Financial Reform Breakdown: Part 2

We offered earlier today a look at some of the key provisions in the still-being-debated financial reform bill in Congress. Here’s a brief overview of some of the other components (full 1,300-plus-page bill here).

  • Bank Capital Standards – Under an amendment adopted unanimously with little fanfare, banks with more than $250 billion in assets are forced to meet higher risk- and size-based capital standards. The Treasury and Fed oppose the measure authored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), warning it could make it harder for U.S. officials to negotiate global capital standards with foreign regulators.
  • Mortgage Risk – Require firms that securitize mortgages and other loans to hold a portion of the risk on their own balance sheets, but under an amendment added on the floor also would direct regulators to establish a category of less-risky mortgage products – primarily fixed-rate, fully amortizing loans – that would be exempt from the risk-retention rule.
  • Hedge Funds – Requires hedge funds that manage more than $100 million to register with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as investment advisors and disclose to the agency information about their trades and portfolios.
  • Corporate Governance – Gives shareholders of public corporations a non-binding vote on executive pay and the SEC the authority to grant shareholders proxy access to nominate directors.
  • Insurance – Creates a new Office of National Insurance within the Treasury to monitor the industry, recommending to the systemic risk council insurers what should be treated as systemically important, as well as coordinate international insurance issues. The office would produce a study and recommendations to Congress on ways to modernize insurance regulation, but it is explicitly not a new regulator.
  • Credit Rating Agencies – Establishes a new self-regulatory organization for credit rating agencies designed to eliminate a conflict in the current system in which an institution pays for its rating and, at times, shops for the best rating it can get for the lowest price. The SEC will appoint members of the new regulatory body that will then assign credit-rating agencies to provide initial credit ratings of financial packages.
  • Investment Advice – Several Democrats had hoped to tighten regulations for broker-dealers who give investment advice, but they weren’t given a floor vote on their amendment despite near constant lobbying from consumer groups. As it stands, this provision makes recommendations and directs the SEC to study the differences between fiduciary standards for investment advisers and broker-dealers.

Financial Reform Bill: It’s a Whopper

(Part 1 of 2)

A sweeping financial reform package passed the U.S. Senate last week. With a version already passed in the House, now compromises must be worked out by a conference committee to be led by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D- Mass.).  The indication is they would like to send a final bill to President Obama by July 4.

However, there remain significant points of contention to be negotiated between the House and Senate; perhaps most notably the Senate provisions forwarded by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) that require banks to spin off their derivative trading to affiliate entities. Over the next few weeks, advocates will continue to promote their position on the several items at play and the final product is still in question.

Below are descriptions of the major components in the Senate bill (see the 1,300-plus page bill in its entirety):

  • New Regulatory Authority – Gives federal regulators new authority to seize and break up large troubled financial firms without taxpayer bailouts in cases where the firm’s collapse could destabilize the financial system. Sets up a liquidation procedure run by the FDIC. Management could be removed, with shareholders and unsecured creditors bearing losses. Other provisions would make it harder for top executives at the failed firms to claim large compensation packages, and it would give the government power to limit payments for certain creditors of failed firms. The Treasury would supply funds to cover the upfront costs of winding down the failed firm.
  • Consumer Agency – Creates a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau within the Federal Reserve, with rulemaking and some enforcement power over banks and non-banks that offer consumer financial products or services such as credit cards, mortgages and other loans. The new watchdog would have authority to examine and enforce regulations for all mortgage-related businesses, large non-bank financial companies such as big payday lenders and consumer reporting companies, and for banks and credit unions with assets of more than $10 billion.
  • Derivatives – Requires the vast majority of all derivatives trading be executed on a public exchange as opposed to between banks and their customers as many contracts are currently. Most controversially, the bill would adopt language written by Sen. Lincoln that would compel any large commercial banks that have access to the Federal Reserve’s discount window to spin off their derivatives trading business. The Fed, FDIC andTreasury, as well as the banking industry, have argued against this measure.
  • Financial Stability Council – Establishes a new, nine-member Financial Stability Oversight Council, comprised of existing regulators, charged with monitoring and addressing system-wide risks to the nation’s financial stability. Among its duties, the council would recommend to the Fed stricter capital, leverage and other rules for large, complex financial firms that are judged to threaten the financial system. In extreme cases, would have the power to break up financial firms.
  • Oversight Changes – Eliminates the Office of Thrift Supervision, but an attempt to strip the Fed of its oversight of thousands of community banks was reversed with an amendment. Would empower the Fed to supervise the largest, most complex financial companies to ensure that the government understands the risks and complexities of firms that could pose a risk to the broader economy.
  • Federal Reserve Oversight – Calls for a one-time government audit of all of the Fed’s emergency lending programs from December 2007 onward, including facilities used to help deal with the collapse of Bear Stearns & Co. and the program to stabilize asset-backed securities markets. The Government Accountability Office would also review the Fed’s corporate governance, including whether there are conflicts of interest inherent in the current design of the Federal Reserve System.

Summary of remaining key components to be posted later today.

U.S. Chamber: We Need the Right Bill on Financial Reform

While we’re primarily focused on next week’s primary elections in this space throughout this week, the hot topic in Washington right now is financial regulatory reform. Tom Donohue, president/CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (there is no direct relationship between state chambers and the national organization, but we do work together on supporting policy that positively impacts jobs and the economy) offers a succinct commentary that provides solid suggestions for improving the legislation currently under consideration.

Financial regulatory reform is essential, and it needs to happen this year. But it’s not enough to pass any bill—we need the right bill. The rules set now will govern financial markets for years to come, impacting job creation and economic growth. At the time of this writing, a bipartisan deal may be in the works, but here are five ways we think that the current Senate legislation can be improved:

Consumer Protection—The Senate bill creates a $410 million Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with far-reaching powers—even over many nonfinancial businesses. In fact, any business that allows customers to pay in more than four installments or assesses a finance charge would be covered—even an orthodontic practice. The bill also opens the door to a new wave of lawsuits because state regulations are not preempted by new federal rules. Strong consumer protection can be better achieved through a council of regulators.

Too Big to Fail—Instead of eliminating the concept “too big to fail,” the Senate bill embraces it, ultimately designating firms as too big to fail and creating a $50 billion bailout fund. What’s needed is an orderly and predictable system—much like our current bankruptcy process—to unwind failing institutions quickly, fairly, and without taxpayer expense.

Derivatives—The Chamber agrees we need more transparency and disclosure in the multitrillion-dollar derivatives market, but there must be exemptions for businesses using the market to hedge risk on such things as exchange rates. These businesses do not threaten the stability of the financial system and should not be forced to post cash collateral that would otherwise be used to grow the business, invest, and create jobs.

Corporate Governance—Provisions in the current bill would trump state corporate governance laws—which have worked well for 150 years—in favor of one-size-fits-all federal laws. That would give labor unions and other special interest shareholders the power to leverage their agendas at the expense of other shareholders. These issues don’t belong in this bill.

Volcker Rule—While the Chamber agrees with the intent of the Volcker Rule to stabilize the financial system, its implementation would put American companies at a global disadvantage. Better tools—such as higher capital and liquidity requirements—can be used to achieve the same goal.

Financial regulatory reform is something Congress simply has to get right. The current bill needs more commonsense provisions to attract broad bipartisan support. The changes we outlined would do just that, while strengthening our capital markets, helping prevent future crises, and boosting our economy.