If the bankers hate it, the Volcker rule must be good
The Volcker rule was intended to restrain the kind of risky, unscrutinized speculation that continues even after the crash. After a year of lobbying, it has been narrowed down to limiting the trading banks can do with their own capital.
Special to The Seattle Times
I was prepared to be skeptical of the Volcker rule until I read the getting-the-vapors statement by Frank Keating, president of the American Bankers Association, the industry's trade group.
Decrying the 298-page document, Keating said, "How can banks comply with a rule that complicated, and how can regulators effectively administer it in a way that doesn't make it harder for banks to serve their customers and further weaken the broader economy?"
As in serve their customers with new fees, including for the debit cards that are much cheaper than checks and already a windfall for the banks? Serve customers by cutting back lending to even creditworthy small businesses? Further weaken a broader economy nearly destroyed by a deregulated and reckless banking sector?
Let's not nitpick.
The Volcker rule, named after the distinguished former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, was intended to restrain the kind of risky, unscrutinized speculation that continues even after the crash. After a year of lobbying, especially by the big banks, it has been narrowed down to limiting the trading banks can do with their own capital.
This, rather than the dull business of making loans for job-creating productive enterprises, is one of the biggest profit centers for the big banks. So naturally they'd go bananas. But this activity, for example speculating in securities, derivatives and hedge funds, provides little benefit to either the economy or the banks customers.
Proprietary trading as its conducted does add significantly to the risks of institutions backed by U.S. taxpayers. It was, as MIT economist Simon Johnson has pointed out, "central" to the financial crisis, bringing many banks close to collapse.
To put a fine point on it, if they're not exactly gambling with our tax money, they're gambling knowing our money will be called in when they go bust. It's making money by moving money around, rather than deploying capital to back innovation and create jobs.
Even Washington Mutual, once a humble savings and loan, had a trading desk, although that was not at the heart of its troubles.
Keating has a point about the complexity, as well as the many gray areas yet to be clarified. But this is partly a result of the self-imposed hyper-complexity of today's banking environment, as well as the work of the industry lobbyists to water it down with loopholes.
As critics have pointed out, the document contains many statements that sound tough, but then come the numerous exemptions. The rule won't be in final form until next summer, and then banks have two years to comply or ask for extensions, by which time a new president may be in office.
But the arrival of the Volcker rule isn't a pointless exercise. It is a reminder of how much remains unreformed three years after the abuses, mismanagement and outright swindles of the banking industry brought on the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
The too-big-to-fail banks are bigger than ever and continue to focus on high-risk activity. None of the executives behind the subprime bunco has faced prosecution, including Countrywide's Angelo Mozilo and Washington Mutual's Kerry Killinger. None has even been required to return the lavish compensation they received as incentive for steering the financial Titanic before it struck the iceberg of reality.
No wonder both the Occupy movement and the tea party hold Wall Street and the banks in low esteem.
Some recompense may come from the civil suits percolating through the courts, including those being faced by Bank of America, which acquired Countrywide. Another helpful move last week, overshadowed by the Volcker coverage, was a proposed rule to allow the Federal Reserve to regulate much of the shadow banking industry, including hedge funds and asset managers.
This assumes, of course, that the regulators act in the interest of the public and not the companies bring regulated.
The reality is that the Volcker rule, especially the Swiss cheese version that will finally be implemented, wouldn't have stopped the financial panic.
Its fuse was lit by years of deregulation, especially the 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era law that separated risky investment banking from federally insured commercial banking.
Avoiding a repeat of October 2008's great panic would require a 21st century Glass-Steagall. But so politically powerful are the banks that this stood no chance. The original Volcker rule would have been helpful. What will be left after a year of further deal-making and loophole cutting, not so much.
All of which points to a deeper problem: That America's leading industry shouldn't be "financial services," particularly when downwardly mobile taxpayers are ultimately cosigning its risky business.
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org
About Jon Talton
Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest
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