Glass-Steagall Fans Plan New Assault If Volcker Rule Deemed Weak

Bloomberg

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Five U.S. agencies will finish the Volcker rule tomorrow after more than three years of Wall Street resistance to its limits on trading and investing. Lawmakers and their allies who want to rein in big banks are ready to pounce if it isn't strict enough.

Politicians and advocates -- some Democrats, some Republicans -- who blame the 2008 financial crisis on deregulation express concern that the Volcker rule won't adequately block banks from making risky bets with their own money. If they deem the rule too weak, they say it will add fuel to a push to reinstate a Depression-era law known as Glass-Steagall that until 1999 split banks and securities firms.

Such vows suggest U.S. lenders planning to challenge the ban in court risk a political backlash. A 2011 draft of the rule, required by the Dodd-Frank Act at the urging of former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, disappointed some politicians and organizations who wanted a stronger ban. Lawmakers already have drafted legislation.

"If people aren't satisfied with the implementation of this thing, that'll redouble the pressure to go back and look for something else," Marcus Stanley, policy director for Americans for Financial Reform, an umbrella group of more than 250 organizations pushing for stronger restrictions on Wall Street. "The Volcker rule was the major thing that said that these guys just crashed the world economy and we're going to ban something."

The rule aims to reduce the chances that banks will put federally insured depositors' money at risk by banning proprietary trading. The Dodd-Frank Act proposed limited exemptions on the ban for some hedging and market-making trades. The debate since has focused on how those exemptions should be defined.

'Safety Net'

"The basic point is that there has been, and remains, a strong public interest in providing a 'safety net'—in particular, deposit insurance and the provision of liquidity in emergencies–-for commercial banks carrying out essential services," Volcker, 86, said in testimony to Congress in 2010. "There is not, however, a similar rationale for public funds, taxpayer funds, protecting and supporting essentially proprietary and speculative activities."

Banks including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley have argued that the Volcker rule is too broad, poorly defined and could restrict credit and increase costs for their clients.

'Unintended Consequences'

"If regulators curtail all proprietary trading in the U.S. banking system I worry about the unintended consequences in terms of the ability of the financial markets to have sufficient liquidity to function properly," William Isaac, a former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. who now oversees Fifth Third Bancorp, said in an interview. "This is particularly worrisome with the economy at a time when the economy in the U.S. continues to limp along and in Europe appears to be sliding back into recession."

For their part, anti-Wall Street activists have lobbied for the opposite, to force banks to act more like a public utility and curb profit-seeking speculation.

"Philosophically, what we would like to see is the return to Glass-Steagall," said Bartlett Naylor, a lobbyist for Public Citizen. "When it came to Dodd-Frank, the closest we got was this."

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