What Is the Volcker Rule?
The Volcker Rule is a federal regulation that generally prohibits banks from conducting certain investment activities with their own accounts and limits their dealings with hedge funds and private equity funds, also called covered funds. The Volcker Rule aims to protect bank customers by preventing banks from making certain types of speculative investments that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis.
In August of 2019, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency voted to amend the Volcker Rule in an attempt to clarify what securities trading was and was not allowed by banks. The change would require five regulatory agencies to sign off before going into effect, but is generally seen as a relaxation of the rule's previous restriction on banks using their own funds to trade securities.
History of the Volcker Rule
Named after former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, the Volcker Rule refers to section 619 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which sets forth rules for implementing section 13 of the Bank Holding Company Act of 1956. Paul Volcker died on December 8th, 2019 at the age of 92.
The Volcker Rule prohibits banks from using their own accounts for short-term proprietary trading of securities, derivatives and commodity futures, as well as options on any of these instruments. The rule also bars banks, or insured depository institutions, from acquiring or retaining ownership interests in hedge funds or private equity funds, subject to certain exemptions. In other words, the rule aims to discourage banks from taking too much risk by barring them from using their own funds to make these types of investments to increase profits. The Volcker Rule relies on the premise that these speculative trading activities do not benefit banks’ customers.
The rule went into effect on April 1, 2014, with banks' full compliance required by July 21, 2015 — although the Federal Reserve has since set procedures for banks to request extended time to transition into full compliance for certain activities and investments. On May 30, 2018, members of the Federal Reserve Board, led by Chairman Jerome (Jay) Powell, voted unanimously to push forward a proposal to loosen the restrictions around the Volcker Rule and reduce the costs for banks that need to comply with it. The goal, according to Powell, is "...to replace overly complex and inefficient requirements with a more streamlined set of requirements.”
More on the Volcker Rule's Specifications
The rule, as it exists, allows banks to continue market-making, underwriting, hedging, trading government securities, engaging in insurance company activities, offering hedge funds and private equity funds, and acting as agents, brokers or custodians. Banks may continue to offer these services to their customers to generate profits. However, banks cannot engage in these activities if doing so would create a material conflict of interest, expose the institution to high-risk assets or trading strategies, or generate instability within the bank or within the overall U.S. financial system.
Depending on their size, banks must meet varying levels of reporting requirements to disclose details of their covered trading activities to the government. Larger institutions must implement a program to ensure compliance with the new rules, and their programs are subject to independent testing and analysis. Smaller institutions are subject to lesser compliance and reporting requirements.
History of the Volcker Rule
The rule's origins date back to 2009 when economist and former Fed Chair Paul Volcker proposed a piece of regulation in response to the ongoing financial crisis (and after the nation's largest banks accumulated large losses from their proprietary trading arms) that aimed to prohibit banks from speculating in the markets. Volcker ultimately hoped to re-establish the divide between commercial banking and investment banking — a division that once existed but was legally dissolved by a partial repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999.
Although not a part of then-President Barack Obama's original proposal for financial overhaul, the Volcker Rule was endorsed by Obama and added to the proposal by Congress in January 2010.
In December 2013, five federal agencies approved the final regulations that make up the Volcker Rule—the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Criticism of the Volcker Rule
The Volcker Rule has been widely criticized from various angles. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce claimed in 2014 that a cost-benefit analysis was never done and that the costs associated with the Volcker Rule outweigh its benefits. In 2017, the International Monetary Fund's top risk official said that regulations to prevent speculative bets are hard to enforce and that the Volcker Rule could unintentionally diminish liquidity in the bond market.
The Federal Reserve's Finance and Economics Discussion Series (FEDS) made a similar argument, saying that the Volcker Rule will reduce liquidity due to a reduction in banks' market-making activities. Furthermore, in October 2017, a Reuters report revealed that the European Union had scrapped a drafted law that many characterized as Europe's answer to the Volcker Rule, citing no foreseeable agreement in sight. Meanwhile, several reports have cited a lighter-than-expected impact on the revenues of big banks in the years following the rule's enactment — although ongoing developments in the rule's implementation could affect future operations.
Future of the Volcker Rule
In February 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to review existing financial system regulations. Since the executive order, Treasury officials have released multiple reports proposing changes to Dodd-Frank, including a recommended proposal to allow banks greater exemptions under the Volcker Rule.
In one of the reports, released in June 2017, the Treasury said it recommends significant changes to the Volcker Rule while adding that it does not support its repeal and "supports in principle" the rule's limitations on proprietary trading. The report notably recommends exempting from the Volcker Rule banks with less than $10 billion in assets. The Treasury also cited regulatory compliance burdens created by the rule and suggested simplifying and refining the definitions of proprietary trading and covered funds on top of softening the regulation to allow banks to more easily hedge their risks.
Since the June 2017 assessment, Bloomberg reported in January 2018 that the Treasury's Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has led efforts to revise the Volcker Rule in accordance with some of the Treasury's recommendations. A timeline for any proposed revisions to take effect remains unclear, though it would certainly take months or years. The vote by the Federal Reserve Board in late May of 2018 sets the stage for a broader unwinding of the rule as it stands.