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September 4, 2013

Drawing Bright Lines for Banks

What began as a simple idea aimed at preventing banks from gambling with taxpayer money has become one of the most-delayed elements of the Dodd-Frank Act. Regulators are squabbling over how to get the wording right. They would do best to just get it done.

Known as the Volcker rule, after former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, the legislation has a laudable goal: Ban commercial banks, which enjoy government subsidies in the form of federal deposit insurance and access to emergency loans from the Fed, from putting taxpayers at undue risk by engaging in short-term speculative trading.

Turning the law into an actionable rule has already taken more than three years. Authorities say it could take several months more. The difficulty arises mainly because the legislation makes exceptions for activities that aren’t speculation but can look like it. These include market making, in which a bank buys and sells securities on behalf of clients, and hedging, in which a bank takes positions designed to mitigate potential losses on its loans and other investments.

Regulators have gotten themselves into a tangle over drawing these distinctions. They’ve proposed a multitude of revenue, turnover and other measures — 17 for market making alone — without specifying how these numbers will be used to identify illegal activity.”

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Read full Bloomberg editorial here

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