Fed votes to advance rule loosening Volcker rule on big banks
The Federal Reserve on Wednesday took the first step toward rewriting one of the most controversial rules written under the Dodd-Frank banking law passed after the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
The three members of the Fed board voted unanimously to advance a proposal to loosen and tailor the so-called Volcker Rule, which bans banks from making speculative investments with their own capital.
The proposal is meant to set clearer guidelines for and reduce the costs of complying with the rule, and if finalized would be a significant victory for Wall Street, which has long complained about the rule.
Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said regulators aim “to replace overly complex and inefficient requirements with a more streamlined set of requirements.”
The Fed’s vote kicks off an effort among federal regulators to temper one of the most polarizing Dodd-Frank regulations. The 2010 law set the broad outline of a rule banning banks from betting their own capital on short-term, high-risk investments.
The outline was crafted with the four other agencies in charge of the rule: the Office of Comptroller of the Currency; the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
The proposal is now subject to 60 days of public comment before the agencies can move ahead with finalizing changes.
“We have had almost five years of experience in applying the Volcker rule,” Powell said.
“The agencies responsible for implementing the rule see many opportunities to simplify and improve it in ways that will allow firms to conduct appropriate activities without undue burden, and without sacrificing safety and soundness.”
The rule, named after former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, was meant to curb the kinds of risky, complex investments that helped trigger the 2007-2008 financial crisis. It was crafted to ensure that banks receiving federal deposit insurance don’t take massive losses from speculative bets with their own assets.
The Volcker rule includes several exemptions for banks to assist clients in making speculative bets in markets that don’t exist yet, hedge other investments and underwrite a company’s initial stock offering.
But banks have insisted that the 1,000-page rule, crafted by five federal agencies over four years, has cost the industry billions of dollars by blocking safe trades and imposing excessive compliance costs.
Federal regulators have ceded for years that clearer guidance was needed when it comes to the Volcker rule, specifically which trades fell under its purview and specifying that the rule did not need to apply to banks without broad systemic connections.
President Trump’s appointees have accelerated that effort as part of their broader goal of loosening Dodd-Frank.
The Fed’s proposal preserves the bulk of the Volcker Rule but aims to clarify which trades are allowed under the regulation.
Fed Vice Chairman of Supervision Randal Quarles, a Trump appointee and architect of the new proposal said, “This proposal represents our best first effort at simplifying and tailoring the Volcker rule.”
“This is a complex regulation, and achieving those goals while maintaining fidelity to the statute is not an easy undertaking,” Quarles said. “I view this proposal as an important milestone in comprehensive Volcker rule reform, but not the completion of our work.”
But the new proposal triggered alarm among financial sector critics concerned that banks could weasel around the relaxed requirements and cause widespread economic harm.
“The Volcker Rule has also dampened the destabilizing, reckless, socially useless trading culture that had infected our largest financial institutions,” said Dennis Kelleher, president and CEO of Better Markets, a nonprofit that supports strict banking rules.
“Given the irresistible riches generated by proprietary trading, it is inevitable that weakening the Volcker Rule will result in banks again pushing the envelope, gaming the system and ramping up their dangerous trading.”
The new rule would no longer order banks to prove that their efforts to create markets for clients’ speculative trades and underwrite stock offerings comply with regulation if the firms adhere to certain risk mitigation requirements.
The revision would also exempt banks below certain asset thresholds from the rule, release other banks from some Volcker requirements and reduce the amount of trading information banks are mandated to report to federal regulators.
The Dodd-Frank rollback bill signed by Trump last week exempts all banks with less than $10 billion in assets from the Volcker rule, which the Fed said it will address in separate rulemaking.
The proposal also replaces the ban on all investments held for less than 60 days that aren’t otherwise approved by regulators with a new accounting standard to track losses and risk.
Fed Governor Lael Brainard, the sole Democrat on the Fed board, also supported the proposal despite her opposition to other Quarles-led efforts to loosen Dodd-Frank rules.
Brainard said the Fed proposal is “crafted to implement the core purpose of the Volcker rule in a more efficient way” after the measure “turned out to be needlessly cumbersome in practice.”
Analysts widely see the proposal as a set of useful but not transformative tweaks for banks that have struggled to comply with the regulation.
Volcker, the former Fed chair, said he “welcomed” the efforts “to simplify compliance” with his namesake rule and trusted that the rewrite would preserve its intent.