Will The Volcker Rule Really Be Enforced?

By Simon Johnson

The Financial Stability Oversight Council has put out a request for comments on the Volcker Rule – if you write to them soon, they may actually listen.

One big issue is whether there will be high frequency monitoring of trades by big banks – potentially enabling regulators to know if the “no proprietary trading” rule is being violated. The default approach is probably to have a hands-off, light touch – pretty much continuing our recent and not-so-distinguished traditions with regard to supervising banks.

I go through the issues in more detail – including who seems to be on what side within the government – in a Bloomberg column that appeared this evening.

66 thoughts on “Will The Volcker Rule Really Be Enforced?

  1. The Volcker Rule may not be perfect but at this stage it’s almost all we’ve got.

    And so we wait for the next collapse.

  2. Why don’t you mention the necessity for reinstating Glass-Steagall? The already weak Volker Rule is sure to be weakened and virtually gutted in practice and has no possibility of preventing another meltdown. Even Glass-Steagall alone is not enough, but without a new Glass-Steagall bill, there is no hope at all. Elizabeth Warren has already capitulated and told business leaders that she, like they, will concentrate on “principles,” not rules. Ms. Warren, it was nice to have known you….

    A bipartisan Senate bill to reinstate Glass-Steagall was proposed earlier this year, yet Obama and the Senate leadership refused to even give it a proper hearing because of opposition from the banking industry. There are also three such bills languishing in the House. Simon, if someone like you doesn’t keep the urgent need for a new Glass-Steagall bill on the front burner, who will? Carry the torch!

  3. i’m trying to find the appropriate rule to comment on. perhaps you should have provided more information so high-functioning idiots like me can navigate the unfriendly fedreg site. you cite a bank regulation under dodd-frank having to do with the volker rule. all i can find are two rules pertaining to NON-bank entities and searching for volker isn’t at all useful.

    a little help here …?


  4. Mr. Johnson wrote:

    “The Financial Stability Oversight Council has put out a request for comments on the Volcker Rule ”

    Roubini Sees 40% Chance Of Double-Dip; Volcker Predicts ‘Prolonged’ Unemployment

    10-7-10 09:34 AM – Huff Post

    “Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker and economist Nouriel Roubini seem equally pessimistic about a U.S. economic recovery.

    “This has not been an ordinary recession,” Volcker, who chairs the president’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, said in a Toronto speech Thursday, according to Bloomberg, and he added that it’s “very difficult to find a sector in the American economy that has any spark to it.”


  5. “Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who is the Senate majority leader, thanked Bank of America “for doing the right thing” and urged other lenders to follow suit”:

  6. My two cents: Whatever is decided, it is a virtual lock that the big bankstes will find a way to game us. If we believe Mary Shapiro is floating more than a red herring, we have to believe that she has more clout than Ben Bernanke. I have serious doubts. If she did, she’d certainly be a first in clout amongst recent women in regulatory slots. I remember so well what happened to Brooksley Born when Bernanke’s predecessor was part of the steamrolling crew and she lost, big time. Jury’s out, but mine not very much.

  7. Will The Volcker Rule Really Be Enforced?

    Short answer: No.

    Long answer: No, not while the bankers have anything to say about it.

  8. Quite. how did we get to a situation where the whole of capitalism and the prosperity we’re used to could be finished (in a political destruction sense) unless a large government team sits with their eyes on a big computer, which even then doesn’t guarantee safety from something actually rather catastrophic?

    I was in two meetings yesterday with senior managers at two investment banking giants this week and in private both said exactly the same thing. You’ll need far more people, far better paid (“you should be poaching our staff from us”), on site fulltime, and with all the access they needed.

    That said, they were clear that even their own risk management teams had a pretty poor grasp of HFT and algorithmic training and that this would likely always be so (“we compete for the top few computer scientists and mathematicians in the world, paying them more or less than $1m or whatever…. who else on earth will understand what they’re up to, but they make money, most of the time”)

    Their comments on the need to “reality test” living wills/contingent capital, which I respectfully wont expand on here, were also insightful and reminded me of past Baseline Scenario posts, many of which, in my experience, have been holes-in-one in terms of what you hear from senior insiders when they’re able to talk in private (and in truth I know that even then I’m probably hearing a version doctored in one way or another).

    Thanks to Simon for this post, and can i suggest if we’re in perma-guest post mode, why not get some investment bankers / former IBers, insiders, writing anonymously if necessary.

  9. “who else on earth will understand what they’re up to, but they make money,..”
    Oh, I think we do, but some are dazzled by their billiance, others are merely baffled by their BS.

