Obama Regulatory Overhaul Features Fed Reserve, FDIC, Consumer Agency

By Jim Kuhnhenn | May 29, 2009

Obama administration is proposing that the Federal Reserve serve as an all-seeing regulator to detect activities that could pose risks to the entire financial system.

Under a plan circulating among key lawmakers, the administration also is recommending a new agency to protect consumers and another aimed at protecting investors and maintaining the integrity of the markets.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. would get expanded authority to unwind troubled bank holding companies and a new government agency would conduct “prudential regulation,” supervising state and federally chartered depository institutions, bank holding companies and insurance companies.

The sweeping proposals are part of six regulatory overhaul recommendations designed to address weaknesses in the financial system that contributed to the current crisis. People familiar with the plan say details still need to be hammered out. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the proposals aren’t final.

“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,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “But there is no final proposal in place and any announcement will not be for a couple of weeks.”

Obama will be traveling in Europe and the Middle East next week.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and other administration officials have discussed the regulatory proposals in the past. But the plan circulating on Capitol Hill indicated that the ideas are beginning to come together into a formal package for Congress to consider.

The plan to create two protection agencies — one for consumers and the other for investors — appears to address a potential turf fight with regulatory agencies.

The consumer protection agency would focus on financial products but exclude securities, defusing objections raised by Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Schapiro. Last week, Schapiro said any new agency whose oversight would include mutual funds, a form of securities, would chip away at the SEC’s powers. She said that giving any new entity authority over mutual funds would lessen the government’s protection of investors, her agency’s core mission.

The investor protection function could be carried out by an agency that merges the SEC and the smaller Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which oversees the trading of oil, gas and other commodities.

By expanding the FDIC’s role, the administration would give the government a centralized means for addressing failing banking institutions. Scores of bank holding companies, such as Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp., fall under the supervision of the Federal Reserve. The FDIC now can take over and resolve only the subsidiaries of bank holding companies that take federally insured deposits.

FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair earlier this month suggested to Congress that it give her agency new authority to take over and resolve bank and thrift holding companies– before the overall revamp of financial rules is finished. That stirred a sympathetic response from several members of the Senate Banking Committee.

Lawmakers have been divided on whether the Fed should act as an overarching “systemic risk regulator,” with some arguing that such a task would stretch the central bank too thinly. Both Bair and Schapiro have objected to making the Fed alone the new supercop for “too-big-to-fail” financial companies.

Bair has advocated the notion of a “systemic risk council” to monitor large institutions against financial threats, to include Treasury, the Fed, the FDIC and the SEC. Schapiro favors that idea, saying she’s concerned about an “excessive concentration of power” over financial risk in any single agency.

Scott Talbott, senior vice president of the Financial Services Roundtable, said his industry group opposes the creation of a consumer protection agency that focuses on financial products, but welcomes overall regulatory changes.

“It is comprehensive and necessary to strengthen the system to prevent this from happening again,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Marcy Gordon contributed to this report.

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