What is the Volcker Rule?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 02 July 2019
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The Volcker rule is an economic reform proposed by Paul Volcker, who once acted as chairman of the Federal Reserve in the United States. A form of it was passed in 2010 when the House and Senate developed a financial reform bill to address concerns about the failing economy. Under the Volcker rule, the trading activities of banks are limited with the goal of preventing speculation and limiting the risks of creating another financial crisis similar to the one that started in 2007 and spread globally.

Volcker proposed this rule as a member of the Presidential Economic Advisory Board, a group of economists and policymakers convened by President Barack Obama with the goal of developing policy recommendations to help the United States recover from the economic crisis. Paul Volcker believed that one of the driving forces behind the economic woes in the United States was highly speculative trading activity on the part of banks, and proposed the Volcker rule to address this. Speculation was also a historic problem in banking and has been fingered as the culprit behind other financial crashes.


Under the Volcker rule, banks cannot make speculative investments such as purchasing hedge funds or being involved in private equity deals if these investments are made on their own behalf. If a bank can show that speculation is being engaged in specifically to benefit customers of the bank, as in the case of a bank making private equity investments to support a fund for bank clients, this is allowed under the Volcker rule.

The original version of this proposed policy was quite strict. After considerable debate over the financial reform bill, it was watered down considerably at the behest of several legislators, operating on the advice of lobbyists and analysts. Banks responded to the legislation by suggesting that it was unlikely to limit their financial activity in a meaningful way, thanks to the allowance for making speculative investments on behalf of clients.

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the piece of legislation the Volcker rule is folded into, initially began as an aggressive series of reforms designed to address abuses of the financial system. With input from both houses of Congress, as well as the financial industry, some substantial changes were made and some critics suggested it was not nearly as effective as it could have been, allowing banks more leeway than originally intended in earlier drafts of the legislation. Conversely, supporters pointed out that improved regulation of the industry was better than no change at all.


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