  10. The most difficult thing for ordinary people to understand is why and how we so blithely gave Big Banking so much power. Is there any way banks can be curtailed? Such a simple question, but the answer seems to elude everyone. Doesn’t anyone in power (not you, big banks) have the guts to confront big banking and call them out? What’s it gonna take, people?

  11. Mike Konczal is kind of carrying the Financial Reform baton while Mr. Kwak is busy with law duties and family. I encourage “Baselinescenario” loyalists to hop over to Rortybomb occasionally for a visit. There is a terrific paper over there with a section written by Jennifer Taub, and also a 7 minute video of Miss Taub. I’m hoping that if Elizabeth Warren has a say on these things, she would endorse and support Jennifer Taub for an important spot in the CFPB, if Miss Taub indeed wants it. I don’t think you could find a person filled with more integrity or trustworthiness than Jennifer Taub for a top spot at CFPB, preferably glancing over these big bank Repo tricks and other Balance Sheet tactics big banks use to mislead their investors.

  12. Dana, you got it. It’s gonna take The People. Everyone “in power” is owned by what we broadly call “the banks” (actually FIRE–the Finance, Insurance, Real Estate sector).

  13. I’ve felt for quite some time, that America has gotten largely what she deserved in terms of her politicians, because Americans are “bored” with reading the newspaper, and feel that “Washington D.C. is Hollywood for ugly people”. Many Americans are just not literate enough and get much of their news in an auditory way, and what they view as the most in depth stuff from AM radio, (and we know 99% what you get there).

    One thing I like about Andrew Sullivan is he does what great bloggers do, he and his blogging team take a large amalgamation of news, sift through it and find a few sentences that can beautifully crystalize a complex topic. Check out this beauty of a post, which pretty much encapsulates the last 30 years of politics to the more observant and intelligent among us. I’m copying word for word here from Sullivan’s post, the intro-sentence is Andrew Sullivan’s (at “The Dish” Atlantic magazine) and the rest of it is Peter Beinart from The Daily Beast website.

    “Beinart predicts another four years – on the lines of FDR and Reagan, who also inherited sucky economies but were able to turn them in the right direction (if not better than when they began) by re-election time:

    Republicans won’t get very far by harping on the deficit. In 1984, you may remember, a presidential candidate told voters to ignore the nation’s nascent economic recovery and focus instead of the country’s swelling debt. His name was Walter Mondale.”

    Let me stress: I find this most interesting in its insight into Americans’ voting habits, and not for its prognostication of the future.

  14. No one has “power” over you that you did not give to them.

    When you examine the values and “rules” of any historic Middle Class (going back to the Roman Empire before it “fell”)

    you will find an entirely different “class” of civilization.

    The top rung of “power” depends entirely on the BOTTOM rung to “will do anything for the money”.

    That’s why the Middle Class is consistently wiped out after a time because both – top and bottom – wait in the bushes to steal the fruit of Middle Class labor.

  15. michael,
    I think it has something to do with Title VI Section 619 and Title VII Section 714–716 in the Frank–Dodd Bill. Mainly talking about what is called “proprietary trading” and also keeping a definitive line between commercial banks (or retail banks) and investment banks (which are more into market speculation for “fat cats”). The Volcker rule in its pure form keeps commercial banks from investing in Hedge funds and private-equity funds. Also in its pure form it should keep swaps trading desks separate. I haven’t made the effort to read all the bill but that should get you in the right area I think.

    There is also a long article in the July 26, 2010 New Yorker magazine by John Cassidy called “The Volcker Rule”, which is a little dated but could give you some good background.

    Here is a link from June from David Dayen at “FireDogLake”

    Hope that helps your search michael.

  16. We garner tremedous benefits from a strong banking industry to include tax revenue and reserve currency status. Reserve currency let’s us borrow at cheaper rates and ensures that the Enlish language is used for commerce. The Volcker rule in it’s draconian form will signficantly weaken the U.S. banks. one unintended consequence is to stop another financial meltdown in the future by ensuring that there is nothing to meltdown. Anyone want to go back to an Agrarian society? There are ways to prevent financial contagion without this overly burdensome legislation like increasing capital requirements.

  17. Wipe out agrarians? Care to elaborate on how agrarianism prevents you from getting richer? What can drug lords be retrained to do? Write software?

