller, Yale University, author of Irrational Exuberance
“Paul Volcker's contributions to the health of our economy and society are truly legendary, so all of us can learn from this careful account of his thinking and his courageous actions.” ―George P. Shultz, former Secretary of Labor, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of State
“Paul Volcker championed mystique as the essence of central banking--but always resting on the twin foundations of principle and analysis. Using previously unpublished papers and private conversations, William Silber delves behind the mystique to reveal the principles and analysis that guided this towering figure of international finance over the past 40 years.” ―Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England
“Volcker: The Triumph of Persistence gives an insightful account of the true depth and breadth of America's financial crisis and its heavy political pressures as the country faced potential economic collapse. Volcker is one of the wise men of this period.” ―Henry A. Kissinger
“What makes this book great and not just good is the confidence and authority with which Silber presents his case. Volcker has found his muse. The sheer courage it took Volcker to battle inflation gives today's central bankers something to live up to.” ―Amity Shlaes, author of The Forgotten Man
“This is a well-written and comprehensive book that reveals the many attributes of Paul Volcker. Silber shows that Volcker did not become an instant folk hero. Rather he fought valiantly and successfully to overcome opposition from powerful politicians and institutions while breaking the back of inflation. After reading this book people will understand how Volcker balanced public and private responsibilities while becoming an American financial icon.” ―Henry Kaufman
“Silber provides an overview of American economic history as well as insights into surviving financial crises and the complexities of economic decision making. Its in-depth treatment of its subject and the primary documents and notes it includes would be challenging to find by other means. Recommended” ―Library Journal
“From a fellow economist, an admiring biography of Paul A. Volcker…blessedly free of jargon.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“Historians will find rich material and insight in this telling book” ―Booklist
“William L. Silber's new biography is therefore to be welcomed, and Volcker: The Triumph of Persistence will likely be regarded as the authoritative treatment of its subject.” ―Boston Review
About the Author
William L. Silber is one of America's most respected experts on finance and banking. He is currently Marcus Nadler Professor of Finance and Economics and Director of the Glucksman Institute for Research in Securities Markets at the Stern School of Business, NYU. His many books include When Washington Shut Down Wall Street: The Great Financial Crisis of 1914 and the Origins of America's Monetary Supremacy. He is co-author of the standard textbook Money, Banking and Financial Markets and, with Lawrence Ritter, of the classic Money.
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"Volcker" has some limited use to an amateur audience, but is too shallow even there, a kind of Classic Comics version of Fed history, or an as-told-by sports biography. Its adulation of Mr. Volcker is not so bad: Mr. Volcker is as unassuming and self-deprecating as any person who has lived an important public life. Still, Silber's only significant source work is Mr. Volcker himself.
We are living through a very difficult time, a predicament without precedent, and thus without empirical guideposts. There have been thousands of similar financial crises, but nothing of this scale, nor after a period of such extraordinary computer-assisted financial innovation. Central banks everywhere are struggling to invent apropriate policy while critics accuse them of everything from money-printing and say they should shut down altogether to accusation of inaction and insufficient imagination. This book fails to elucidate, especially for non-professional readers better served by "Lords of Finance" and "Secrets of the Temple."
Silber's book does have a few pages of useful anecdotes (Barbara's story, Reagan's diary), but repeated awful stretches. Mr. Volcker (as all central bankers) is annoyed by "speculators" who refuse to behave in ways comfortable for central bankers. Page 26 repeats "speculators" ten times in two paragraphs. The book is a useful financial history skim, but the same depth could be found in a Wiki entry. In several spots Silber has Volcker simultaneously in favor of and opposed to devaluation, and Silber is repeatedly on both sides of "monetarism" as actual strategy and cover story.
Perhaps the one most useful anecdote (earning the second star here), shining light on the Volcker interior: his refusal to allow Sargent Shriver to bring a gold medal he had been awarded in Europe into the US; an exception had been made for Olympic medals, but not this one. Mr. Volcker's great strengths -- unbending courage and integrity -- from time to time resulted in rigidity, rules for rules' sake, possibly including today's "Volcker Rule."
