Senate Reforms Boost Federal Reserve’s Powers Over Non-Banks

By and | March 15, 2010

The Federal Reserve would gain new powers over non-bank financial firms and keep much of its authority over banks under a new bill to be unveiled on Monday by the U.S Senate’s architect of financial reform.

In a turnaround for the central bank after months of public criticism, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd was poised to release a bill that leans heavily on the Fed to fix the U.S. financial system, sources said on Sunday.

Not only would a new government watchdog for financial consumers be housed within the Fed, it would also retain much of its present authority over large bank holding companies and gain new authority over selected non-bank financial firms.

Sources said the Fed would also continue supervising smaller, state-chartered banks now in the Fed system — a change from an earlier proposal that would have transferred those banks to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. supervision.

The plans could yet change, sources said, with weeks to go before Congress completes its long debate on regulatory reform after the worst U.S. financial crisis in generations tipped the economy into recession and shook markets worldwide.

With Republicans and bank lobbyists working to weaken and block new rules, the push for reform could fail in the Senate. That would hurt Democrats and President Barack Obama as they head into November elections already short on achievements.

But the release on Monday of Dodd’s bill will move the Senate closer to a decisive vote.

In an interview, Dodd, a Democrat, told Reuters he would present his bill at a news conference scheduled for 1800 GMT and he threw down a challenge to Republican committee colleagues who wrote him a letter on Friday seeking more time to study the issue.


He called their demands “terribly naive.” After months of debate, Dodd told Reuters, the road to financial reform is still difficult, but navigable.

“If you want to work with me … we can do it. If you don’t, you can walk away or delay or say we shouldn’t be meeting. But if you’re interested in getting a bill, the door’s open,” Dodd said.

Tightening oversight of banks and capital markets is a top priority for Obama. But almost two years since the near collapse of former Wall Street giant Bear Stearns, followed by the fall of Lehman Brothers, regulation has changed little.

Obama proposed sweeping reforms in mid-2009. Most of them were approved in December by the House of Representatives.

The Senate has yet to act. Dodd released a draft bill in November that Republicans immediately rejected. He has been working to find compromises ever since.

He told Reuters his new bill will call for “orderly liquidation” of large financial firms that get into trouble and pose a risk to economic stability. The goal is to avoid on-the-fly bailouts like the ones the Bush administration undertook in 2008 for AIG and Citigroup.

Dodd said his bill would set up a council of regulators “that has power, authority and responsibility to look over the landscape, both at home and abroad, for emerging problems that could pose a systemic risk to our financial system.”


He said the bill will contain the same proposals he made in November for policing the $450-trillion over-the-counter derivatives market, partly through more trading on exchanges. But he said he was open to ideas being discussed by committee members Democrat Jack Reed and Republican Judd Gregg.

He also said the bill will have provisions offering investors greater power in corporate governance.

On bank supervision, sources who asked not to be named said the Dodd bill would give the Fed authority to supervise bank holding companies with more than $50 billion in assets, lower than an earlier proposed threshold of $100 billion.

The bill will also preserve the Fed’s power over state-chartered banks with less than $50 billion in assets that are already in the Federal Reserve system, sources said.

An earlier proposal had called for transferring responsibility for supervising such banks to the FDIC, which already oversees state-chartered banks outside the Fed system.

If the state-chartered banks stay under the Fed’s umbrella, it would have power over hundreds of banks large and small, as well as branches of foreign banks, sources said.


In addition, the bill would empower the Fed to supervise non-bank firms designated as “systemically important” by the council of regulators. Before its bailout, former insurance giant American International Group (AIG) would likely have fit into that category, for instance.

Dodd sharply criticized the Fed last year, calling its track record as a bank supervisor and consumer protection regulator an “abysmal failure.” In an early draft of his own reform plan, he proposed stripping the Fed of bank supervision and consumer protection duties, leaving it focused almost exclusively on its role as a monetary policy manager.

But Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, other Fed insiders and some banking interests have pushed back hard in recent months to shield the institution, and it appears to have worked.

Dodd plans to put Obama’s proposed financial consumer watchdog inside the Fed, rather than make it an independent agency. To win support among Democrats for this, he will give the watchdog considerable power and autonomy, sources said.

Dodd said: “I want a very authoritative, very independent consumer division, agency, bureau, however that emerges.”

With a clear majority in the committee, Dodd probably can push his bill through, likely before the end of March. A bipartisan compromise might even be reached. In either case, committee approval would send the measure to the full Senate.

There its fate is more precarious. The Democrats are one vote short of 60 votes needed to overcome procedural roadblocks sure to be thrown up by Republicans.

If Dodd can cobble together enough votes to get a bill through the Senate, it would then have to be merged with the measure approved in December by the House before unified legislation could be sent to Obama to be signed into law.

(Additional reporting by Karey Wutkowski; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)

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