  18. Re: @ Eric___Funny…but isn’t the Federal Reserve giving the TBTF’s free money (o% interest) to pad their capital reserves as I write? C’mon, give me a break – so they’ve got to set some of the free money aside. Let me ask you this dumb question? Have you ever invested all your eggs (hard earned shekels) in a one lump sum pond {those ain’t goldfish swimming about…but only baitfish for the shark-pool frenzy fish (you and me) fry}, or do you keep alittle under the mattress for the unknown, that is say…listening cautiously from that assiduous voice in your head that shouts loud, and clear, “parseimonious is too err on the side of tranquility”?

  19. @ earle – Please grab a dictionary and go back to your think tank and solve the problems of widget makers. Leave the real world to those who dare the adult swim.

  20. I know it is not popular but the banks are not the proximate cause of the current “Great Recession”. Look to FNM and FRE and the unintended consequences of other entitlement programs. Look to individuals spending beyond their means and then blaming others. TARP ex FNM and FRE will turn a profit for the Gov’t. Banks followed the money just like spec builders and they all got burned and have modified their behavior. Overregulated and destroy the U.S. banking industry at our own peril. Sarbanes-Oxley is another flawed piece of over regulation that has destroyed GDP and hurt our overall standard of living and ability to compete internationally. The only ones who benefit are Gov’t workers and lawyers. Did not realize I stumbled upon a pinko liberal website.

  21. George999x, Georgians, Georgists … lvtfan in a previous post said he prefers Georgists. I don’t mind Georgian. It reminds me of that beautiful Ray Charles song :)

  22. Thanks TedK :)

    Both versions are classic. When I first saw Heidi Klum and Seal on the boob-tube I didn’t know who they were. I thought, who is blonde ditz with a black guy? Was this some kind of publicity stunt? But now I am fully informed having watched the Youtube version of Heidi and Seal on Oprah :)

    Heidi Klum may be blonde but she is no ditz and she is making millions and millions of dollars. Two charismatic and talented people. They’ve found each other, appear to be genuinely happy, and are committed to their children and family life.

    Maybe black people in America 50 years ago had it worse than the alleged oppression by the Oligarchs of today. But not to diminish the seriousness of social and economic issues in current debate.

  23. With all due respect, there are much bigger problems out there than the “Volker Rule”.

    White House: No Need For National Foreclosure Moratorium

    10/10/10 – AP – excerpts

    WASHINGTON — “A top White House adviser questioned the need Sunday for a blanket stoppage of all home foreclosures, even as pressure grows on the Obama administration to do something about mounting evidence that banks have used inaccurate documents to evict homeowners…

    You’re going to shut down the housing industry” with a national stoppage, Cantor said.

    The attorneys general of up to 40 states plan to announce a joint investigation soon into banks’ use of flawed foreclosure paperwork, a person familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press late Saturday.”


    “We knew the world would not be the same.

    Few people laughed, few people cried, most people were silent.

    I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture…. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

    J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904 – 1967) was an American physicist and the scientific director of the Manhattan Project.

  24. Eric, so who are the air cadets? The folks who want business as usual for Wall Street or the folks who would bring back a 90% on the top 1% of income earners?


    death star version:

  25. Re: @ Eric___”The Volker rule in it’s (its) draconian (not a law but a rule?) form will sign(i)ficantly weaken the U.S. banks”.___ Your english, and spelling are terrible…I sincerely hope you don’t use it to interpret our (true meaning of the english language to communicate coherently?) language for commerce, Eric! PS. “in the future as far as ensuring there is nothing to meltdown”…Question, Eric? What meltdown is your freudian slip referring too, you uneducated twit!

  26. Those the view the evolution of finance into the highest and noblest form of human endeavor look upon the beauty of a naked short sell or a few tens of millions of dollars skimmed deftly with ownership of assets measured in milliseconds and thereby betray their own inner flaw: an utter lack of empathy for those that they screw. While the US may have led the way in forging the new world order, I have to ask whether this was the right thing to do. If you make your money this way (Eric?), then you probably think it’s a groovy system.

  27. “Facts, facts, and more damm true empirical facts, facts upside-down…facts downside-up of hopeless denial, facts layed at our shoeless footprints circling our forlorn unintented kismet – a burial requiem interminable?”_____US Debt (10/11/2010) **(GDP/2011 ~ $12.7tn.?) $13.98tn.; Interest Payment on Debt 2012 – $571bn.; *(doesn’t include liabilities for Social Security, Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, and all GSE’s)*;_____”Top ’10’ Holders of U.S. Treasury Securities (as of June 30,2010 / Source: US Treasury Dept.) #1/10 US Gov’t: $4.6tn. in intergovernmental holdings; #2/10 US households and non-profits: $1.1tn.; #3/10 China: $843.7bn.; #4/10 Japan: $803.6bn.; #5/10 State and Local Gov’ts: $511.8bn.: #6/10 Private Pension Funds: $407.4bn.; #7/10 United Kingdom $362.2bn.; #8/10 Money Market Mutual Funds: $351.2bn.; #9/10 Other Mutual Funds: $281.6bn.; #10/10 Commercial Banks: $246.2bn.____PS. There’s ~$4.2tn. somewhere below on the list not shown.

