Senate Banking Chairman Chris Dodd continued to leave observers guessing Wednesday on whether and how he plans to address the subprime market, while turning up the blame on regulators for not restricting standards earlier.
After a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Sen. Dodd insisted he does not "have a bill in mind," but said policymakers must act. "I want to do everything I can to make it possible for people to keep their homes," he said.
Speaking before the same group, House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank said he was open to exempting banks from internal control requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
Bankers have long complained that Section 404 requirements are overly burdensome, but have found little sympathy on Capitol Hill. Rep. Frank said Wednesday that banks were already subject to "comparable" regulations before the Sarbanes-Oxley bill.
"Banks are subjected to in essence a version of this," he said. "It's perfectly sensible to exempt banks from a later version … so that's one change I'm prepared to make, and we will look at others."
Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., introduced legislation this week designed to peel back some of the costs, burdens and competitive hindrances stemming from the Sarbanes-Oxley bill. The legislation would let small public companies with market capitalization of less than $700 million voluntarily exempt themselves from complying with Section 404.
Sen. Dodd told the chamber that he supports the regulators' efforts to improve implementation of the Sarbanes-Oxley law, but did not address Section 404 for banks.
The Connecticut Democrat has left some observers scratching their heads during the past few days about recent comments with regard to a bill on predatory lending. On Tuesday morning he said he had not "made a decision about" whether to press for one, but late that afternoon he released a statement that said the government has an "obligation to protect consumers from abusive lending practices and to work to ensure that Americans who have been victimized by abusive products and practices are able to keep their homes."
"I am considering a number of options, including legislation, to accomplish both of these objectives," he said.
On Wednesday, Sen. Dodd said he had no particular legislative approach.
"And what does that mean? How do you do that? I don't have a specific legislative idea," he said.
After saying Tuesday that he wanted borrowers to "get some forbearance," he emphasized Wednesday he did not favor a bailout.
"We're not talking about bailouts — I don't know where that language came from," he said.
Sen. Dodd said he wants "to make sure we put a stop to the practices that led" to growing subprime delinquencies while making sure not to clamp down unfairly on "legitimate, well-regulated subprime lenders" that "make it possible for an awful lot of people to own a home."
He also offered a better sense of who he thinks is at fault: the regulators.
Over the last decade predatory lenders let borrowers qualify for loans they could not afford while the regulators sat back and watched, Sen. Dodd said.
"I've been the chairman of this committee for about a month, and this has been a problem that has been growing since the late 1990s. It didn't happen last week or something," he said. The regulators "bear some responsibility responding to how we got to this point."
He also said he intends to examine the issue further at a hearing with regulators before the Banking Committee — a date for which has not been set.
"It's the abusive predatory lender that's been operating in that area that has caused the problems here. People who are literally lending money to people without ever determining whether or not the borrower can meet their obligations. That is what's made me angry here — that the regulators apparently have been not doing as good a job as I think they should have been doing," he said.
In an interview on Bloomberg Television on Wednesday, Sen. Dodd added, "Those who have taken advantage of the situation have been allowed to operate because regulators have not been good cops on the street."