Obama administration seeks a single regulator for banks

The Obama administration may soon propose creating a single government overseer for the nation's banks. The plan is to consolidate the patchwork of regulators of the financial markets and institutions, so to avoid the kinds of risky practices that brought the economy to its knees.

Right now, responsibility for monitoring the banking industry is split between the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department's Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and Office of Thrift Supervision. Markets are overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. And insurance companies aren't regulated by the federal government. But all that may be changing soon.

The Wall Street Journal this morning reported that a single banking regulator "is expected to be a major plank" in a plan to overhaul financial oversight that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and other administration officials will unveil in the coming weeks.

In addition to the new bank regulator, the plan could also grant the FDIC new powers to seize big financial institutions that aren't banks, position the Fed as the watchdog of "systemic risk" in the economy, and create a new agency to oversee financial products marketed to consumers, the Journal reported.

Some of these changes have been on regulators' wish lists for some time. For example, both Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair have publicly advocated for an agency empowered to "resolve" big financial companies, much like the FDIC does with banks most Fridays.

But any reorganization will involve taking some powers away from existing regulators -- or eliminating them entirely -- and that could set off a turf war.

And Congress must still weigh in. Sen. Christopher Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who leads the Senate committee that oversees the financial industry, has said he's wary of giving the Fed more authority to regulate risk. Rep. Barney Frank, the Democratic chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, dismissed a single regulator in a CNBC interview today, according to Bloomberg News.

When the White House plan finally arrives, the fighting will likely already have begun.
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