  28. Sorry, Eric, but the financial houses played the role of street-corner dealers handing out credit lines like dime-bags of smack. Debt addiction was the goal to keep the fires of the securitization machine stoked.

    The idea that the people pushing the drug didn’t play any part in this is outrageous. I’ve mentioned this before: claiming innocence for Wall Street since all it did was take advantage of the stupid fools who dug themselves a hole and jumped in is a dangerous game. It’s the antithesis of the beneficent role the financial industry was positing for itself at the beginning of the decade, as the great provider of wealth for all if we would only entrust them with our money.

    Is the industry now saying that the rubes deserved it? The same bumpkins who pumped in tens of billions to save the industry’s hide even as all the jobs predicated on that debt evaporated? Your short-term memory is working on Internet time.

    People were told to spend and they did. They were told they could borrow against the ever-increasing value of their homes and that’s how they kept on doing it. The carny barkers bear a hell of a lot of the responsibility for this mess in my book.

  29. Eric,
    Let’s just assume for the moment your label of “draconian” is true (which it is in fact not true, and laughable on its face), maybe we wouldn’t need that if banks could figure out how to account for assets and capital (or the lack thereof) correctly on their balance sheets.

    What the large banks want to do, is play high risk games with retail bank depositors’ money with swaps desks and hedge funds, and then go running to the U.S. taxpayer when their casino game goes bad. It is certainly not “draconian” to put an end to that.

    Eric, better go back to spitting Lloyd Blankfein’s shoes clean before he starts thinking you are the “Goyishe kop”.

  30. I don’t make my living that way but that “skimming” is what provides liquidity and makes efficient tight markets which grease the wheels for international commerce. The problem with LEH, as an example, was proprietary holdings not prop trading. Most of you libs with limited understanding of the real world think that output is fixed regardless of gov’t policy. I can assure you that output is not fixed and with the enormous amount of outstanding state and federal obligations that we had better grow or the $ will be worth nothing. We will have to print dollars to fulfill our obligations and hyper inflate if we don’t grow. The hyperinflation leads to shortages and hording and general hatred for others but at least you will be able to get out of the house you bought and could not afford and you will be able to sell your Prius that you secretly hate for a “profit”.

  31. I don’t make my living that way but that “skimming” is what provides liquidity and makes efficient tight markets which grease the wheels for international commerce. The problem with LEH as an example was proprietary holdings not prop trading. Most of you libs with limited understanding of the real world think that output is fixed regardless of gov’t policy. I can assure you that output is not fixed and with the enormous amount of outstanding state and federal obligations that we had better grow or the $ will be worth nothing. We will have to print dollars to fulfill our obligations and hyper inflate. The hyperinflation leads to shortages and hording and general hatred for others but at least you will be able to get out of the house you bought and could not afford and you will be able to sell your Prius that you secretly hate for a “profit”.

  32. Eric, “Look to FNM and FRE and the unintended consequences of other entitlement programs. Look to individuals spending beyond their means and then blaming others.”

    The bottom rung of the ladder always plays by the rules set by the upper rung of the ladder, my friend, which is what you keep “selling” – what the top rung does is “god’s work”…see how intellectually dishonest you are?

    But the reality TODAY is that no one cares anymore what the intellectually dishonest “top” thinks, believes or plans to do to get “rich”. It ain’t gonna happen – as one pundit put it yesterday on a biz cable TV show – “the “economy” is so destroyed that no amount of money put into it will help”.

    Duly noted that any money, in your opinion, spent on life-maintenance activities human beings HAVE FOR REAL

    especially $$$ currency flowing towards a cooperative civilization that took tens of thousands of years to “evolve”

    is a “burden” on the “banks”.

    You have clearly defined the role of a “bank” by admitting what it will NOT “fund” – human life.

    And before anyone continues to make the claim that someone “spent beyond their means”, why not present the amount that is the “means”? The “means” shape-shifted so many times in our short lives, cosmically speaking

    always coinciding with an increase in what the top rung decided to shoot for to accumulate in their PRIVATE account – eventually, all billionaires can spend on is “war” – two billion a week, to be precise.

