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Economy U.S. regulators hand Wall Street a major win with stripped-down ‘Volcker Rule’

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. banking regulators on Tuesday approved changes easing a rule introduced after the 2007-09 financial crisis that bans banks from trading on their own account, giving Wall Street one of its biggest wins under the Trump administration.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) approved the revamped version of the so-called Volcker Rule, which aims to ban lenders that accept U.S. taxpayer-insured deposits from engaging in proprietary trading.

The changes, first proposed in May, 2018, followed years of lobbying by banks, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley, which have long complained the rule is too vague and complex.

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The new rule gives banks more leeway in terms of trading activity, and simplifies how banks can tell if that trading is permitted by law.

While many regulatory experts have agreed the prior rule was too cumbersome, the changes have been criticized by consumer groups and Democratic lawmakers who say a rewrite could create new systemic risks.

FDIC commissioner Martin Gruenberg, a Democrat who backed the Volcker rewrite proposed in May, 2018, voted against the final rule Tuesday, saying it would “effectively undo” the rule’s protections. The other three FDIC board members, all Republicans, voted in favour.

“Trump regulators continue to open a Pandora’s box of risky trading and speculation at the expense of American taxpayers,” Senator Sherrod Brown, the top Democrat on the Senate banking committee, said in a statement.

Analysts say the final rule, which is significantly different from the proposed 2018 version, could also be vulnerable to legal challenges.

The rewrite aims to clarify which trades are exempt from the ban, such as when banks facilitate client trades and hedge risks, and to expand those exemptions. The final rewrite scraps a proposed new test for identifying proprietary trading that banks complained would have made the rule even more complicated.

That proposed “accounting test” was meant to replace a more subjective test that aimed to identify whether a trader intended a trade to be speculative. But banks argued it could apply to a host of additional financial instruments not meant to be covered by the rule.

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The final rule scraps that proposal for large Wall Street firms, instead simplifying the original test and only applying it to much smaller banks.

At the same time, the rewrite simplifies a separate part of the rule that makes it easier for banks to invest in hedge funds or private equity funds. Regulators said they expect to propose further easing of the “covered funds” aspect of the rule, including for foreign firms, later this year.

The banking industry hailed the relief, while eager to see regulators put forward that additional relief.

“We urge the regulators to finish the job of Volcker Rule reform,” said Kevin Fromer with the Financial Services Forum, an industry group that represents the chief executives of the country’s largest banks. The rule will become effective on Jan. 1, 2020, but banks will have one year to comply.

The OCC and the FDIC are two of five regulators charged with implementing the rule. The others – the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission – are expected to approve the new rule soon.

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