Analysis: Federal Reserve, facing gains and losses in authority, wants it all

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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WASHINGTON - The Federal Reserve, the nation's central bank, is having a political Goldilocks moment.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, a former academic who doesn't present himself as a power grabber, wants a more powerful, stronger Fed. He wants it to have responsibility to catch and control financial institutions whose behaviour could cause a run on the entire financial system. And he wants to protect the Fed against efforts by the Obama administration to strip it of its consumer protection functions.
Some members of Congress want a leaner, smaller Fed. In a perfect example of where the political spectrum is sometimes a full circle, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans believe the central bank has enough to do watching over monetary policy - that is, controlling the money supply and setting bank lending interest rates that help support the economy and that act as a thermostat against inflation.
The Obama administration has a split view. It would increase the Fed's authority by giving it the job of supervising large, interconnected institutions that are so financially significant they can bring down the entire system. But Obama's economic team would create a separate consumer financial protection agency that would regulate mortgage lending and credit cards - banking activities now overseen by the Fed.
In Obama's eyes, that's not too big, not too small; it's just right.
In marked contrast to its approach on health care, the Obama administration has been decidedly prescriptive when it comes to financial regulations. It has sent Congress detailed legislative language on its proposals and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has appeared before House and Senate committees time and again to make the administration's case.
Congress is not ready to simply sign off, however.
Sen. Chris Dodd, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, is not so sure he wants to add to the Fed's powers.
"I just worry about having solely the Fed do it," Dodd, D-Conn., said. "I worry about the monetary function and the systemic risk function clashing, and which one trumps the other."
Dodd supports the idea of a separate consumer agency, but he concedes that creating it could be the most difficult task facing Congress when it comes to passing the regulatory overhaul that the administration has proposed.
In the House, Financial Services committee chairman Barney Frank also wants a separate consumer agency. But banks are fiercely opposed and even Democrats on his committee say a separate bureaucracy might not be necessary.
"The populist backlash is aimed at Wall Street, not at the Main Street banks," said Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Colorado Democrat who said he's not sure he would support a new agency.
Under Obama's proposal , a five-member agency would be on the watch for deceptive practices in credit cards, mortgages and other transactions now overseen by the Fed and other federal agencies. It could restrict bank practices such as ballooning mortgages, excessive credit card interest rates and surprise overdraft fees.
Republicans have confronted a populist idea with a populist argument, casting the president's proposal as anti-consumer.
"They will be empowered to decide which credit cards we can receive, which home mortgages we are permitted to possess, and even whether we can access an ATM machine," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a senior Republican on the House Financial Services Committee.
House Republicans have offered an alternative that would strip the Fed of its regulatory role. They would create a single regulator for depository institutions, which would include an office focused on consumer protections. Unlike the administration's plan, the GOP-envisioned regulator would have no authority over nonbank institutions, such as mortgage brokers.
For Bernanke, his attempt to retain consumer protection authorities with the Fed is a bit ticklish. He's opposing an Obama proposal just months before Obama must decide whether to renominate him as Fed chairman.
In defending the Fed, Bernanke has been cautious, acknowledging this week that the Fed "did not do all it should have at certain times in the past."
He added: "I'm simply saying that, from the Federal Reserve's perspective, we believe that we can continue to do good work in this area."
In a hearing Friday, Geithner was asked how to square the administration's call for a new agency and the Bernanke's plea to retain consumer protection authority.
"I think that inherent in your job is to think about how to make those choices," he told lawmakers bluntly.
Much of the congressional antipathy toward the Fed is based on a belief that it did not anticipate the financial crisis. But Fed officials and Fed watchers reject that argument, noting that the institutions that failed or nearly failed - American International Group, Bear Stearns, Lehman Bros., Merrill Lynch or Countrywide - were not supervised by the Fed.
"In a very real sense it wasn't anybody's job in supervisory authority to catch this crisis - because it wasn't anyone's job to be looking at the big picture," said John Deary, a former official with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Asked recently what would be more difficult, expanding the Fed's powers or taking away its consumer protection functions, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said creating a separate consumer agency was tougher politically.
That could mean the Fed could get what it wants.
12:51ET 26-07-09

Organizations: Federal Reserve, Democrats, Republicans Senate Banking Committee House Financial Services Committee American International Group Bear Stearns Lehman Bros. Merrill Lynch Federal Reserve Bank of New York

Geographic location: WASHINGTON

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