Volcker Rule faces protests of local, foreign governments

A new federal rule aimed at limiting risky behavior by banks is prompting protests from local and foreign governments alike, which warn it could make it harder for them to borrow money for public projects and operations.

State and local officials say the new regulation, known as the Volcker Rule, could make it more expensive for them to raise money from investors to pay, for instance, for environmental cleanup and housing assistance. In the Washington area, the rule could affect borrowing costs for agencies, such as the authorities that operate the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and Dulles International and Reagan National airports, according to the District’s chief financial officer.

European governments warn that the regulation could further aggravate their debt crisis, which is already roiling global financial markets.

The Volcker Rule, which was included in the Dodd-Frank overhaul of financial regulation passed by Congress in response to the financial crisis, bans banks from speculating with their own money. The idea was that banks can pose too much risk to the financial system if allowed to pursue such trading.

Regulators are now working to finalize rules that distinguish between when a bank is buying and selling for a customer, which would still be allowed, and when it’s betting for its own gain.

The draft rule released by regulators late last year created a few exemptions, allowing banks to continue speculating on U.S. government bonds and most municipal bonds. But the proposal extended the ban to hundreds of billions of dollars worth of other municipal securities, as well as bonds issued by foreign governments.

Municipalities and foreign governments alike are complaining that the rule would significantly curtail the purchase of their bonds by banks, increasing the interest rates that bond issuers may have to pay to attract investors.

From Texas to Europe to Malaysia, officials have been lobbying U.S. regulators to change the proposed Volcker Rule to avoid these consequences. The European Union and Japan sent officials to lobby U.S. regulators last week in Washington.

Regulators generally believe they have struck the right balance in terms of limiting risk-taking as Congress directed in the Dodd-Frank legislation while also preserving enough flexibility for banks to trade in municipal securities and foreign bonds.

But they have left the door open to possible changes — which could range from exempting additional categories of bonds because regulating them so tightly could pose risks to the financial system or other changes in the language of the Volcker Rule. They have not committed to any changes, however.

Federal regulators will release a final version of the Volcker Rule in coming months before it takes effect July 21. They have declined to comment publicly on the rule while it is still under discussion. A spokeswoman for the Federal Reserve said “all comment received will be evaluated before the board acts on the rule.”

On Friday, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who is helping to coordinate the writing of the new rule, said on CNBC that as regulators work to implement the rule and limit the risks that banks can take, they will be working to preserve “well-designed, carefully constructed exceptions for market-making hedging.”

Threat to projects

A water treatment project on the banks of the Potomac illustrates the issues raised by the Volcker Rule. Montgomery, Fairfax and Prince George’s counties and the District are paying up to $2 billion to clean water of nitrogen at the Blue Plains facility.

The localities will raise money through bonds to pay for the project. Current federal law doesn’t distinguish between the bonds issued by the differing localities.

Officials say that could change under the Volcker Rule, however. Bonds issued by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, an agency that is part of both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, would be unaffected.

But bonds issued by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority could be affected because it is not technically an agency of the D.C. government. Rather, it is an independent entity overseen by a board appointed by the mayor. Since banks would face restrictions in trading the authority’s bonds, the authority might have to pay more to borrow.

The Volcker Rule “creates these bifurcations now in the municipal markets where you’re going to have authorities, enterprise funds, and water utilities paying more to issue their bonds simply because of how they’re structured,” said Timothy L. Firestine, chief administrative officer of Montgomery County and vice chairman of the D.C. water authority.

Beyond the region, a variety of municipal and local agencies — from an electric utility in Texas to a housing authority in Connecticut — have written to federal regulators expressing concerns about whether their ability to raise money through bonds would be constricted.

Complaints from Europe

Foreign governments have unleashed a torrent of criticism, urging U.S. officials to soften the rule on the grounds it could make Europe’s debt problems even worse.

Banks in Europe are among the chief investors in bonds of their home and neighboring countries. These financial firms also play an important role in reselling those government securities to other investors and helping bond markets function.

The Volcker Rule could pose problems for banks with U.S. subsidiaries, branches or other operations in the United States in carrying out transactions that are vital to European bond markets, according to the Association of German Banks in comments submitted to regulators.

“As soon as there is the slightest relation to the U.S. in terms of trade counterparty, personnel or trade execution . . . [banks] worldwide would have to cease their proprietary trading in E.U. member states government bonds,” the group said.

Michel Barnier, head of internal markets and services for the European Commission, the executive arm of the E.U., pressed Geithner on the issue in meetings last week. At a news conference during his visit, Barnier called the Volcker Rule’s provisions on government debt “unilateral and protectionist.” He noted that enacting the rule could complicate efforts by Europe and the United States to synchronize the adoption of other new financial regulations.

The breadth of the proposed rule has angered officials and bankers who argue that its reach extends far beyond U.S. borders and would require compliance from overseas firms, regardless of whether their U.S. presence is large or small.

Foreign banks would face the choice of closing U.S. branches or subsidiaries, or restructuring their home-based businesses to comply with the Volcker restrictions.

George Friedlander, an analyst at Citigroup Global Markets, said the issue could be fixed in two ways. Either all municipal bonds and sovereign debt could be exempted. Or the guidelines for what banks may do with bonds that are covered by the Volcker Rule could be relaxed.

“If it is, then a substantial amount of the problems . . . dwindle substantially,” he said.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is a staff writer covering the White House, focusing on President Obama’s economic, financial and fiscal policy.
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