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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Volcker Rule: Taking in Water on Proprietary Trading

Under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law of 2010, Goldman Sachs had to break up its principal strategies group, the trading unit that had been very profitable. Goldman was considering several options, including moving the traders to another division or shutting the unit altogether. Morgan Stanley was considering ceding control of its $7 billion hedge fund firm, FrontPoint Partners. At Citigroup, executives had sold hedge fund and private equity businesses and were discussing reducing proprietary trading, which relies on a bank’s own capital to make bets in the financial markets. JPMorgan Chase had already begun dismantling its stand-alone proprietary trading desk and was modifying the structure of some investments of One Equity Partners, its internal private equity business. “This is the real stuff,” said Brad Hintz, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company. “It shows that if you squeeze Wall Street, like a balloon it will come out somewhere else, and we really are squeezing Wall Street. Their business models are changing.”

However, loopholes in the legislation may enable the banks to continue to trade on their own books, even apart from serving as a counterparty for client transactions. Citigroup and others, for instance, are considering moving proprietary traders to desks that handle trades for clients, although the traders would still be able to make their own bets in the markets. The Volcker Rule’s definition of proprietary trading is open to interpretation. At first blush, it looks watertight: the rule forbids banks from buying and selling financial products for their “trading account.” That, in turn, is defined as an account meant to profit in the “near term” from “short term” movements in prices. Besides not covering such long term bets as shorting in anticipation of a fall in the housing market, the rule states that banks can still trade government and agency securities for their own account. Some of the problems at the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management stemmed from trying to arbitrage prices between Treasuries of different terms. And the Carlyle Capital Corporation, a heavily leveraged debt fund, crashed in 2008 when prices of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage bonds dropped. So in allowing for continued proprietary trading apart from serving as a short-term counterparty for a client’s transaction, the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform law may not change Wall Street’s landskip all that much. This is hardly surprising, as members of Congress allowed the banking lobby to participate in the writing of the legislation in spite of the industry’s culpability in the financial crisis of 2008.