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Obama's 'Volcker Rule' shifts power away from Geithner

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By David Cho and Binyamin Appelbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010

For much of last year, Paul Volcker wandered the country arguing for tougher restraints on big banks while the Obama administration pursued a more moderate regulatory agenda driven by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner.

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Thursday morning at the White House, it seemed as if the two men had swapped places. A beaming Volcker stood at Obama's right as the president endorsed his proposal and branded it the "Volcker Rule." Geithner stood farther away, compelled to accommodate a stance he once considered less effective than his own.

The moment was the product of Volcker's persistence and a desire by the White House to impose sharper checks on the financial industry than Geithner had been advocating, according to some government sources and political analysts. It was Obama's most visible break yet from the reform philosophy that Geithner and his allies had been promoting earlier.

Senior administration officials say there is now broad consensus within the White House and the Treasury for the plan advanced by Volcker, who leads an outside economic advisory group for the president. At its heart, Volcker's plan restricts banks from making speculative investments that do not benefit their customers. He has argued that such speculative activity played a key role in the financial crisis. The administration also wants to limit the ability of the largest banks to use borrowed money to fund expansion plans.

The proposals, which require congressional approval, are the most explicit restrictions the administration has tried to impose on the banking industry. It will help to have Volcker, a legendary former Federal Reserve chairman who garners respect on both sides of the aisle, on Obama's side as the White House makes a final push for a financial reform bill on Capitol Hill, a senior official noted.

Advocates of Volcker's ideas were delighted. "This is a complete change of policy that was announced today. It's a fundamental shift," said Simon Johnson, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management. "This is coming from the political side. There are classic signs of major policy changes under pressure . . . but in a new and much more sensible direction."

Industry officials, however, said they were startled and disheartened that Geithner was overruled, in part because they supported the more moderate approach Geithner proposed last year.

"His influence may have slipped," said a senior industry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve his relationship with the administration. "But you could also argue that it wasn't Geithner who lost power. It's just that the president needed Volcker politically" to look tough on big banks.

Geithner agreed with Volcker that banks' risk-taking needed to be constrained.

But through much of the past year, Geithner said the best approach to limiting it is to require banks to hold more capital in reserve to cover losses, reducing their potential profits. Geithner said blanket prohibitions on specific activities would be less effective, in part because such bans would eliminate some legitimate activity unnecessarily.

The shift toward Volcker's thinking began last fall, according to government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations were private.

Volcker had been arguing that banks, which are sheltered by the government because lending is important to the economy, should be prevented from taking advantage of that safety net to make speculative investments.


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