UPDATE 1-Crisis may be worse than Depression, Volcker says

Fri Feb 20, 2009 8:21pm GMT

(Adds details, background, quotes from paragraph four)

By Pedro da Costa and Kristina Cooke

NEW YORK Feb 20 (Reuters) - The global economy may be deteriorating even faster than it did during the Great Depression, Paul Volcker, a top adviser to President Barack Obama, said on Friday.

Volcker noted that industrial production around the world was declining even more rapidly than in the United States, which is itself under severe strain.

"I don't remember any time, maybe even in the Great Depression, when things went down quite so fast, quite so uniformly around the world," Volcker told a luncheon of economists and investors at Columbia University.

Given the extent of the damage, financial regulations must be improved and enhanced to prevent future debacles, although policy-makers must be cautious not disrupt things further while the turmoil is ongoing.

Volcker, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve famed for breaking the back of inflation in the early 1980s, mocked the argument that "financial innovation," a code word for risky securities, brought any great benefits to society. For most people, he said, the advent of the ATM machine was more crucial than any asset-backed bond.

"There is little correlation between sophistication of a banking system and productivity growth," he said.

He stressed the importance of preventing financial institutions large enough to pose a threat to the entire system from engaging in risky behavior such as running hedge funds or trading for its own accounts.

The current crisis had its beginning in global imbalances like a lack of savings in the United States, but policy-makers around the world were too reticent to take action until it was too late, Volcker said.

Now that the crisis had erupted, it was important to take decisive actions, including a more effective regulatory structure and some movement toward uniform accounting systems, Volcker said.

He said all financial institutions that are deemed too large to fail should be subject to increased scrutiny, echoing the findings of the Group of 30, a panel of policy-makers and influential economists, which he leads. (Reporting by Pedro Nicolaci da Costa and Kristina Cooke; Editing by Tom Hals)

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