Financial Regulatory Forum

ANALYSIS-When in doubt on Wall Street reform, order a study!

By Reuters Staff
July 2, 2010

By Kevin Drawbaugh

WASHINGTON, July 1 (Reuters) – The sweeping Wall Street reform bill moving through the U.S. Congress calls for no fewer than 39 studies — an impressive level of trying to look busy while dodging controversy, even by Washington standards.

In what amounts to a full employment act for policy analysts, the 2,300-page bill seeks further inquiry on topics ranging from “ending the conservatorship of Fannie Mae  (and) Freddie Mac  to “oversight of carbon markets.”

One study is supposed to look into the “effect of drywall presence on foreclosures,” while another targets “the macroeconomic effects of risk retention requirements.”

Some of the reports that result may influence future decision-making, but most will probably just gather dust.

“In theory, there’s nothing wrong with Congress mandating studies. It can really enhance the legislature’s fact-finding ability,” said Raj Date, head of the Cambridge Winter Center for Financial Institutions Policy, a research group.

“In practice, such studies are only useful if Congress still cares about the issue when the results come back. And the maximum that Congress will care about these issues is right now. It only goes downhill from here.”

The House of Representatives on Wednesday approved the most thorough overhaul of financial regulation since the 1930s. The Senate is expected to do the same in mid-July, although Democrats are still scrambling to nail down the votes for it.

Over more than a year of debate, Congress examined several reform proposals that would have made the bill even more hard-hitting and then, in a time-honored practice, put off decisions and ordered studies instead.

“PATHETIC DISPLAY”

The study bonanza “evidences a lack of understanding and vision by the Congress — pathetic display in the face of bank lobbying blitz,” said Christopher Whalen, managing director at Institutional Risk Analytics, a bank research firm.

From early in the debate, reformers split between those who wanted to break up the big Wall Street firms and those who argued it would be sufficient to ring-fence the mega-firms with new regulations to reduce risk and bolster stability.

The bank busters lost, but got a study on “the size and complexity of financial institutions.”

On another front, Democratic Senator Al Franken had a proposal to shake up widely criticized credit rating agencies by interposing a government board between them and their clients, at least for rating new structured securities.

The Franken plan proved too radical for Congress, but the bill mandates a two-year study of the issue by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. If the agency can’t come up with a better idea, then it has to enact Franken’s board.

“When Congress wants to sidestep an issue rather than resolving it, they call for a study. The studies can use up lots of resources and Congress typically ignores them, making them a waste of money,” said the SEC’s former chief accountant, Lynn Turner, a senior adviser at the consulting firm LECG.

What about the revolving door between the SEC and major corporate law firms and Wall Street? The steady flow of lawyers through this lucrative portal undermines the SEC’s independence and aggressiveness, critics have said for years.

There’s a study in the bill on that, too. (Editing by Leslie Adler) ((kevin.drawbaugh@thomsonreuters.com, +1 202 898 8390, +1 202 488 3459 (fax)))

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