Insights & Advice

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Are banks about to get benched?

Lobbyists for the big banks have been fighting to water down the so-called “Volcker Rule” for the last three years but it looks like they are going to lose this battle. Next week the U.S. government is expected to announce tighter bank regulations. It could make the financial markets a lot safer for all of us and cost the banks a bundle.

At stake for the banks are about 18% of industry sales, or $44 billion, generated by proprietary trading. That’s a term used to describe the banking industry’s practice of placing big speculative bets with their own money.  During the financial crisis those speculative bets went sour and nearly drove the global financial system into a complete meltdown. We, the taxpayers, bailed them out.

In its aftermath, congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. It was a series of sweeping financial regulatory reforms that was intended to insure that certain Wall Street practices would ‘never again’ be able to threaten the world. The centerpiece of that legislation was a rule suggested by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker which would prohibit many aspects of proprietary trading.

Market-making is the business of using a firm’s capital to buy and sell securities with customers. Sometimes they make a profit on the trade and sometimes they don’t, depending on the price spread between the bid and the ask price of a security. Wall Street has been providing that service for its customers for a long, long time. It is the grease that insures liquidity in the market and without it the machine would probably freeze up.

However, over the past decade or so, the banks took that principle and ran with it, but they went a step too far. They started making bigger and bigger bets on their own and disguised them as customer hedges. They explained that these hedges were necessary to facilitate customer business when in fact the banks were simply speculating on everything from commodities to sub-prime mortgages.

The Volcker rule seeks to prevent banks with federally-insured deposits from making such trades that could threaten their stability (and ours).  Of course, the devil is always in the details.

Lobbyists, hired by the banking industry, argued that coming down hard on proprietary trading would severely curtail banks’ and brokers’ ability to provide market making for their customers.  It would also put our banks at a severe disadvantage when competing globally with foreign banks that are not regulated by U.S. laws. Finally, it would deprive the sector of an important source of profit.

I suspect the last point carries the most weight within the halls of the nation’s biggest banks. One would think that after their near-collapse, our banks would have learned a lesson and given up their most dangerous practices. In the past, when the financial community fouled up, they established some self-policing guidelines to avoid a repeat performance and head off government intervention.

Not this time. With nary an apology in sight for past practices, banks have stonewalled the public and government. Instead of addressing the conflicts of interest, the rewarding of dangerous trading practices by their employees and changing the culture of greed so apparent among these Big Banks, they have done the opposite since the crisis.

Readers need only recall the so-called London Whale trades that cost one of our top banks $6.2 billion in 2012. Disguised as a portfolio hedge against customer positions, the loss was the direct result of the kind of speculative betting that was so wide spread prior to the financial crisis and it continues today.

It seems clear that on their own, the banking sector is not about to change their ways. Although I hate the idea of even more government interference upon the private sector, I believe that without it, the financial sectors’ speculative practices pose a threat to everyone’s well-being now and in the future.

Posted in A Few Dollars More, Macroeconomics