  33. I am very happy that I can be called out for my limited understanding of the real world, and so I read a little more here and there when I can, economics not being my chosen career path.

    Of course output is not fixed, and the role of finance is to match lenders with borrowers so the lenders get a reasonable rate of return and the borrowers are able to expand their business. The financier that matches these two parties clearly provides a real and tangible service, and this is all to the good of society.

    I have a problem, however, with those who have fallen in love with complex financial instruments and see in them an intrinsic beauty, sort of the way Lloyd Blankfein referred to the work that Goldman Sachs does as ‘God’s work’ — and simply the notion that HFT helps allow pricing to more quickly converge on its appropriate, true value is to ignore that the high frequency trader makes a quick profit by inserting themselves between buyers and sellers, meaning that in this zero-sum equation the buyer, the seller, or both end up with less than they otherwise would have had. In this example, this is no added value, and so it is, by definition, entirely extractive or parasitic, if you will.

    Failure to discern a difference between matching lenders and borrowers and extractions derived from complex financial instruments is a big problem with the conventional wisdom that exists today in mainstream economic thought.

    The Fed uses quantitative easing to increase the money supply and therefore lending, but only because they’ve already played their interest rate card as much as it can possibly be played (negative interest rates don’t make much sense, but I’d love to hear the argument for them from some wizard of economics). The problem with QE is that all the savings I have been working to save over the course of my working life diminish in value. Therefore this affects me in a clear and tangible way. I appreciate that somebody, someday may offer me twice what I paid for my house, but the sweetness of the moment may be diminished somewhat if the same policies that are working to reinflate housing also make my retirement savings nearly worthless.

  34. Fair enough, and thanks for the “Godspeed” sendoff.

    I have a number of Republican friends, and they are just as hard-working and self-reliant as my Democratic, unaffiliated, and even apolitical friends. I find that when we get down to any discussion of things that are wrong we rarely disagree — until the conversation turns to solutions. At this point, I usually argue that the government needs to do things that the market doesn’t do well, whereas my Republican friends say these things should be left undone.

  35. “Will the Volcker rule really be enforced?

    “You are the best. You are the worst. You are average. Your love is a part of you. You try to give it away because you cannot bear its radiance, but you cannot separate it from yourself. To understand your fellow humans, you must understand why you give them your love. You must realize that hate is but a crime-ridden subdivision of love. You must reclaim what you never lost. You must take leave of your sanity, and yet be fully responsible for your actions.”

    – Gnarls Barkley, in a letter to the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs

  36. The dead pan send up with Cee-Loo as pilot and a flight crew for back up is better than brilliant. But the Death Star version is IMHO is genius. Intentional or not, I read (and who knows when the producer goes by the name Danger Mouse) the Death Star version as a send up of the planning for a real Star Wars. Chewbacca on drums, Storm Troopers playing funk, that fantastic organist, as a visual sign of just how crazy the world can be.

    Here’s my nomination for another send up: A Gnarls Barkley replay of “Crazy” on the virtual trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Mixed reviews I guess depending on whether you consider HFT good or bad.

  37. Thank you for that link. There was another one linked to it of an interview with “Adam Smith”. In the closing seconds he says, “if I could buy a call on “K” Street, that’s what I’d do.

    If it’s too big to fail, it’s too big.

  38. You still believe in efficient market theory?

    “grease the wheels for international commerce”. Please.

    The wheels of international commerce are greased not by supposedly free gross capital flows among banks TBTF, but by the actions of companies and individuals, supported by such things as letters of credit and factored receivables (ever heard of them?), that get the job of international trade done.

    Get off your macroeconomic horse. You’re going to trample the rest of us – unless, of course, that’s your intention.

  39. It’s hard to understand this kind of capitulation.
    Glass-Steagall is an indispensable part of a comprehensive overhaul of Wall Street and the
    banking industry. Simon Johnson HAS strongly
    supported reinstating Glass-Steagall in his
    columns, on PBS, etc. There is something really
    dark and insidious occurring where DC and NYC
    intersect, and no one has quite gotten to the
    bottom of it, claims about influence,lobbying
    and money aside. Will we ever know? Will there
    be another recession on the heels of this last one?
    –Stay tuned.

  40. @ Earle
    I think Nietzsche first coined the phase, “you uneducated twit!”. I am glad you have both internet access and a copy of The Elements of Style in your double wide trailer. A lot of creativity on this artsy liberal economically ignorant comment section and would like to add to the community. With “Earle is the word” – enjoy http://www.birdistheword.net/

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