Inquirer Editorial: Don't stop with Volcker rule

Then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker testifying on Capitol Hill in 1980.
Then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker testifying on Capitol Hill in 1980. (AP)
Posted: December 17, 2013

It took five federal agencies three years to wade through the stalling tactics of banking lobbyists - including the 20,000 comments they filed - to come up with 963 pages of regulations with 2,826 footnotes that boil down to one admonition: Don't make reckless bets with other people's money.

Finally, on Tuesday, the Federal Reserve Board, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency approved the so-called Volcker rule, named for former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, an advisor to President Obama during the recession.

That it took so long to write the rule is an indication of the difficulty regulators face in getting the financial industry to not just admit its gambling problem, but do something about it.

The reckless risk-taking known as proprietary trading rang up massive profits for banks, as well as $2 million-a-year incomes for star traders. But it also produced massive losses. Banks gambled customers' federally insured deposits on derivatives and other exotic, barely regulated financial products, putting them on a virtual roller-coaster ride of high-flying gains and steep losses.

Even as the financial industry used its political clout to try to block the Volcker rule, another scandal became known. JPMorgan Chase lost $6 billion in bad trades set up by a broker known as the "London whale," and then tried to hide the losses from customers. Two JPMorgan traders have been indicted in the case, which shows how quickly trade losses can grow and threaten the entire financial system.

Risky trading of mortgage-backed derivatives was a contributing factor in causing the recession, which occurred when avaricious lending institutions went beyond federal directives to make home ownership easier to attain by extending credit to people that they knew couldn't afford the mortgages.

The Volcker rule, part of the sweeping 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, prohibits banks from proprietary trading, or transactions conducted purely for a bank's gain, rather than to serve its customers. The rule, which goes into effect in April, but does not require full compliance until mid-2015, isn't perfect. Analysts say the financial industry's army of lawyers will find loopholes to exploit.

One important flaw is that the rule does not appear to go far enough to hold bank executives accountable. They must sign statements attesting to the existence of a compliance plan at their bank, but they do not have to actually assert compliance, which may allow them to avoid being held liable when a bank is said to have violated the regulation. That's a pretty big distinction, and should be fixed.

In anticipation of the rule, some banks have already changed their practices and returned to the boring old days when banks made conservative investments that better ensured the safety of their customers' deposits.

There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, there's nothing wrong with taking even more steps to prevent a return to the type of devil-may-care lending and investment decisions that almost led to another Great Depression. Consider Dodd-Frank a first step.

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