Monday, February 1, 2010

The Volcker Rule: Banks Back to Basics, Stop Ripping us Off

President Obama refers to the "Volcker rule" , as a new plan to limit what banks can do, raising the ire from the big banks, and in turn those sending stock plummeting.

The Globe and Mail had a great article on Paul Volcker this weekend. It says that Paul Volcker, the former Fed chief has long insisted that deposit-taking banks have a duty to safeguard public assets and must be restricted from speculative activities that put them at risk.

"Banks have a service responsibility to individuals, to businesses and to governments, for that matter. And they run the payments system. Those are very basic functions, which is the reason they are protected," Mr. Volcker told me last October.

For those same reasons, "they should be limited in their more speculative activities. I have expressed a view that they shouldn't be running private equity funds and they shouldn't be in the commodities markets," he said.

"And their trading activities should certainly be limited. I don't want everybody to become a hedge fund." In effect, Mr. Volcker was calling for an updated version of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which set up a wall between U.S. investment and commercial banking until it was cast aside in the deregulation craze of the 1990s. At the time, Mr. Volcker was dismissed as an ancient relic by the banking establishment and marginalized by the Obama brain trust.

Closer Obama advisers, such as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and top economic aide Larry Summers - both once staunch supporters of deregulation - lived in hope that Wall Street would clean up its own act and that public anger about the financial collapse would fade.
But the anger hasn't dissipated, the banks have returned to some of their old habits, and Mr. Obama badly needs a popular cause to restore his political fortunes.

Enter the slightly stooped Mr. Volcker, who at 6-foot-7 still stands out in a crowd of presidential advisers.

"He's very much an old-fashioned, nuts-and-bolts kind of guy who I think feels he's been vindicated by the times," says Robert Brusca, who as a young economist worked for Mr. Volcker when he ran the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in the late 1970s.
"There's something to be said about people who keep their fundamental values," Mr. Brusca said.

Mr. Volcker, whose formidable reputation as a central banker stems from his successful war on double-digit inflation in the early 1980s, railed against what he considered toothless reform efforts, even as he was largely ignored in official Washington. That's despite the fact he ostensibly had the ear of the president as head of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

Mr. Volcker had earlier fretted about the spread of credit-default swaps and other complex derivatives and said the only meaningful financial innovation in the past two decades was the development of ATMs.

Just last month, he had this to say to a bunch of senior global bankers: "I wish someone would give me one shred of neutral evidence that financial innovation has led to economic growth."
Critics will find much not to like in the Volcker plan, and influential bank lobbyists are sure to mount a full-court press to try to keep the proposed reforms stuck in the congressional wilderness.

And now that the U.S. Supreme Court has removed limits on how much corporations can spend in election campaigns, the cash-dispensing lobbyists will have more millions to spread around.
Despite his own reformist bent - "Glass-Steagall was probably a much better idea than people realize" - Mr. Brusca says it would be foolish to prohibit banks from proprietary trading, as the Volcker plan envisages.

That's partly because banks need to trade in the market constantly to gauge, for example, how liquid it is for a given security and what volumes and pricing would make sense.
Banks can't simply wait for an order from a client and slot it through to the market, says Mr. Brusca, who runs New York-based Fact and Opinion Economics.

"That's not how banking works. If it worked that way, then people wouldn't need banks," he said.
So far, we know little beyond the generalities of the Volcker plan. And by the time it makes its way through Congress, it may have morphed into something Mr. Volcker wouldn't recognize if it bumped into him on the street.

But if the policy makers can manage to fend off the advances of the lobbyists, the big deposit-taking institutions will look a little more like staid utilities than major risk-takers with public money.

That would certainly suit the tall man who has been pushing so hard to get banking back to its basics".

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