Thursday, May 28, 2009

U.S. officials close in on plan for single banking regulator

Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson suggested last year that a single banking/securities regulator made sense for the U.S. - and this was before the September financial meltdown.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and other officials are expected to send Congress a proposal next month for overhauling regulation of financial markets. A major part of that proposal is a single regulator to supervise the banking sector. "The president is committed to signing a regulatory-reform package by the end of the year, and officials at the White House and the Treasury Department are continuing work with Congress on the final phases of a proposal, but there is no final proposal in place, and any announcement will not be for a couple of weeks," said White House spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki.

Senior officials have reached agreement on aspects of the plan, according to a person familiar with the discussions. They favor vesting the Federal Reserve with new powers as a systemic risk regulator, with broad responsibility for detecting threats to the financial system. The powers would include oversight of previously unregulated markets, such as the derivatives trade, and of market participants such as hedge funds. Officials also favor the creation of a new agency to enforce laws protecting consumers of financial products such as mortgages and credit cards.

And they want to merge the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which share responsibility for protecting investors from fraud. Other aspects of the plan remain under discussion, sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details.

Among these ideas is the creation of a single agency to regulate banks. The new regulator would assume responsibility for the safety and soundness of banks, currently divided among the Fed and three other agencies: the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The OCC and the OTS would probably disappear, while the Fed and the FDIC would retain other responsibilities.

Under the current system, banks can choose their regulator. Because the OCC, OTS and FDIC are funded by fees from the banks, the regulators have an incentive to compete for business by offering more lenient oversight. The system also divides supervision of the largest financial conglomerates among multiple agencies, each with responsibility for certain subsidiaries, creating gaps in coverage that companies have exploited. Many experts say these failures of regulation contributed to the financial crisis.

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