Financial Regulatory Forum

BREAKINGVIEWS-Obama reforms could undermine global bank rules

G20/ By Peter Thal Larsen and Hugo Dixon

LONDON, Jan 25 (Reuters Breakingviews) – The overhaul of the global financial system has entered a new, more complicated phase. For two years, a fragile multilateralism has prevailed as the world’s largest economies agreed that changes should be designed and adopted on a global basis. The task of redesigning financial regulation was largely delegated to central bankers, regulators and other technocrats.

That consensus is creaking following President Barack Obama’s double-barrelled attack on Wall Street investment banks. The new tax on banks’ wholesale liabilities and the planned prohibition of proprietary trading by deposit-taking institutions both complicate the aim of getting a new effective global regime for regulating the industry — but in different ways.

Look first at the new tax. In principle, it is sensible to charge large financial institutions for the implicit guarantee they receive from taxpayers when they rely on hot short-term money to fund themselves. But there is already a global push, under the aegis of the G20, to boost the size of banks’ capital and liquidity cushions. This exercise, being masterminded by the Basel Committee, has now entered the “calibration” phase — where the precise numbers are being modelled.

The problem is that the new levy to some extent does the same job as the planned new Basel rules. There is a risk therefore that the cumulative effect of regulations and taxes banks could be so weigh down banks that they rein in lending, crimping the economic recovery. Of course, it would be theoretically possible to shave the capital and liquidity requirements a bit to make way for the new tax. But coordinating that over multiple jurisdictions will be quite tricky now the U.S. has moved unilaterally.

The proposed “Volcker rule” — which would ban proprietary trading by banks — is potentially an even bigger spanner in the works. This is because it diverts attention from the fundamental causes of the crisis by scapegoating one particular area. The Volcker rule would not have stopped Lehman Brothers going bust, as it was not a deposit-taking institution. Nor would it have prevented bailouts of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Washington Mutual, Wachovia and so forth. It largely misses the mark.

UK’s Brown sees growing support for bank levy

By Keith Weir

LONDON, Jan 25 (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Monday he saw growing support for some form of international levy on banks to fund support for the industry.

A global transactions tax, floated by Brown at a meeting of the Group of 20 nations in Scotland in November, was on the agenda when Treasury Minister Paul Myners hosted officials from G7 finance ministries, the IMF, World Bank and the Financial Stability Board in London on Monday.

“As a result of the advancement by U.S. President (Barack) Obama and the financial secretary Tim Geithner about their levy on wholesale lending, I think the proposals that I made at St Andrews for an international levy … are now gaining currency around the world,” Brown told a news conference.

Europe welcomes Obama bank plan, won’t imitate it

By Keith Weir and Crispian Balmer

LONDON/PARIS, Jan 22 (Reuters) – Major European economies offered support on Friday for U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to limit banks’ size and trading activities but indicated they had no plans to follow suit.

Obama’s dramatic proposals could rewrite the world financial order but experts said they were light on detail and could cloud the global approach fostered by the Group of 20 nations.

The European Union will not imitate Obama’s plan, because it aims to reduce risk in the sector through other means, an EU source said on Friday.

Bernanke confirmation shakier as more Democrats defect

By Thomas Ferraro and Pedro da Costa

WASHINGTON, Jan 22 (Reuters) – Ben Bernanke’s nomination for a second term as U.S. Federal Reserve chairman, once seen a sure thing, appeared increasingly under threat on Friday after two Senate Democrats said they would vote against it.

“I believe there will be the votes to confirm him, but it’s going to be very close,” a senior Democratic leadership aide said.

With the U.S. job market in disarray, voters angry at Wall Street firms and members of Congress worried about their re-election in November, the Fed and its chairman have become targets for discontent.

Obama bank plan surprises Europe, muddies global coordination

By Huw Jones

LONDON, Jan 22 (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama’s plans to rein in banks puts Europe on the back foot and creates confusion over global efforts to coordinate financial regulation, lawyer and regulatory officials said on Friday.

Obama proposed on Thursday to curb banks’ size and risk-taking, sending shares in major institutions down.

Senior officials and lawmakers involved in regulatory policymaking at a global and European level said they had been kept in the dark about the plans.

FACTBOX-Global reaction to Obama’s planned rules for banks

Jan 22 (Reuters) – Here is some reaction from around the world to U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposals to limit financial risk taking.

EUROPEAN GOVERNMENTS

GERMAN FINANCE MINISTRY SPOKESMAN MICHAEL OFFER:

“We see the new proposals as a helpful suggestion for the continuing discussions on an international level. And we’re obviously aiming to find a solution to the problem of the ‘too big to fail’ issue.”

“In America, the polarity between Wall Street and Main Street is more marked than with us. But we’re open to this and ready to consider them in the framework of the international discussions.”

BREAKINGVIEWS-”Volcker plan” for banks may have political legs

– The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

By James Pethokoukis

WASHINGTON, Jan 21 (Reuters Breakingviews) – Wall Street has reason to fear President Obama’s latest bank crackdown plan. The surprise proposal, though fuzzy, suggests that the White House sees bank-bashing as a way to stop the Democrats’ political rot. In an election year, the Republicans might not save the bankers, either.

Following the Democrats’ traumatic defeat in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race, politics has come to the fore. The fingerprints of the two primary architects of Obamanomics to date — economic adviser Lawrence Summers and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner — are noticeably absent from the plan to limit the size and trading activities of banks. The likely ghostwriters are Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, and political advisor David Axelrod.

SCENARIOS-How Obama’s bank reforms could affect banks

NEW YORK, Jan 21 (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama is looking at limiting risk-taking at banks.

But his proposals on Thursday were tantalizingly vague. He said he wanted to limit the amount of borrowing that banks can do relative to their peers and limit their trading activities to buying and selling securities to customers.

But it is not clear whether relative borrowing limits will be low enough to force banks to reduce their debt. And the line between buying and selling securities on behalf of customers, and doing so on behalf of the bank, can be blurry.

Obama threatens fight with banks on new risk rules

By Jeff Mason and Kevin Drawbaugh

WASHINGTON, Jan 21 (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama threatened to fight Wall Street banks on Thursday with new proposals to limit financial risk taking, sending stocks and the dollar tumbling.

Obama, a Democrat who is struggling to advance his agenda after a key election loss this week, laid out rules to restrict some banks’ most lucrative operations, which he blamed for helping to cause the financial crisis.

“If these folks want a fight, it’s a fight I’m ready to have,” Obama told reporters at the White House, flanked by his top economic advisers and lawmakers.

Obama proposes new U.S. risk rules for banks

By Jeff Mason and Kevin Drawbaugh

WASHINGTON, Jan 21 (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama proposed stricter limits on financial risk-taking on Thursday in a new populist-tinged move that sent bank shares lower and aimed to shore up his own political base.

Obama proposed new rules to prevent banks or financial institutions that own banks from owning, investing in or sponsoring a hedge fund or private equity fund. The rules would also bar institutions from proprietary trading operations, unrelated to serving customers, for their own profit.

Proprietary trading refers to a firm making bets on financial markets with its own money, rather than executing a trade for a client. These expert trading operations, which can bet on stocks and other financial instruments to rise or fall, have been enormously profitable for the banks but also increase market volatility.

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