Wall Street CEOs may be in Volcker rule crosshairs

WASHINGTON Fri Oct 7, 2011 6:13pm EDT

A street sign stands outside the New York Stock Exchange on August 19, 2011.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

A street sign stands outside the New York Stock Exchange on August 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Regulators are considering holding Wall Street chief executives legally liable if they allow certain types of proprietary trading on their watch.

Regulators due to reveal the Volcker rule proposal next week are expected to ask whether CEOs should have to certify, or "attest," that their bank has put in place the proper systems to make sure no proprietary trading is taking place.

The idea is that holding CEOs personally accountable will add a strong deterrent effect to the Volcker rule.

The rule, called for in last year's Dodd-Frank financial oversight law, bans banks from trading for their own profit in securities, derivatives and some other financial instruments.

The bank industry is already balking at the legal burden and compliance headache that would come with a CEO certification.

"The whole Volcker rule proposal envisions having an army of nannies overlooking the work of the people who actually work with customers," said Wayne Abernathy, a senior official with the American Bankers Association. "How much more does an attestation bring that that doesn't bring?"

A CEO certification approach may be similar to 2002's Sarbanes-Oxley law.

That law, put in place after major accounting scandals at Enron and Worldcom, has the power to send executives to prison and make them pay multimillion-dollar fines for submitting false certifications on corporate disclosures.

It is unclear if regulators will seek CEO imprisonment or hefty fines as potential penalties for violating the Volcker rule. Whatever regulators might put in place, fines would be a far more likely punishment if any are ever doled out, banking lawyers said.

Supporters of the proposal contend it would force the CEO to be more involved and accountable.

"Placing personal and legal responsibility directly with a corporation's top executive is key to ensuring financial firms comply with the Volcker Rule and stop engaging in the risky activities that led to billion-dollar taxpayer bailouts," Sen. Carl Levin said in a statement to Reuters.

The crackdown on proprietary trading, which has some exemptions, is known as the Volcker rule after former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who championed the reform.

The rule will mostly impact large banks including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup.

Supporters contend that large banks whose customers receive deposit insurance from the government should not be engaging in risky trading activities that could put these deposits in jeopardy.

Despite banks' concerns, regulators may go easier on the issue of CEOs' legal liability than the industry's worst fears.

In January the Financial Stability Oversight Council, the panel of regulators headed by the Treasury Department, released recommendations for enforcing the Volcker rule.

Included in this list was requiring a CEO to certify their compliance efforts' "effectiveness."

A draft of the rule to be considered next week by regulators does not explicitly call for a CEO certification and instead solicits feedback on whether it should be in a final rule.

The draft, first posted online by the American Banker on Wednesday, could be changed before the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp meeting on Tuesday and the Securities and Exchange Commission meetings on Wednesday on the proposal.

Banking lawyers say the certification could work similarly to Sarbanes-Oxley.

"The idea is they want to have a human being on the line saying it is true," said Bradley Sabel, a partner with Shearman and Sterling law firm.

But even some critics of the banking industry who argue the government has not done enough to respond to the 2007-2009 financial crisis question whether upping a CEO's legal responsibility will make much of a difference.

"I count myself among those who would like some CEOs' heads on a stick but I don't think this is the right way to go about it," said Cornelius Hurley, director of Boston University's Morin Center for Banking and Financial Law. "At the end of the day he is going to rely on the representations of his advisers anyway and all this does is make sure he doesn't sleep at night."

(Reporting by Dave Clarke, Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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