How’s it going with the Volcker Rule?
Glad you asked.
Recall that Occupy the SEC is currently drafting a letter of public comment of the Volcker Rule for the SEC (for background on the Volcker Rule itself, see my previous post). I was invited to join them on a call with the SEC last week and I will talk further about that below, but first I want to give you more recent news.
Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism wrote this post a couple of days ago talking about a House Financial Services Committee meeting, which happened Wednesday. Specifically, the House Financial Services Committee was considering a study done by Oliver Wyman which warned of reduced liquidity if the Volcker Rule goes into effect. Just to be clear, Oliver Wyman was paid by a collection of financial institutions (SIFMA) who would suffer under the Volcker Rule to study whether the Volcker Rule is a good idea. In her post, Yves was discussed the meeting as well as Occupy the SEC’s letter to that Committee which refuted the findings of Oliver Wyman’s study.
Simon Johnson, who was somehow on the panel even though it was more or less stuffed with people who wouldn’t argue, had some things to say about how much it makes sense to listen to people who are paid to write studies in his New York Times column published yesterday. He also made lots of good arguments against the content of the study, namely about the assumptions going into it and how reasonable they are. From Simon’s article:
Specifically, the study assumes that every dollar disallowed in pure proprietary trading by banks will necessarily disappear from the market. But if money can still be made (without subsidies), the same trading should continue in another form. For example, the bank could spin off the trading activity and associated capital at a fair market price.
Alternatively, the relevant trader – with valuable skills and experience – could raise outside capital and continue doing an equivalent version of his or her job. These traders would, of course, bear more of their own downside risks.
If it turns out that the previous form or extent of trading existed only because of the implicit government subsidies, then we should not mourn its end.
The Oliver Wyman study further assumes that the sensitivity of bond spreads to liquidity will be as it was in the depth of the financial crisis, 2007-9. This is ironic, given that the financial crisis severely disrupted liquidity and credit availability more generally – in fact this is a major implication of the Dick-Nelson, Feldhutter and Lando paper.
If Oliver Wyman had used instead the pre-crisis period estimates from the authors, covering the period 2004-7, even giving their own methods the implied effects would be one-fifth to one-twentieth of the size (this adjustment is based on my discussions with Professor Feldhutter).
For whatever reason, Occupy the SEC wasn’t invited to the panel. You can read their letter that argues against Wyman’s study, which is on Yves’s post, or you can read this comment that one of the members of Occupy the SEC posted on Johnson’s NYTimes piece (“OW” refers to Oliver Wyman, the author of the paid study):
Your testimony at the hearings yesterday was a refreshing counterpoint to the other members of the panel.
On top of the flaws in the OW analysis you covered in the article, there was another misleading point that the OW report purported to prove.
The study focused on liquidity for corporate bonds, which SIFMA/OW characterized as ’financing american businesses’ . But a quick review of the outstanding corporate bonds in the study reveals that the lions share of corporate bonds are CMOs and ABS. Additionally, the study reports that the majority of the holdings of corporate bonds are in the hands of the finance industry.
As a result the loss of liquidity anticipated by the SIFMA folks will mostly impact them, not the pensioners and soldiers (and their Congressmen) the bankers were trying to scare with the OW loss estimates.
If the banks are forced to withdraw as market makers for this debt, replacement market makers won’t enter until these bonds trade at much lower levels. These losses are currently stranded (and disguised) in the banking system, and by extension are inflating the value of the funds invested in these bonds.
It’s critical that the market making rules are clarified to ensure that liquidity provision for these instruments is driven out of the protected banks and into a transparent market where the mispricing will be corrected and the losses will be properly recognized.
So just to summarize, the Congressional committee listened to the results of a paid study talking about how bad the Volcker Rule would be for the market, when in fact it would be good for the market to be uninsured and realistic.
I’m not a huge fan of the Volcker Rule as it is written, but these are really terrible reasons to argue against it. To my mind, the real problem is that, as written, the Volcker Rule is too easy to game and has too many exceptions written into it.
Going back to the call with the SEC (and with Occupy the SEC). I haven’t kept abreast of the details of the Volcker Rule like these guys (they are super relentless), but I did have some questions about the risk part. Namely, were they going to end up referring to an already existing risk regulatory scheme like Basel or Basel II, or were they creating something separate altogether? They were creating something separate. They mentioned that they weren’t interested in risk per se but only to the extent that wildly fluctuating risk numbers expose proprietary trading, which is the big no-no under the Volcker Rule.
But here’s the thing, I explained, the risk numbers you are asking for are so vague that it’s super easy, if I’m a bank, to game this to make my risk numbers look calm. You don’t specify the lookback period, you don’t specify the kind of Value-at-Risk, and you don’t compare my risk model worked out on a benchmark portfolio so you really don’t know what it’s saying. Their response was: oh, yeah, um, if you could give us better wording for that section that would be great.
So to re-summarize, we have “experts”, being paid by the banks, who explain to Congress why we shouldn’t let the Volcker Rule go through, and in the meantime we’ve assigned the SEC the job of writing that rule even though they don’t know how to game a risk model (there’s a good example here of JP Morgan doing just that last week).
One last issue: when we asked about why repos had been exempted sometime in between the writing of the statute and the design of the implementation, the SEC people just told us we’d “have to ask the Fed that”.