January 21, 2010, President Obama proposed reforms to the financial system designed to ensure no bank, or financial institution that contains a bank, will own, invest in, or sponsor a hedge fund, private equity fund, or proprietary trading operation for the bank’s own profit. The new reforms, known as the Volcker Rule after former chair of the Federal Reserve Board, Paul Volcker, are intended to prevent banks from engaging in what are now perceived as risky investments.

How the Volcker Rule will be drafted and applied is unclear. At a minimum it seems that banks may have to halt investments that use solely the bank’s capital. Banks may therefore have to divest their proprietary trading desks, although most banks have significantly smaller proprietary trading desks than they did prior to the economic crisis.

What constitutes proprietary trading operations under the Volcker Rule is unknown. For example, do such activities include the practice of facilitating trading for clients and investing alongside clients? Additionally, it is unclear whether only wholly-owned bank funds would be prohibited or any bank involvement in a hedge fund or private equity fund above a certain threshold. One approach, which would be a broad interpretation of the Volcker Rule, would be to prohibit any trading activity that could affect a bank’s balance sheet.

President Obama has pledged to work with Congress to implement the Volcker Rule as part of a comprehensive financial reform bill. The dynamics of the bill should have a direct effect on whether some banks will be willing to cease being a bank holding company in order to keep their trading and investment business.