A short professional critique makes three points. How was it possible to write this history without a single mention of oil as a component of the Great Inflation, and how the Fed then or in the future might better deal with similar "price shocks"? Or to fail to explain to any audience the distinction between price shock and morphing into a wage-price spiral? How was it possible to leave out any mention of the savings and loan industry? Mr. Volcker's ultra-high-rate strategy in 1979 threw the entire $3 trillion (constant dollars) industry over the side without any plan at all, callous and narrow policy. Subsequent policy error (mostly Reagan and Congress) later made S&Ls all the worse (still on Mr. Volcker's watch), but 75% of 7,000 S&Ls were insolvent at Mr. Volcker's hand alone by 1982. A third significant omission involves Mr. Volcker's embarassing and institution-damaging last year as Chairman; Mr. Silber offers nothing but Mr. Volcker's version and some newspaper clippings.
The Fed is a unique American institution, a star chamber as important as the Supreme Court but a recent invention of Congress, its functions nowhere in the Constitution, and its members with no guide as powerful and reliable as stare decisis. Yet, rather frequently and inescapably the economic future of this country rests upon Fed governors. Part of Mr. Silber's struggle to find depth is traceable to Mr. Volcker still treating Fed operations 30 years ago as state secrets. Mr. Volcker has written no memoir (and better Mr. Greenspan had not written his self-serving volume). I hope that first-class historians will one day, while the actors are still alive, dig at the tale of Volcker's Fed (and the others) as studies in leadership and a desperately important aspect of democratic government.
The background section gives a quick overview of Volcker's family and background and then moves on to his academic background. It is fairly brief and gives a quick overview of how Volcker entered into public service and started academically but never finished his dissertation. The second section then moves into the Bretton Woods Era with the heightening storm relating to the US gold peg. The author discusses the history and mechanism of Bretton Woods, how Volcker was a believer in it and at an early age believed that freely moving capital with floating exchange rates could be destructive and how stable exchange rates was the better exchange rate mechanism and thus needed to be adjusted rather than overhauled. In this, Volcker is shown to be the architect of the dual market for gold with the central bank rate and the public, freely traded market. This was catalyzed by the price of Gold/$ in the UK violently moving up past $35 which was the peg. Other relative exhange rate adjustments were also adjusted, but the origin of the stress came from the excess supply of global dollars that the author pointed at, through the eyes of Volcker, as the source of currency oversupply and hence weakening fundamental value. This crisis resolution process lasted until it couldnt.
The third section is the one of Volcker's tenure as Fed Chairman and is where his resolve and philosophy were among the core focuses. It discusses how Volcker recognized, through the lens of rational expectations, that inflation expectations were embedded in the popular psyche. Those expectations drove the velocity of money and wage bargaining and the eradication of them would require a truly difficult battle. He used a pragmatic mix of interest rate targetting and monetarist theory to control the money supply but also not let the market price of money be a pure function of the supply/demand balance given the Fed's desired quantity growth of money. This consistent and bold approach fed criticism through both governments and caused much suffering in the economy, but eventually overcame the greater economic problem of inflation. The true independence of the Fed can be appreciated through this story.
The final section is on where Volcker and finance is today. It describes the financial crisis and how an overhall of financial services is desired by Volcker and many others. It brings up issues with too big to fail and how Volcker was never a believer in the pure free market philosophy of banking. The material is probably not new to those who have been following Volcker and financial reform in the press over the last few years.
The heart of this book, the second and third sections, are really great to read. I did not know the full history of Paul Volcker but now I feel i understand the history and the monetary policy employed much better. There are many economic and political lessons one can draw from this, but one can read it just as a biography and find it fulfilling. I have taken a lot from this book, especially about such core issues as the Fed's independence and how fiscal dominance can politicize the fed. The balancing of the Fed's responsibilities is an act which requires much balancing, but in this account one can see Paul Volcker did an excellent job and is rewarded by a nation of admirers.
What made it interesting for me was the intimate look at his thinking, planning, and coping with the pressures of his job and the demands of the economy.
Silber clarifies Volcker's steadiness in leading our economic path in a variety of situations over the years. It left me feeling admiration for him, in contrast to my former superficial impression of the guy that put us into a recession because of his high interest rate policy. I highly recommend this book.