Wednesday, January 27, 2010

U.S. Financial Reforms: The “Volcker Rule”

Last week, the U.S. unveiled a series of reforms to deal with some of the lessons learnt from the financial crisis. Following is an extract of the President’s remarks that outline the proposals:

First, we should no longer allow banks to stray too far from their central mission of serving their customers. In recent years, too many financial firms have put taxpayer money at risk by operating hedge funds and private equity funds and making riskier investments to reap a quick reward. And these firms have taken these risks while benefiting from special financial privileges that are reserved only for banks.

Our government provides deposit insurance and other safeguards and guarantees to firms that operate banks. We do so because a stable and reliable banking system promotes sustained growth, and because we learned how dangerous the failure of that system can be during the Great Depression.

But these privileges were not created to bestow banks operating hedge funds or private equity funds with an unfair advantage. When banks benefit from the safety net that taxpayers provide –- which includes lower-cost capital –- it is not appropriate for them to turn around and use that cheap money to trade for profit. And that is especially true when this kind of trading often puts banks in direct conflict with their customers' interests.

The fact is, these kinds of trading operations can create enormous and costly risks, endangering the entire bank if things go wrong. We simply cannot accept a system in which hedge funds or private equity firms inside banks can place huge, risky bets that are subsidized by taxpayers and that could pose a conflict of interest. And we cannot accept a system in which shareholders make money on these operations if the bank wins but taxpayers foot the bill if the bank loses.

It's for these reasons that I'm proposing a simple and common-sense reform, which we're calling the "Volcker Rule" -- after this tall guy behind me. Banks will no longer be allowed to own, invest, or sponsor hedge funds, private equity funds, or proprietary trading operations for their own profit, unrelated to serving their customers. If financial firms want to trade for profit, that's something they're free to do. Indeed, doing so –- responsibly –- is a good thing for the markets and the economy. But these firms should not be allowed to run these hedge funds and private equities funds while running a bank backed by the American people.

In addition, as part of our efforts to protect against future crises, I'm also proposing that we prevent the further consolidation of our financial system. There has long been a deposit cap in place to guard against too much risk being concentrated in a single bank. The same principle should apply to wider forms of funding employed by large financial institutions in today's economy. The American people will not be served by a financial system that comprises just a few massive firms. That's not good for consumers; it's not good for the economy. And through this policy, that is an outcome we will avoid.
The gist of the reforms is set out in this press release:

The proposal would:

1. Limit the Scope – The President and his economic team will work with Congress to ensure that no bank or financial institution that contains a bank will own, invest in or sponsor a hedge fund or a private equity fund, or proprietary trading operations unrelated to serving customers for its own profit.

2. Limit the Size – The President also announced a new proposal to limit the consolidation of our financial sector. The President’s proposal will place broader limits on the excessive growth of the market share of liabilities at the largest financial firms, to supplement existing caps on the market share of deposits.
While the first proposal seeks to address the consequences of commingling banking and proprietary trading activity, the second seeks to tackle the “too big to fail” phenomenon.

Although some believe that these proposals are driven by political factors, others are either sympathetic to or supportive of this move. In any event, the significance of this step is that it seeks to address issues that go to the root cause of the crisis.

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