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Statement on Volcker Rule Amendments

Sept. 19, 2019

Yesterday the Commission finalized the rollback of the Volcker Rule—the risktaking limits that keep banks from gambling with taxpayer money. These limits are designed to help regulators address a basic problem of incentives: bankers, anticipating taxpayer-funded bailouts, prefer to take excessive risks to maximize their bonuses.[1] That’s why I’ve called upon my colleagues to finalize the rules required by the Dodd-Frank Act to prohibit pay practices that reward excessive risktaking. Instead, having done nothing about banker bonuses, we are weakening structural limits on risk.

As always, I am grateful to my colleagues on the Staff in the Division of Trading and Markets for their hard work. But, as I said at the proposal stage, “[r]olling back the Volcker Rule while failing to address pay practices that allow bankers to profit from proprietary trading puts American investors, taxpayers, and markets at risk.”[2] That’s no less true today than it was a year ago, so I respectfully dissent.

* * * *

Because my dissenting colleagues, and Chairman Volcker himself, have already ably explained why this rollback is deeply misguided, I will offer just two brief thoughts.[3] First, while the optimal design of structural risk limits is debatable, allowing bankers to get paid to gamble with taxpayer money is not. During the last crisis, nine million American families lost their homes because regulators neglected the basic economics of banker incentives. We could and should have addressed those incentives before considering the actions before us now.

Second, the facts offer little support for the belief behind this release—that the Volcker Rule reduces liquidity.[4] In August 2017, our Division of Economic and Risk Analysis reported to Congress on the effects of the Rule on liquidity. Contrary to lobbyists’ alarmist predictions, our Staff found no evidence to support the claim that the Volcker Rule reduced the depth of primary or secondary markets.[5] Although this week’s release now reaches for a different conclusion, the facts haven’t changed: a lack of proprietary trading simply hasn’t starved the market of liquidity.[6]

But even if liquidity were quantifiably lower, it would be hard for me to support these changes. Ordinary American investors aren’t kept up at night worrying about an imagined lack of bond liquidity.[7] They’re wondering why they should trust a financial system that upended their lives a decade ago.[8] The benefits of investor trust in our financial markets are hard to quantify, but they’re doubtless a reason why our markets are the envy of the world. Rolling back risktaking protections like this puts that trust at risk, makes ordinary Americans wary of our markets, and—ironically—may even undermine liquidity.[9]

* * * *

The Commission has justified the rollback of the significant investor—and taxpayer—protections in the Volcker Rule in the name of needed improvements in “liquidity and capital formation.”[10] Because the facts and our own Staff’s analysis offer no meaningful evidence that the Volcker Rule has affected either, I respectfully dissent.[11]

[1] See Commissioner Robert J. Jackson, Jr., Statement on Proposed Amendments to the Volcker Rule (June 5, 2018) (describing the “bipartisan lesson,” and “basic economic truth,” “that paying bankers to put government-insured deposits at risk makes no sense” (citing Lucian Bebchuk & Holger Spamann, Regulating Bankers’ Pay, 98 Geo. L.J. 247 (2010))).

[2] See Jackson, supra note 1 (pointing out that, after the financial crisis, “Congress knew we would also need to regulate incentives to truly ensure that bankers never again get paid to gamble with taxpayer money.” (citing Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Pub. L. No. 111-203, Section 956 (2010))).

[3] See Statement of Director Martin J. Gruenberg, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (Aug. 20, 2019) (providing evidence that this rollback “opens up vast new opportunity—hundreds of billions of dollars of financial instruments—at both the bank and bank holding company level, for speculative proprietary trading funded by the public safety net”); Letter to Chairman Jerome Powell, United States Federal Reserve, from Chairman Paul Volcker (Sept. 10, 2019).

[4] Lobbyists made this argument even before the Volcker Rule was implemented—but their predicted liquidity crunch has simply not materialized. See, e.g., U.S. Chamber of Commerce Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness, The Economic Consequences of the Volcker Rule (2012).

[5] U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Division of Economic and Risk Analysis, Report to Congress on Access to Capital and Market Liquidity (2017) (hereafter, “Report to Congress”).

[6] In this release our economists draw opposite conclusions from the exact same finance papers they studied in our recent report to Congress. For example, that report correctly noted that the results in Jack Bao et al., The Volcker Rule and Corporate Bond Market Making in Times of Stress, 130 J. Fin. 95 (2018), were “sensitive to the choice of the pre-crisis period and that downgrades [in that period] do not appear to impact liquidity metrics, casting doubt on the robustness of that empirical design.” Report to Congress, supra note 5, at 155. Today, however, we make no mention of those problems; now we say the study “suggests that dealers affected by the Volcker Rule decreased market making in newly downgraded bonds, and that unaffected dealers have not fully offset this decline.” Securities & Exchange Commission, Revisions to Prohibitions and Restrictions on Proprietary Trading and Certain Interests in, and Relationships With, Hedge Funds and Private Equity Funds, September 18, 2019, Release No. BHCA-7 (hereafter, “Release”) at 302. Similarly, our report to Congress read Jens Dick-Nielsen & Marco Rossi, The Cost of Immediacy for Corporate Bonds, 32 Rev. Fin. Stud. 1 (2019) carefully, noting that its findings were “consistent with post-crisis changes in dealer risk aversion and the low interest rate environment during this period.” Report to Congress, at 112-113. Today, that same study shows that “the cost of immediacy [in bond markets] has more than doubled.” See, Release at 299. We cannot expect Congress or commentators to take our economic analysis seriously when we draw opposing conclusions from the same studies in the course of arriving at predetermined policy outcomes.

[7] See, e.g., Matt Levine, People Are Worried About Bond Market Liquidity, Bloomberg View (June 3, 2015) (skeptically describing Wall Street’s repeated remonstrations about disappearing liquidity); Matt Levine, Bond Investors Are Worried About Bond Market Liquidity, Bloomberg View (Dec. 3, 2017) (noting that, despite Wall Street’s concerns, academics and regulators “almost invariably say . . . corporate bond liquidity looks fine”); Matt Levine, Good Investors Make Investing Harder, Bloomberg View (July 3, 2019) (describing, with puzzlement, the fact that “[e]very single day I read articles worrying about bond market liquidity”).

[8] See Ulrike Malmendier & Stefan Nagel, Depression Babies: Do Macroeconomic Experiences Affect Risk Taking?, 126 Q. J. Econ. 373 (2011) (showing that the recessionary period following the last financial crisis negatively impacted stock-market participation); Luigi Guiso, Paola Sapienza & Luigi Zingales, Trusting the Stock Market, 63 J. Fin. 2557 (2008) (showing that trust in financial markets affects stock-market participation).

[9] Ironically, this rollback may reduce liquidity, because a well-known lesson in corporate governance is that laws and institutions protecting investors are beneficial for liquidity and firm value. See Paul Brockman & Dennis Y. Chung, Investor Protection and Firm Liquidity, 58 J. Fin. 921 (2003); see also Rafael La Porta, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes, Andrei Shleifer & Robert Vishny, Investor Protection and Corporate Valuation, 57 J. Fin. 1147 (2002).

[10] See Release, supra note 6, at 275 (pointing out that the “SEC noted that the proposed amendments may enhance trading liquidity and capital formation and that some of the proposed changes need not reduce the efficacy of the regulation or the agencies’ regulatory oversight”).

[11] See supra note 6.

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