Tag Archives: Volcker Rule

Volcker Rule Would Cause Irreparable Damage To The Muppets – And Much More Broadly

By Simon Johnson, April 1st, 2012

A major new research report – released this weekend by the renowned international consulting firm, IMS – finds conclusively that implementation of the proposed Volcker Rule would damage not just the irreplaceable Muppets but also “all children-oriented television or other media-based educational program content.”

The logic in the report is straightforward and, quite frankly, compelling.  The Volcker Rule – which aims to limit proprietary trading and excessive risk-taking by the country’s largest banks – would reduce the ability of “too big to fail” institutions to bet heavily on the price of commodities used to produce puppets (mostly cotton, but also apparently wood, aluminum, and some rare earths.)

“In response to the changing demands of their customers, banks have expanded their role of providing financial resources and services to include risk management and intermediation services to [various kinds of puppets]” (p. ES2)

These services are highly profitable and of great value to the skilled artisans who produce puppets, but if the very biggest banks are not allowed to engage in these activities, then no one else will. Continue reading

Should We Trust Paid Experts On The Volcker Rule?

By Simon Johnson

On Wednesday morning, two subcommittees of the House Financial Services Committee held a joint hearing on the Volcker Rule.  The Rule, named for former Fed chair Paul Volcker, is aimed at restricting certain kinds of “proprietary trading” activities by big banks – with the goal of making it harder for these institutions to blow themselves up and inflict another deep recession on the rest of us.

The Volcker Rule was passed as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation (it is Section 619) and regulators are currently in the process of requesting comments on their proposed draft rules to implement.  Part of the issue currently is claims made by some members of the financial services industry that the Volcker Rule will restrict liquidity in markets, pushing up interest rates on corporate debt in particular and therefore slowing economic growth.

This argument rests in part on a report produced by Oliver Wyman, a financial consulting company.  Oliver Wyman has a strong technical reputation and is most definitely capable of producing high quality work.  But their work on this issue is not convincing.  (The points below are adapted from my written testimony and verbal exchanges at the hearing; the testimony is available here.) Continue reading

Where Is The Volcker Rule?

By Simon Johnson

Three years ago, a financial crisis threatened to bring down the United States economy – and to spread economic disaster around the world. How far have we come in preventing any kind of recurrence? And will the much-discussed Volcker Rule – attempting to limit the risks that big banks can take – play a positive role as we move forward?

Bad loans were the primary cause of the 2007-8 financial debacle. When the full extent of the problems with those loans became apparent, there was a sharp fall in the values of all securities that had been constructed based on the underlying mortgages – and a collapse in the value of related bets that had been made using derivatives.

The damage to the economy became huge because these losses were not dispersed throughout the economy or around the world. Rather, many of the so-called “toxic assets” were held by the country’s largest banks. Financial institutions that used to lend to consumers and businesses had instead become drawn into various forms of gambling on the booming mortgage market (as well as on commodities, equities and all kinds of derivatives). “Wall Street gets the upside, and society gets the downside” was the operating principle. Continue reading

Making The Volcker Rule Work

By Simon Johnson.  This is the text of a letter (about 2,000 words) submitted on Friday to the Financial Stability Oversight Council, in response to their request for comments on the Volcker Rule.  The full letter is here and on regulations.gov.  If you would like more background on the Volcker Rule and its political importance, please see this post and the links it provides.

Dear Members of the Financial Stability Oversight Council:

Thank you for the opportunity to submit these comments on the study regarding implementation of Section 619 of the Dodd-Frank Act, also known as the Merkley-Levin provisions on proprietary trading and conflicts of interest or as the Volcker Rule.

Summary

I would like to offer three main comments. 

