This report provides an introduction to the Volcker Rule, which is the regulatory regime imposed upon banking institutions and their affiliates under Section 619 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-203). The Volker Rule is designed to prohibit “banking entities” from engaging in all forms of “proprietary trading” (i.e., making investments for their own “trading accounts”)—activities that former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker often condemned as contrary to conventional banking practices and a potential risk to financial stability. The statutory language provides only general outlines of prohibited activities and exceptions. Through it, however, Congress has empowered five federal financial regulators with authority to conduct coordinated rulemakings to fill in the details and complete the difficult task of crafting regulations to identify prohibited activities, while continuing to permit activities considered essential to the safety and soundness of banking institutions or to the maintenance of strong capital markets. In December 2014, more than two years after enactment of the law, coordinated implementing regulations were issued by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (FRB), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).
The Rule is premised on a two-pronged central core restricting activities by “banking entities”—a term that includes all FDIC-insured bank and thrift institutions; all bank, thrift, or financial holding companies; all foreign banking operations with certain types of presence in the United States; and all affiliates and subsidiaries of any of these entities. Specifically, the Rule broadly prohibits banking entities from engaging in “proprietary trading” and from making investments in or having relationships with hedge and similar “covered funds” that are exempt from registering with the CFTC as commodity pool operators or with the SEC under the Investment Advisors Act. The Rule couples its broad prohibitions with numerous exclusions and by designating myriad activities as permissible so long as various terms and conditions are met, unless they otherwise would involve or result in a material conflict of interest; a material exposure to high-risk assets or high-risk trading strategies; pose a threat to the safety and soundness of the banking entity; or pose a threat to the financial stability of the United States.
The exceptions to the ban on proprietary trading include underwriting by securities underwriters; market-making “designed not to exceed the reasonably expected near term demands of clients”; trading in government securities; fiduciary activities; insurance company portfolio investments; and risk-mitigating hedging activities. The ban on investing in and owning “covered funds” exempts certain types of funds, under specified conditions, and permits de minimis investment in any such fund up to 3% of the outstanding ownership interests of the fund with an aggregate cap on the total ownership interest in “covered funds” of 3% of the banking entity’s core capital.
To prevent evasion, the Rule has extensive requirements mandating comprehensive compliance programs that include ongoing management involvement, precise metrics measuring risk assessment, verification and documentation of any activities conducted under one of the Rule’s exceptions or exclusions, and recurring reports and assessments. Full compliance is required by July 21, 2015, subject to the possibility that further extensions may be provided by the regulators. In the case of investments involving “illiquid funds” subject to contractual provisions seriously impacting their marketability or sale, full divestiture might not be required until July 21, 2022.