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Obama to pitch overhaul of financial regulation

His proposal would address issues directly related to last fall's crisis, notably the largely unregulated derivatives markets and rules on how banks turn their investments into complex securities.

June 17, 2009|Jim Puzzanghera

WASHINGTON — The financial regulation plan that President Obama will roll out today will impose stricter and broader government oversight of the nation's banking system -- including tough new requirements on companies whose failure would threaten the economy, and creating new agencies to regulate banks and to protect consumers.

The most sweeping overhaul of financial rules since the Great Depression also would grant the Federal Reserve broad new powers to oversee large firms, such as insurance companies, that it does not regulate directly. The Fed would have the authority to seize and dismantle these companies if they are in danger of failing.

The proposal, which Obama is expected to detail in a speech at the White House, would dramatically expand the government's involvement in the financial industry in hopes of avoiding a repeat of last fall's financial crisis.

"We are going to put forward a very strong set of regulatory measures that we think can prevent this kind of crisis from happening again," Obama said Tuesday.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, June 18, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Regulatory reform: An article in Business on Wednesday said that under President Obama's proposal to revamp financial regulations, the Federal Reserve would gain new authority to seize and dismantle large firms in danger of failing. In fact, that power would rest with several agencies working together, including the Fed, Treasury Department and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

The plan must be approved by Congress. In drafting the measures, Obama administration officials had two key concerns -- moving quickly, before the momentum for reform evaporates, and avoiding withering turf battles with regulators and lawmakers that could derail the effort.

"We want to get this thing passed and . . . we think that speed is important," Obama told CNBC, as he targeted his message to Wall Street in a series of interviews. "We want to do it right, we want to do it carefully, but we don't want to tilt at windmills."

The most controversial part of the plan could be the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. It would have authority to enact new rules over credit cards, mortgages and other consumer products, and levy penalties for companies that violate them. The agency would assume responsibilities now scattered across several agencies, with its main focus on protecting consumers, Obama said.

The agencies that now share those responsibilities, including the Federal Reserve, are expected to fight against the loss of their power. Indeed, the Securities and Exchange Commission appears to have won a turf battle by preserving its oversight of mutual funds, one of the most popular consumer financial products.

Business groups are likely to lobby against various aspects of the plan, with the support of many Republicans who argue that the measures needlessly expand government oversight.

There are arguments that the plan doesn't go far enough to streamline and coordinate government regulation of the financial industry.

"There are too many regulators, too many gaps," said David Hirschmann, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness. "We're not hung up on who gets merged with who, but you can't leave all the current dysfunction in place."

The regulatory plan also includes new oversight over largely unregulated derivatives markets and requirements on how banks turn their investments, such as mortgages, into complex securities -- two issues that led to the crisis.

Banks would have to have "skin in the game," said a senior administration official, referring to a new requirement that institutions that make loans be required to retain 5% of the credit risk when the loans are turned into securities to be sold to investors.

Huge financial institutions whose failures would hurt the economy would face more oversight and be required to keep more capital on hand to reduce their risk during major downturns.

The administration also wants to create a Financial Services Oversight Council, headed by the Treasury secretary, that would try to fill regulatory gaps, coordinate policy and try to identify emerging risks to the economy.

When a company is deemed to pose such a risk, the Federal Reserve would have the power to intervene, in the same way federal regulators can with insolvent banks.

The proposed regulatory overhaul will be far-reaching, administration officials have promised. But it is not expected to tackle some key changes that critics have long called for, particularly merging the four existing bank regulatory agencies into one to reduce oversight gaps and to keep institutions from shopping for the most lenient oversight.

Obama's economic team decided to focus on issues directly related to the crisis, such as providing more oversight over the complex derivatives markets, rather than on an even more ambitious overhaul.

"They're being very practical and prioritizing what they see as the 'gotta do's' that address restoring confidence and market stability because that's where the concerns are and those longer-term comprehensive reforms will be addressed later," said Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.), who serves on the House Financial Services Committee. Congress must approve the administration's proposals.

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