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Regulators report on efforts to put financial overhaul in place

By Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 10:44 PM

Only a year ago, members of the Senate banking committee were in the midst of hashing out a far-reaching bill to overhaul the nation's financial regulation. Chairman Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) spoke often and with urgency to his divided committee about the need to move quickly in the wake of the most crushing financial crisis in generations.

Much can change in a year.

On Thursday morning, banking committee members gathered again in 538 Dirksen. With Dodd retired from the Senate, a new chairman sat in his place, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.). The so-called Dodd-Frank bill was now law.

Some of the nation's top banking regulators had come to update the panel on their progress in implementing the law's many provisions, underscoring just how complex and time-consuming it will be to put them all into practice.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke told lawmakers that his agency has 300 staff members working on rulemaking and studies, some of which will unfold over months and possibly years. A top priority for the Fed, he said, is setting more stringent prudential standards for all larger banking organizations and for non-bank firms designated by the Financial Stability Oversight Council. The council was established under Dodd-Frank to monitor threats to the nation's financial system.

Next came Sheila C. Bair, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. chairman, who said the agency has been hard at work strengthening the deposit insurance fund and using its newfound power to seize and wind down large, failing financial firms.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, led by Mary Schapiro, and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, headed by Gary Gensler, are wrestling with how best to bring transparency and oversight to the vast "over-the-counter" financial derivatives and swaps markets.

Schapiro and Gensler told the panel that budget pressures are hampering their efforts.

Schapiro said the SEC has had to restrict hiring, cut travel and put technology updates on hold. "And that's having an impact on our ability . . . to achieve our core mission as effectively as we could," she said.

Gensler said the trading commission needs to expand to be able to manage its mission. The agency's technology budget, $31 million, is likely to be cut 45 percent, he said. "We're cutting travel and all the other things to be efficient," he said, "but technology is the key to move forward."

John Walsh, acting head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, made clear that the agency is busy absorbing the Office of Thrift Supervision, as mandated by the new law.

Johnson said Thursday's hearing marked the first in a series to examine elements of Dodd-Frank, an effort that he said "will seek to ensure that the letter and the spirit of the new law are being implemented," that the public has a voice in how the rules are shaped and that regulators have the resources to enforce the bill's many provisions.

But the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), who opposed the bill last year along with most other Republicans, remained largely skeptical.

"While the political forces that drove the passage of Dodd-Frank have waned, the huge costs of the act are now becoming very clear," he said. "For lobbyists, lawyers and government bureaucrats, Dodd-Frank is proving to be a gold mine. For the rest of us, however, it means more red tape, more government, fewer choices and higher fees."

Also on Thursday, Walsh told the banking committee that regulators are preparing to sanction some of the 14 largest federally regulated banks for "critical deficiencies and shortcomings" in foreclosure procedures.

Walsh said a multi-agency task force had finished its review of the banks and had found violations of state and local foreclosures laws, regulations and rules.

The group identified a "small number" of foreclosure sales that had been approved improperly, he said. But Walsh said investigators also found that the borrowers who were in foreclosure had been seriously delinquent on loan payments and that servicers had legal standing to foreclose.

He said the federal government is finalizing sanctions and other remedial action against the banks. Those actions are being discussed with the 50 state attorneys general who are separately investigating claims of improper foreclosures.

Walsh said the goal is to establish nationwide requirements for foreclosures and to "comprehensively and finally" resolve "the full range of legal claims arising from the mortgage crisis."

Staff writer Ariana Eunjung Cha contributed to this report.

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