Financial regulation: The alphabet soup gets much worse

By Felix Salmon
June 17, 2009

Do you know a FHC from a BCBS? If not, you’re going to have a hard time wading through the government’s white paper on financial reform, which is full of such things. (An FHC is a financial holding company; the BCBS is the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision. The link is to the WaPo leak of the paper, there might be minor changes in the final document.) This, for instance, is a real sentence from the paper:

The United States will work to implement the updated ICRG peer review process and work with partners in the FATF to address jurisdictions not complying with international AML/CFT standards.

But never fear! Your tireless blogger has waded through all 85 pages, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got the gist of it at this point.

In a nutshell: If you thought this was going to make the current horribly-complicated system of financial regulation less complicated, think again.

And so to the specifics. Were you hoping that the present alphabet soup of regulators would get rationalized and downsized? I know that I was. But there’s only one place that’s going to happen: the OCC and the OTS are going to be folded into a new regulatory entity called the National Bank Supervisor (NBS), which (along with the Fed, natch) will oversee federally-chartered banks.

The National Bank Supervisor will not oversee state-chartered banks: those will remain under the umbrella of the FDIC, which is not being folded into the NBS. And the NBS will similarly not oversee credit unions: the NCUA will retain its independence and continue to regulate those itself.

Why perpetuate these distinctions between federally-chartered banks, state-chartered banks, and credit unions? I have no idea. But in order to get some measure of cohesion over all this, a second brand-new regulatory entity, the Financial Services Oversight Council, or FOSC, which will consist of the leadership of the NBS; the FDIC; the NCUA; the SEC and the CFTC (yes, they are remaining separate too); the FHFA (that, too, gets to remain independent for no obvious reason); the Treasury; the FOMC; and the brand-new Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

Or, to put it another way, FOSC = NBS + FDIC + NCUA + SEC + CFTC + FHFA + FOMC + CFPA + Treasury.

I know what you’re thinking — it can’t possibly be as simple as that. And you’d be right! There’s also a Financial Consumer Coordinating Council, which comprises the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, the Federal Trade Commission, and the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee.

Oh, and I almost forgot, they’re also creating an Office of National Insurance.

In other words, if you thought the bureaucracy was bad until now, just wait until you see what’s coming down the pike.

Which is not to say that there aren’t any good ideas in this white paper. I like the fact that the CFPA will have the power to conduct Community Reinvestment Act examinations, for instance, and I love the fact that stockbrokers will — finally — have a fiduciary responsibility to their clients. The Obamacrats have also managed to sneak in legislation forcing opt-out, rather than opt-in, retirement plans for corporate employees.

But there are weaknesses here, too, and not just at the org-chart level. Treasury has decided that no financial institution can be allowed to engage in any nonbanking activities at all — basically there’s no way that Walmart, for instance, or Safeway, will ever get a banking license. That’s bad for consumers.

The white paper also punts on trying to clear up the mess of conflicts between the SEC and the CFTC: it basically just tells the two agencies to go away and work it all out on their own.

And the new extra-stringent regulations on what the white paper calls “Tier 1 FHCs” — the systemically-important financial institutions — don’t seem particularly stringent to me. For instance, there’s this:

Tier 1 FHCs should be required to have enough high-quality capital during good economic times to keep them above prudential minimum capital requirements during stressed economic times.

This sounds good, until you realize that exactly the same language is used with respect to all banks, and bank holding companies, a couple of pages later.

But the main message of this white paper (and I’m sure Congress will do all manner of mischief to it before anything gets passed into law) is that there aren’t any problems of financial regulation which can’t be solved by setting up a high-level committee. In other words, it’s a bust.

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