Gambling is a great American pastime (just ask anyone who’s been to Vegas), but as a general rule, you don’t gamble with other people’s money. In the financial world, it seems like common sense that banks shouldn’t be using your deposits to make risky bets in the hopes of making themselves more money—money, I might add, that you never see.
That’s why many who wanted to see more accountability after the financial crisis welcome the Volcker Rule (named for former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who proposed it) as step in the right direction. This very complex rule can help make our financial system safer by imposing some separation between commercial and investment banking. It bans banks from risky (or “speculative”) trading for their own profit. It also protects taxpayer dollars by banning banks from using FDIC-insured deposits for these purposes.
Simply put, banks can gamble if they want, but not with depositors’ money, and not with taxpayer money.
To step back and look at the big picture, the financial crisis was caused by megabanks taking irresponsible risks. This led to massive losses of wealth, especially in households of color. Part of the reason the megabanks were able to take such risks is because they had entangled themselves in both consumer finance and totally unrelated investment businesses. They had become “too big to fail,” meaning that just one bank’s collapse would devastate the economy, entitling it to a government bailout.
If left unregulated, these risky trades with customers’ deposits could very well trigger further economic distress. We need the Volcker Rule to keep banks in check by discouraging them from becoming “too big to fail.” The end goal is a safer marketplace for consumers and their hard-earned deposits. This rule, if executed properly, will help prevent yet another government bailout of yet another irresponsible financial institution with taxpayer dollars.
You’ll notice that I said “if executed properly.” The challenge here is that it’s extremely hard to regulate the fine line between the banned “speculative” activity and legitimate risk-hedging in banking. This can give rise to major enforcement problems, including very broad discretion for individual regulators. Couple this with the fact that the rule has over 100,000 more words than the New Testament, and you have a recipe for misinterpretation and loopholes.
So Volcker shouldn’t be the last word in ending “too big to fail.” As Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said, “Earlier this year, I said if we could not with a straight face say we ended ‘too-big-to-fail,’ we would have to look at other options. If, in the future, we need to take further action, we will not hesitate.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren is fond of saying, “Banking should be boring.” By that, she means that commercial and investment banking should be entirely separate activities. And her proposed bill, sponsored with Senators John McCain, Maria Cantwell, and Angus King, would do just that by reviving a Depression-era law called “Glass-Steagall.” Under Glass-Steagall, banks can’t have it both ways: to enter the business of risky investments, a bank would have to forfeit being insured by the government. We think this common-sense law has a lot of potential to make our financial system safer and sounder.
In the meantime, is Volcker going to stave off the next financial crisis? Yes and no. On one hand, it blocks one possible mechanism by which banks could trigger a crisis. But as we’ve seen, speculative trading isn’t the only dangerous behavior (hello, mortgage meltdown). But it’s part of a suite of reforms under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law that, together, can help create a safe and sound market where megabanks don’t take unnecessary risks that put all of us on the hook.