By Binyamin Appelbaum and David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner plans to propose today a sweeping expansion of federal authority over the financial system, breaking from an era in which the government stood back from financial markets and allowed participants to decide how much risk to take in the pursuit of profit.
The Obama administration's plan, described by several sources, would extend federal regulation for the first time to all trading in financial derivatives and to companies including large hedge funds and major insurers such as American International Group. The administration also will seek to impose uniform standards on all large financial firms, including banks, an unprecedented step that would place significant limits on the scope and risk of their activities.
Most of these initiatives would require legislation.
Geithner plans to make the case for the regulatory reform agenda in testimony before Congress this morning, and he is expected to introduce proposals to regulate the largest financial firms. In coming months, the administration plans to detail its strategy in three other areas: protecting consumers, eliminating flaws in existing regulations and enhancing international coordination.
The testimony will not call for any existing federal agencies to be eliminated or combined, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The plan focuses on setting standards first, leaving for later any reshaping of the government's administrative structure.
The nation's financial regulations are largely an accumulation of responses to financial crises. Federal bank regulation was a product of the Civil War. The Federal Reserve was created early in the 20th century to mitigate a long series of monetary crises. The Great Depression delivered deposit insurance and a federally sponsored mortgage market. In the midst of a modern economic upheaval, the Obama administration is pitching the most significant regulatory expansion since that time.
An administration official said the goal is to set new rules of the road to restore faith in the financial system. In essence, the plan is a rebuke of raw capitalism and a reassertion that regulation is critical to the healthy function of financial markets and the steady flow of money to borrowers.
The government also plans to push companies to pay employees based on their long-term performance, curtailing big paydays for short-term victories. Long-simmering anger about Wall Street pay practices erupted last week when the Obama administration disclosed that AIG had paid $165 million in bonuses to employees of its most troubled division, despite losing so much money that the government stepped in with more than $170 billion in emergency aid.
The administration's signature proposal is to vest a single federal agency with the power to police risk across the entire financial system. The agency would regulate the largest financial firms, including hedge funds and insurers not currently subject to federal regulation. It also would monitor financial markets for emergent dangers.
Geithner plans to call for legislation that would define which financial firms are sufficiently large and important to be subjected to this increased regulation. Those firms would be required to hold relatively more capital in their reserves against losses than smaller firms, to demonstrate that they have access to adequate funding to support their operations, and to maintain constantly updated assessments of their exposure to financial risk.
The designated agency would not replace existing regulators but would be granted the power to compel firms to comply with its directives. Geithner's testimony will not identify which agency should hold those powers, but sources familiar with the matter said that the Federal Reserve, widely viewed as the most obvious choice, is the administration's favored candidate.
Geithner and other officials have said in recent weeks that such powers could have kept in check the excesses of AIG and other large financial companies.
"The framework will significantly raise the prudential requirements, once we get through the crisis, that our largest and most interconnected financial firms must meet in order to ensure they do not pose risks to the system," Geithner said yesterday in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Hand in glove with this expanded oversight, the administration also is seeking the authority to seize these large firms if they totter toward failure.
Under current law, the government can seize only banks.
The administration yesterday detailed its proposed process, under which the Federal Reserve Board, along with any agency overseeing the troubled company, would recommend the need for a takeover. The Treasury secretary, in consultation with the president, then would authorize the action. The firm would be placed under the control of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The government also would have the power to take intermediate steps to stabilize a firm, such as taking an ownership stake or providing loans.
"Destabilizing dangers can come from financial institutions besides banks, but our current regulatory system provides few ways to deal with these risks," Geithner said yesterday. "Our plan will give the government the tools to limit the risk-taking at firms that could set off cascading damage."
The administration compared the proposed process with the existing system under which banking regulators can take over failed banks and place them under FDIC control.
One important difference is that the decision to seize a bank is made by agencies that have considerable autonomy and are intentionally shielded from the political process. Some legislators have raised concerns about providing such powers to the Treasury secretary, a member of the president's Cabinet.
The cost of bank failures is carried by the industry, which pays assessments to the FDIC. The Treasury said it has not yet determined how to pay for takeovers under the proposed system. Possibilities include dunning taxpayers or collecting fees from all institutions the government considers possible candidates for seizure.
FDIC chairman Sheila C. Bair issued a statement that expressed support for an expansion of her agency's responsibilities.
"Due to the FDIC's extensive experience with resolving failed institutions and the cyclical nature of resolution work, it would make sense on many levels for the FDIC to be given this authority working in close cooperation with the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board of Governors," Bair said.
The administration also wants to expand oversight of a broad category of unregulated investment firms including hedge funds, private-equity funds and venture capital funds, by requiring larger companies to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Firms also would have to provide financial information to help determine whether they are large enough to warrant additional regulation.
Hedge funds were designed to offer high-risk investment strategies to wealthy investors, but their role quickly grew from one on the fringe of the system to a place near the center. Some government officials have sought increased regulation of the industry since the 1998 collapse of Long-Term Capital Management threatened the stability of the financial system.
Geithner also plans to call for the SEC to impose tougher standards on money-market mutual funds, investment accounts that appeal to investors by aping the features of checking accounts while offering higher interest rates. He will not make specific suggestions.
SEC chairman Mary Schapiro plans to testify today that the SEC supports both proposals.
The administration's broad determination to regulate the totality of the financial markets also includes a plan to regulate the vast trade in derivatives, complex financial instruments that take their value from the performance of some other asset. Derivatives have become a basic tool of the financial markets, but trading in many variants is not regulated. Credit-default swaps, a major category of unregulated derivatives, played a major role in the collapse of AIG.
Geithner plans to call for the entire industry to be placed under strict regulation, including supervision of dealers in derivatives, mandatory use of central clearinghouses to process trades and uniform trading rules to ensure an orderly marketplace.
The Fed already is moving to improve the plumbing of the financial system, including of the derivatives trade. The administration wants to expand and formalize these efforts.
Senior government officials view these highly technical arrangements as critical to the restoration of a healthy financial system.
Staff writer Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.