By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009
NEW YORK, Jan. 15 -- A top economic adviser to the incoming Obama administration unveiled a plan Thursday to radically rethink the global financial system, including measures that would dramatically expand government control over banking and investment in the United States.
The report -- which recommends limiting the size of banks, monitoring executive pay and regulating hedge funds -- offers the first hint of the kind of change to the financial system that President-elect Barack Obama may push for in coming months.
Obama has pledged to present a package of reforms to prevent another round of the financial crisis that began in the United States, ahead of a summit of world leaders in London this April. Observers saw in Thursday's report potential building blocks of Obama's plan. Although issued by the Group of 30 -- an organization of international economists and financial policymakers -- its lead author is Paul Volcker, the chairman of the Federal Reserve during the Carter and Reagan administrations who will serve as a special adviser to the Obama White House. Part of Volcker's role is to help mastermind what could become the biggest overhaul of the U.S. financial system in decades.
"I think this is a clear sign that the new administration is going to push for a major overhaul, for major structural reforms of the regulatory system," said Steven Schrage, the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Having this highly esteemed group backing that proposal is going to put pressure to present those changes before [the] April summit."
The report's recommendations may find support among those in the United States and Europe who have called for tighter regulation over the financial system in the wake of the current economic crisis. But elements of the plan were already opposed Thursday by some in the financial industry, where some worry that the push for tighter government regulation may go too far.
The report offered 18 recommendations that would insert government regulators into the boardrooms of financial institutions as never before. The plan calls for vastly increased oversight of major banks, going as far as to recommend the end of an era of mega banks whose size makes their failure potentially catastrophic to the global financial system. To limit their size and scope, banks, the document states, should be prohibited from managing private-equity or hedge funds. And deposits should not be concentrated in the hands of too few banks.
"Keep them small, so that any failure won't have systematic importance," Volcker said at a news conference.
Money-market mutual funds that offer services similar to banks, including dollar-for-dollar withdrawal at any time, should be subjected to increased government oversight, the report said. Currently, most do not operate that way. But those bank-like mutual funds that want to avoid tighter regulation should sell relatively safe financial instruments and clearly state to customers that the value of their funds may or may not remain stable.
The proposal suggests that the U.S. government should clarify the status of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, either making them government agencies or regulating them as independent mortgage brokers. Credit-rating agencies would also be subjected to greater scrutiny.
Volcker said he would press the new administration to consider the measures, saying major changes are imperative because the financial system is "broken."
"It's a four-letter word," he said. "It's a mess."
Elements of the plan -- such as imposing regulation on hedge funds -- echo calls for closer supervision made by policymakers in the United States and abroad in past months. But Thursday's report was more specific and aggressive in imposing government restrictions on the financial system than a broad outline of changes agreed to by the Bush administration during a meeting of leaders representing the Group of 20 economic powers in Washington last November.
The Obama administration is expected to work closely with key congressional leaders including Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass) on legislation that could restructure existing regulatory agencies and impose new guidelines on U.S. financial institutions. The scope of Volcker's proposal, analysts say, suggests that Obama's plan may contain highly ambitious reforms.
Although financial industry officials concede that more regulation is likely needed to prevent a repeat of the current crisis, they also said that some of the measures in the report appeared to go too far. For instance, they opposed the suggestion that banks limit their deposits and size.
"You want to apply the appropriate amount of regulation to address the concern that this kind of crisis never happens again," said Scott Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs for Financial Services Roundtable, which represents the largest financial institutions in the United States. "But at the same time, you don't want to stifle innovation, creativity or the allocation of resources to take appropriate risks."
Although the report calls for global reform, it acknowledged charges that flaws in the U.S. financial system were to blame for starting the current global economic crisis. Thusly, it noted that "several of the issues and recommendations have a direct U.S. focus."
The report renewed calls for greater international cooperation on regulation, and new laws to oversee exotic financial derivatives, made during the November summit in Washington. With cautious support by President Bush, plans are moving forward, for instance, to enhance international cooperation in overseeing major banks through the Financial Stability Forum in Switzerland. But European leaders have eagerly awaited a signal from Obama on his ideas for new rules for the global financial system.
It is unclear how many of the recommendations will make their way into Obama's final plan, but the report could lift the spirits of Europeans who have called for tighter government oversight on executives' pay and risk management in financial institutions -- an area where the Bush administration has offered tepid support. The report urges the government to enforce systematic board reviews of executive pay as well as new guidelines to measure the level of risk a firm is taking with exotic investments.