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Regulators OK Volcker Rule, Curbing Big Banks’ High-Risk Trades

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By Andrew Tangel, Jim Puzzanghera and E. Scott Reckard

The clampdown on hedging gained steam last year after JPMorgan Chase & Co. suffered more than $6 billion in losses from positions by a trader who was known as the “London Whale” for his oversized hedges. The embarrassing stumble drew glaring media exposure for the nation’s largest bank.

Now the Volcker rule forces banks to continually monitor and adjust hedging strategies to ensure they don’t morph into riskier bets that could blow holes in their balance sheets. Under new requirements, the institutions will also have to document rationales for hedges.

Fed Gov. Daniel Tarullo, who heads the agency’s bank supervision and regulation committee, said the “Whale” episode provided “a real-world example of what should not happen in a banking organization.”

While proprietary trading is now generally banned, the rule will still allow banks to buy stocks and bonds in a practice known as market-making. Banks buy these investments in anticipation that clients will at some point want them.

But regulators worried that firms could take outsize and potentially dangerous positions for their own profits. Under the rule, banks’ trading desks would not be allowed to hold investments that exceeded “the reasonably expected near-term demands of customers.”

Banks will now be required to keep records to back up their positions, and chief executives will be required to sign off on their firms’ compliance.

They are also being asked under the new rule to structure employee compensation so that it does not “reward or incentivize” engaging in prohibited proprietary trading practices or expose the bank “to excessive or imprudent risk.” But how the provision will work in practice is unclear.

Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who pushed for the Volcker rule’s inclusion in the 2010 financial reform law, said they were reviewing the final version but early indications were that it was tougher than what regulators originally proposed more than two years ago.

The Volcker rule “was intended to change the culture and practices at our nation’s largest financial firms, to prevent Wall Street and the big banks from making swing-for-the-fences bets that put depositors and taxpayers at risk,” Merkley and Levin said in a joint statement. “The regulators have taken a serious step forward in mandating critical changes.”

Wall Street and business groups were quick to voice their unhappiness with the final rule. They argued that regulators could increase the costs of doing business, as well as hinder growth and job creation. The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Assn. said it remained concerned that an overly restrictive Volcker rule would “inflict serious harm on our nation’s economy and American savers.”

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