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Truthdigger of the Week: Paul Volcker

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Posted on Dec 14, 2013
HarvardEthics (CC BY 2.0)

By Alexander Reed Kelly

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating. Nominate our next Truthdigger here.

Since the 2008 meltdown began disastrously reshaping America’s financial future, a cadre of officials working outside Wall Street’s money-fueled distortion field have struggled against official favor for big banks to protect the interests and well-being of ordinary Americans. This attempt bore fruit Tuesday when the “Volcker Rule,” a regulation aimed at curbing the trading of stocks, derivatives and other financial instruments for a bank’s financial gain, was confirmed by all five supervising federal regulatory agencies, including the Federal Reserve.

The practice at issue—“proprietary trading”—pits the interests of a trading bank against those of its customers. Such a bank has an unfair advantage over customers when it gains access to secret information about the condition or future of a stock or other instrument and uses that information to turn profits. Goldman Sachs did this deliberately during the run-up to the crisis; in an April 2010 congressional subcommittee meeting, Sen. Carl Levin cited references to “shitty deals” made in emails between Goldman employees. Such deals continue to swell the double-digit salaries of Wall Street’s top CEOs.

The Volcker Rule is the product of 86-year-old economist Paul Volcker. Volcker served as chairman of the Federal Reserve under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and is widely credited with reducing the rampant inflation that menaced the average American’s buying ability and the overall economy in the 1970s and early ’80s. In 2009, after two decades playing advisory roles and investigating financial matters around the globe, often with a concern for corruption, Volcker was appointed chairman of the newly formed President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. From that post Volcker criticized banks throughout the crisis and its fallout, calling their response to the disaster inadequate and pushing for stricter regulation and the breakup of the biggest corporations.

In January 2010, President Barack Obama dubbed a proposed pack of regulations contained in the Dodd-Frank banking reform bill the “Volcker Rule.” Dodd-Frank went into effect in the summer of that year, but Volcker’s contribution, scheduled to be implemented in mid-2012, was delayed pending ratification. The New York Times called the event “the most sweeping overhaul of regulation since the Depression” and “a barometer for the overall strength of [Dodd-Frank].” Now approved, the rule is scheduled to go live next year, but implementation could linger until 2017.

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Volcker left the president’s advisory board in 2011. As he confirmed to Bloomberg Personal Finance on Tuesday, that means he wasn’t involved in drafting the final version of the rule. “You probably have read the rule more than I have,” Volcker told a reporter. “It’s complicated, but I was gratified to see that the rule itself is shorter than my own home insurance policy.”

Volcker is to be admired both for his efforts and successes, but as is the case in any game with multiple players, what happens next is not and never was up to him alone. The rule’s effectiveness will be determined by the regulators selected to enforce it. That involves a yet-to-be-demonstrated willingness to insist upon strict interpretations of what the Times’ editorial board describes as the rule’s “imprecise” wording, which could enable banks to “cry foul, exploit loopholes and demand special treatment.” A large portion of that burden falls to Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve’s newly appointed chair.

In the meantime, we congratulate the economist and regulatory adviser on continuing his public service well into the twilight years of his life. For employing his expertise and privilege against the robber barons of our age, we honor Paul Volcker as our Truthdigger of the Week.


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