Banks Demand Pity Party Over Volcker Rule Losses
Whatever successes might have been attained within the hundreds of pages of regulations implementing the Volcker Rule, our nation's bureaucrats must have known they couldn't do anything that would force banks to unearth any long-buried losses in their financial reports. Because then many bankers would feel victimized. They would demand that regulators rush to soothe their hurt feelings. And America would never be the same until the banks could keep those losses unrecognized again.
Yes, I'm kidding. But the banking lobby isn't. This week, a Utah-based lender, Zions Bancorp, said it would have to take a charge to earnings in the neighborhood of $387 million because the new rules will force it to sell a bunch of collateralized debt obligations. Those CDOs declined in value a long time ago. But the accounting rules said Zions didn't have to include those losses in its earnings. Now that Zions has to sell them, it can't keep the losses buried and must count them on its income statement.
A few hundred other lenders may be in similar situations, though probably none as extreme as the one at Zions. Now the banking industry's numerous lobbying groups are complaining to regulators and asking for clarification of the rule -- footnote 1,861, if you care to look it up -- which means they don't like it and want it changed. They also have enlisted several U.S. senators to intervene with regulators on their behalf.
It generally isn't a good idea for the government to pick winners and losers or to tell companies what investments they can't keep. Surely there is money to be made somewhere buying up assets that banks aren't allowed to own anymore. It's hard to tell if the regulators intended the consequences in this instance or not, as part of the rules' prohibitions against banks sponsoring or owning stakes in hedge funds and private-equity funds.
That said, the point of the Volcker Rule was to keep banks from gambling with depositors' money. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that banks face new restrictions on the types of investments they can make. At some point, after three years of hand-wringing, the banking regulators have to stop revising what they've passed and declare it final, which they happen to have done already this month. Whining from bankers about their sudden inability to paper over losses on old CDOs isn't a sufficient reason to reopen the process all over again.
(Jonathan Weil is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)