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Fed Releases Proposal for Easing Volcker-Rule Trading Limits

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Wall Street’s long campaign to chip away at the toughest trading restriction imposed on banks after the financial crisis is finally paying off under President Donald Trump.

The Federal Reserve Board, now led by Trump appointees, is set to take the most concrete step yet to roll back the Volcker Rule, which was key to Washington’s efforts to make the industry safer after the 2008 meltdown. The Fed’s vote, scheduled for Wednesday, would kick off an administrative process aimed at significantly reducing compliance costs for financial firms.

The rule is meant to bar banks with federally-backed deposit insurance from suffering out-sized losses by restricting their ability to bet with their own capital. Financial firms have said the rule is unnecessarily complex and almost impossible to adhere to.

Trump-appointed regulators have shown a greater willingness to listen to such grievances, and are set to propose a revamp that would give banks more leeway to presume their trades comply with the rule.

“The objective behind this proposal is straightforward: simplifying and tailoring the Volcker rule in light of our experience with the rule in practice,” said Randal Quarles, the Fed’s point man on bank regulation. “This is a goal that is shared among all five agencies and among policymakers at those agencies with many different backgrounds.”

Quarles, appointed by President Donald Trump, also stressed that the revisions weren’t just a rollback by the new administration, saying they were “the fruit of long and shared experience” and not “assumptions of a few recently appointed individuals.”

Over the next week, agencies including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. are expected to also propose the changes. With legislative changes difficult to get through a politically divided Congress, regulators have been crucial to Trump’s drive to dial back constraints like Volcker that impact the U.S.’s biggest banks.

Volcker, named for former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, banned what’s known as proprietary trading — the practice of banks investing for their own benefit rather than buying or selling securities to fulfill requests from customers. It also restricted lenders from investing in hedge funds and private-equity firms.

The proposed changes, which would be opened up for public comment for 60 days, would “broadly simplify and tailor” the rule without negatively affecting the safety of banks, according to a summary of the plan.

The proposal calls for the removal of an assumption included in the original rule that positions lenders hold for fewer than 60 days are proprietary. Meanwhile, the plan would scrap a component of the test for determining whether a trade is for a bank’s account. It would be replaced with new criteria based on how the bank accounts for the trades, according to the summary.

Regulators are also proposing to make it easier to take advantage of exemptions, such as one that gives banks broad flexibility to execute trades that serve as hedges against potential losses. Banks now have to submit continuous and precise documentation to prove they are hedging, requirements they say are unreasonable.

The plan also calls for modifying exemptions that banks can seek for underwriting and market-making activity, according to the summary.

Specifically, the plan would loosen the requirements for firms to take advantage of exemptions for activities “designed not to exceed reasonably expected near term demand of clients, customers, or counterparties.”The proposal also seeks to ease the impact of the rule on foreign banks’ operations outside the U.S.

Fed Governor Lael Brainard, who worked at the Treasury Department during the Obama administration when the Dodd-Frank law was passed, said she supported the changes. The proposal, she noted, will ensure that the “core” of the regulation — prohibiting banks from speculative trading — is maintained.

“While the purpose of the Volcker rule is compelling, our experience with its implementation over the past few years suggests that the interagency rule has turned out to be needlessly cumbersome in practice,” she said in remarks prepared for a Fed meeting to consider proposing the changes.

While banks will likely welcome the changes, the revamp isn’t expected to trigger a return of proprietary trading or prompt lenders to rehire some of the high-flying investors who fled for hedge funds after the financial crisis. A full repeal of Volcker is seen as improbable, because it would require an act of Congress.

Regulators generally give the public months to weigh in on their proposals to overhaul rules, and then must hold a second round of votes to make changes binding.

Quarles, the vice chairman of supervision, said the plan was a “best, first effort” at simplifying the complex regulation. More tweaks may be in the offing.

“I view this proposal as an important milestone in comprehensive Volcker rule reform, but not the completion of our work,” Quarles said.


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