Friday, December 6, 2013

Volcker Rule: Point of No Return

Volcker's rules: Any day now
Three years have elapsed since regulators proposed new regulation to restrict proprietary trading at banks (more specifically, depositary financial institutions).  Three years of discussion, debate, rule-writing and re-writing, dissension, lobbying, and procrastination. 

And now the new rule, better known as the Volcker Rule and named for former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, who first proposed limits on bank trading during the crisis, has reached a point of no return.  Regulators--the SEC, FDIC, OCC, CFTC and the Federal Reserve--have promised to sign off before mid-December.

Banks aren't surprised. They aren't caught off guard. They knew an old era of gun-slinging, wild, volatile, frantic, but overwhelmingly profitable proprietary trading at the major banks was coming to an end.  While regulators and their lawyers sequestered themselves for years to write hundreds and hundreds of pages of rules, banks tried to push back and soften the blow. But they knew they wouldn't win much of this tuggle, although they poured resources and time into the effort.  They had already begun to scale down prop-trading activity. 

New rules will prohibit outright proprietary trading (trading for banks' own accounts using their own capital), but will permit trading for clients, trading for hedging purposes and limited hedge-fund activity. And therein lies profound complexity.   

Regulators have spent the past three years trying to define all possible scenarios of client trading, hedging, and hedge funds with such fine-tooth clarity that banks won't be able to exploit loopholes in the way they can do adeptly and profitably to their advantage--and, in the eyes of regulators, at the expense of clients and individual customers.  Regulators, worried about how banks can exploit omissions in the rules, have tried to cover every base in hundreds of rules-making pages. 

Despite regulators' attempts at clarity, banks now prepare for the burdens and chores to remain in compliance.  Banks know well that trades that look like, feel like and were booked as client trades might evolve into prohibited proprietary trading.  New rules will allow "inventory" (securities and derivatives on banks' balance sheets) to exist on banks' balance sheets as items on a shelf to sell to clients.  But Volcker rules might define inventory exceeding a certain level or inventory maintained for more than a certain number of days as illegitimate "proprietary activity" (and determine it to be out of bounds). 

Banks that choose to remain prominent in sales and trading will need to invest in an army of compliance personnel and significant amounts of infrastructure to ensure they stay within client-trading or hedge-trading boundaries. A nightmare for some banks. An onerous cost of doing business at others. 

Volcker proponents say the new rules will reduce the likelihood of another round of "Whale Trading" losses at places like JPMorgan Chase, which lost over $4 billion from credit-derivatives trades in 2012. Critics and JPMorgan argued that "Whale-related" trades would have been permitted by Volcker rules. (JPMorgan launched the first phase of these trades for hedging purposes--to hedge credit risks in its large loan portfolio. But the trades piled on top of each other and the massive positions turned into something very "proprietary.")

Now big banks across the U.S. must decide (and have decided) whether (a) to stay in the game of securities and derivatives trading and eke out profits from client-driven flows or (b) to retreat, withdraw or just get out.

The bulge-brackets, such as Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, and Morgan Stanley, are fully invested, have been adapting to a Volcker world. The big banks have resigned themselves to declines in trading revenues as much as 10% (25% at Goldman, one analyst contends). They hope to turn their once-magnanimous trading desks into humming, full-throttle plays on volume and flows.  Their desks have been reorganized and restructured.  They've shuffled talent, shut down some desks, invested in automated trading systems, and allowed many traders to seek employment at hedge funds.

Other banks have withdrawn and expect to engage in a token amount of trading at modest levels and minimal volumes--all client-related or tied to risk-management hedges.

In 2014 and beyond, critics, proponents, and regulators will watch banks closely.  Some say liquidity in certain sectors of capital markets will diminish, because large well-capitalized banks won't be able to buy, sell, and hold in large amounts of securities in the way they could before.  Some (municipalities, for example) say rates on bonds may increase because of diminished liquidity, because banks will nudge margins up to account for lack of liquidity, and because banks won't be to rationalize holding any inventory. 

(Imagine scenarios where banks can rationalize economically holding large amounts of securities/derivatives in inventory even for eventual client sales, but will choose not to build up inventory for clients to avoid the risk of penalties of not complying with Volcker restrictions.) 

Some say the best talent for managing trading volumes, risks, portfolios and positions will no longer reside at banks. Some say new rules will discourage financial innovation, because banks often trade and make markets in new products in large volumes to generate interest and liquidity. (Banks don't push new trading products if the profit dynamics don't make sense.)

Yet others contend we won't see those periodic billion-dollar trading losses because banks' "prop desks took a view" of the market or tried to guess interest-rate trends, commodity prices, or economic indices in their efforts to make gobs of money from proprietary positions.

At least for a while in 2014, banks will routinely convene troops of lawyers, traders and compliance officers to figure out this new world. It won't be easy. What happens if a bank amasses a position with intents to sell to a client, but the client decides not to pursue the trade? Will a regulator slap the bank's wrist right then and there? What happens if the bank purchases certain derivatives to hedge a portfolio, but volatile markets abruptly change the hedged position into an huge, unhedged derivatives position?   

Somebody within the banks' troops will be required to spend all-nighters trying to determine the  section in the hundreds of rules pages that cover these scenarios.

Tracy Williams

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