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Monday, March 31, 2008

White House: Wall Street overhaul

Plan to move more oversight to the Federal Reserve

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration Monday proposed the most far-ranging overhaul of the financial regulatory system since the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression.

The plan would change how the government regulates thousands of businesses from the nation’s biggest banks and investment houses down to the local insurance agent and mortgage broker.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson unveiled the 218-page plan in a speech in Treasury’s ornate Cash Room, declaring, “A strong financial system is vitally important — not for Wall Street, not for bankers, but for working Americans.”

The administration’s plan drew criticism, however, from Democrats who said it did not go far enough to deal with abuses in mortgage lending and securities trading that were exposed by the current credit crisis. Some state officials criticized what they saw as unwanted federal intrusion on their turf.

Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin blasted Paulson’s approach as “a disastrous backward step that would put the investor in jeopardy” because it would pre-empt state regulation of securities and insurance.

The administration said that it planned to work with Congress to have constructive conversations, but officials would not predict when any aspects of the proposal could be enacted into law.

Asked if Bush’s goal was to get the overhaul approved before he leaves office, presidential press secretary Dana Perino told reporters aboard Air Force One, “We’ll have to see. It is a big attempt.”

The plan, which would require congressional approval for its biggest changes, seeks to trim a hodge-podge collection of overlapping jurisdictions that date back to the Civil War.

It would give the Federal Reserve more power to protect the stability of the entire financial system while merging day-to-day bank supervision into one agency, down from five at present.

It also would create one super agency in charge of business conduct and consumer protection, performing many of the functions of the current Securities and Exchange Commission.

It would propose eliminating the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, merging their functions into other agencies.

It would ask Congress to establish a federal Mortgage Origination Commission to set recommended minimum licensing standards for mortgage brokers, many of whom now operate outside of federal regulation, and it would also take a first step toward federal regulation of the insurance industry by asking Congress to establish an Office of Insurance Oversight inside the Treasury Department.

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