Few men in public life enjoy the prestige and public acclaim accorded Paul A. Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. It is said (and it's probably a good measure of his influence) that he's the second most powerful person in the country, ranked only by the president.
Just a couple of weeks ago, while Volcker was in Seoul for the annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF, financial markets plunged on the false rumor that he would resign his job because he was angry over upcoming appointments to the seven-person board of two men whose economic philosophy differed somewhat from his. Then, when he publicly put an end to rumors that he might leave the Fed to replace A. W. (Tom) Clausen as president of the World Bank, the markets -- and his counterparts in foreign countries -- responded with cheers.
Volcker is seen around the world as a man of the highest integrity, dedicated to public service rather than accumulation of personal wealth. He has about two more years to go on his second four-year term as chairman. The view expressed in Seoul was that while it would be a coup for the bank if he chose to become its president, it would be an overall loss to the world financial community if he left the Fed ahead of time.
What has become clear in the past few weeks is that because of the job shuffle between Donald T. Regan and James A. Baker III, Volcker's power has become even greater. Regan as Treasury secretary fought with Volcker, attempting to influence the formulation of monetary policy.
But the Reagan administration, in its second term, has made sensible accommodations to the real world. As part of this adjustment, Baker as Treasury secretary has made a sharp turn on international economic policies, seeking and receiving Volcker's close cooperation. As Baker said Oct. 13 on "Meet the Press," "I think we've been able to work together to accomplish some things for the United States that are important. We could never have done what we did at the Plaza Hotel vis- vis the dollar without the active cooperation of the Federal Reserve."
Baker's reference was to his initiation of a move to devalue the dollar through coordinated intervention by the five major currency countries. It was undertaken to blunt the protectionist drive in Congress -- a drive that was gaining force because of inaction by the Reagan administration.
Volcker had long favored a moderate intervention policy so as to deprive market speculators from enjoying a one-way bet on currency values. But during his first term, Reagan was influenced by those who believed in a total hands-off policy and ignored Volcker's public suggestions for a more aggressive intervention policy.
With Volcker's help, Baker also has evolved a new strategy to deal with the growing crisis in the Third World debt. It involves calling on the big banks to make additional new loans to the developing countries, and on the multilateral development banks such as the World Bank to loosen up the purse strings.
This is a new approach for the Reagan administration, which sees more trouble brewing for Mexico and other major borrowers as oil and other commodity prices plunge. The shift in White House strategy puts the Treasury in parallel with the Fed instead of on a collision course.
Volcker will now have an important role in persuading the private banks that Baker's pitch to them to boost loans to Third World nations by $20 billion over the next three years is crucial to the kind of economic growth, as opposed to austerity demands, that will enable the debtor nations to pay their debts.
There are differences, to be sure. For example, Volcker is also a bit worried -- even though he was ahead of the adminstration on the need to pull down an overvalued dollar -- that the process can go too far, too quickly.
He said in a question-and-answer session at an American Stock Exchange conference that so long as the United States faces a large budget deficit, the Federal Reserve must avoid a dollar plunge that would discourage foreigners from buying Treasury bills and notes.
A conversation on Baker's plane en route to Seoul underscored his worry about the "tricky business" of talking the dollar down. He said: "I'm just as worried about the dollar falling too far as I am about its being too high." His view is that once a nation starts pushing its own currency down, it can't be absolutely sure where such a drive ends.
But Volcker seems to have as much confidence in Baker's pragmatic conservatism as Baker has in him. The Fed chairman might have chosen two board members other than the supply-siders handed him from the White House. But the commanding force of his personality is such that he's likely to dominate the Federal Reserve System so long as he's there -- especially since he has a friend at the Treasury.