There aren’t many people still working on Wall Street who can blithely say “Bill” when speaking of long-ago Federal Reserve Chairman William McChesney Martin. Henry Kaufman, now 89, is one of them. The Wall Street economist once known as Dr. Doom for his bearish pronouncements on interest rates cited Martin in an Oct. 5 talk that was full of pointed observations about Fed chiefs past, present, and future.
Kaufman, who was chief economist and head of research at Salomon Brothers in the 1970s and 1980s, said that if he were named head of the Federal Reserve, his first priority would be to persuade Congress to pass a law breaking up financial firms that are currently too big to fail. “You’ve got to be small enough to fail” without that failure causing problems that cascade through the financial system, Kaufman said in the question-and-answer session of an Economic Club of New York breakfast on Oct. 5 at the imposing University Club on Fifth Avenue. As it is now, Kaufman said, “We are trying to preserve conglomeration.”
Kaufman said reappointing Janet Yellen as Fed chair might not be a bad choice for President Trump, but he refused to discuss his own favorites. It’s more important for the next Fed chief to have a good understanding of how markets work than it is to own a Ph.D. in economics or to have been a business titan, Kaufman said.
William McChesney Martin, who ran the Fed from 1951 to 1970, never earned a graduate degree in economics. But he “turned in a good performance” in overseeing a period of healthy economic growth, Kaufman said. In contrast, he said, the two Fed chiefs who followed Martin allowed high inflation to become embedded in the U.S. economy in the 1970s. The first, Arthur Burns, was a distinguished Ph.D. economist from Columbia University. The second, G. William Miller, came to the Fed from Textron Inc., where he was chief executive officer.
Kaufman’s newest book is “Tectonic Shifts in Financial Markets: People, Policies, and Institutions.” In his breakfast talk, Kaufman quoted from the book and cited three structural changes in finance: The end of ceilings on interest rates, which happened in the 1960s; the consolidation of Wall Street into a handful of giant firms; and securitization of mortgages and other assets into easily traded financial products. (Disclosure: I attended at his invitation.) “We cannot go home again to the less threatening financial landscapes of the past,” he said.
Kaufman doesn’t always get things right. He invested some of his money with Bernie Madoff, the imprisoned swindler. And he was a director of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and chairman of the Lehman board's finance and risk committee before Lehman fell into bankruptcy in 2008. Then again, one of Kaufman’s main points is that it’s important to make the financial system resilient so it won’t be devastated when something inevitably goes wrong.
Said Kaufman: “There will be another financial crisis. And it will pop out. And we’ll all say, ‘How did it happen?’”
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