  1. Mismanagement of risks that involved effectively betting the banks’ own capital was central to the financial crisis of 2008; this is why our largest banks failed or almost failed.  The Merkley-Levin Volcker Rule, properly defined, would significantly reduce systemic financial risks looking forward.  Congressman Bachus’s comment to contrary (as submitted to the FSOC, as part of the Public Input for this Study, dated November 3, 2010) is completely at odds with the facts.
  2. Trades need to be scrutinized in a detailed and high frequency fashion.  It is not enough to rely on relatively infrequent and “high level” inspections – or the established supervisory process.  The comments provided to you in this regard by Senator Harkin (dated October 20, 2010) – and also by Senators Merkley and Levin (dated November 4, 2010) – are exactly on target.
  3. The separation between banks and the funds they sponsor, in any fashion, needs to be complete.  The argument offered by State Street and other “Custodian Banks” in their comment to you (dated October 27, 2010) is worrying and potentially dangerous, because it ignores the basic economics that leads to bank failure.

The remainder of this letter expands on these points. Continue reading

Will the Volcker Rule Survive The Midterm Elections?

By Simon Johnson

The Obama administration saved the deeply troubled megabanks in the United States in early 2009 with a bundle of rescue measures that, compared with similar financial crises elsewhere, stands out as extraordinarily generous – particularly to the bankers at the epicenter of the disaster.

The banks responded to this magnanimity with – by all accounts – extraordinarily generous support for the Republicans leading up to this week’s midterm elections. Why would they do this?

The answer is straightforward: The Republicans have promised generally not to tighten restrictions on the financial sector, which means specifically that they will seek to make the recent Dodd-Frank financial regulatory legislation less effective. Continue reading

The Treasury Position – On The Volcker Rule

Former Secretary of State George Shultz famously quipped about Washington: “Nothing ever gets settled in this town. You have to keep fighting, every inch of the way.” This is proving just as true for banking reform as for other aspects of American government policy.

For example, Senators Carl Levin of Michigan and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, after considerable effort, were able to place strong language in the Dodd-Frank financial-sector legislation – enacting a version of the “Volcker Rule” that would require big banks to become significantly less risky. While this idea originated with Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman and senior adviser to President Obama, and was announced with great fanfare by the president himself in January, it was clear – from the beginning and throughout the detailed negotiations this spring – that the Treasury Department was less than fully enthusiastic about this approach.

Treasury’s position – ranging from lukewarm support to outright opposition at times – created an uphill task for Senators Levin and Merkley. And now that they have reached the top of the Dodd-Frank hill, what do they see? Another even steeper climb awaits, because the Treasury Department is digging in publicly against the drafting of detailed regulatory rules that would actually make Volcker-Levin-Merkley effective. Continue reading

Final Thoughts on Volckerfest 2010

The coming months will tell if the Volcker Rule and the prohibition on banks getting even larger will turn out to be substance or mere spin. I’m finally getting around to reading the transcript of the pre-announcement media briefing and I found a few things that were worth a smile.

1. On the cap on a single institution’s share of liabilities: “The 10 percent cap on insured deposits exists in current law. It was put in place in 1994. And what we’re saying is that deposit cap has served or country well.” Um, then why did you waive it for JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo?

Continue reading

“Populism”

Amidst otherwise strong coverage of the growing debate around the nature of finance and the power of big banks, a surprisingly high number of journalists continue to misuse the word “populism”.

For example, in an article on criticism of bankers at Davos, the Wall Street on Saturday morning reported that President Sarkozy of France delivered a “populist broadside” when he said,

“That those who create jobs and wealth may earn a lot of money is not shocking.  But that those who contribute to destroying jobs and wealth also earn a lot of money is morally indefensible.”

The implication, of course, is that some politicians are pandering to “the people” vs. “the elites” – part of a long-standing theme in some interpretations of democratic political conflict.  While elites invest and engage in productive activities, the argument goes, plebians from time to time demand excessive income redistribution or punitive taxation or other measures that would undermine productivity and prosperity.

Or, as President Obama said in March 2009, “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”

Such language reveals a complete misunderstanding of our current situation.  (Matt Taibbi has this right, but doesn’t go far enough.) Continue reading