FSOC Makes Cautious First Move on Asset Managers

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WASHINGTON — The Financial Stability Oversight Council put a careful foot forward Thursday on the path of designating the asset management industry as a potential economic threat.

The council, which has authority to subject nonbank firms that are deemed "systemically important" to tough supervision, asked for public comment on four aspects of the asset management industry that regulators say may pose a risk to the broader economy. They include liquidity and redemption, leverage, operational functions and resolution.

But perhaps signaling the council's sensitivity to criticism of including asset managers in the "systemically important" club — including from one of the FSOC's members — Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the panel was still far from making a final decision on its approach. Feedback from the industry will inform future steps dealing with the $3.9 trillion industry, he said.

"There are no predetermined outcomes here," said Lew, who serves as chairman of the council, at an open meeting. "This request for comment is one step in our process and our work will not end there." (The comment period will last 60 days from when the notice is published in the Federal Register.)

Indeed, it is still unclear how far the council plans to go in assessing risks from asset managers, and whether the panel will actually target individual firms. The move followed an earlier report by the Office of Financial Research — an arm of FSOC — that had suggested asset managers posed an economic threat, which sparked significant pushback from industry groups and lawmakers.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, the industry's primary regulator, also questioned the FSOC's overseeing asset managers. Skeptics of designating specific asset management firms as "systemically important financial" institutions said focusing on specific practices in the industry would be a better approach. Under the Dodd-Frank Act, the SIFI label results in the institution being supervised by the Federal Reserve Board.

From all signs, critics of the OFR report were supportive of the comment notice Thursday. SEC Chair Mary Jo White said the request for comment would serve as a "strong complement" to the commission's ongoing supervision of the industry.

"It is a constantly evolving space, creating new challenges and risks," White said. "While our objective in taking these initiatives is a direct privilege of the SEC's overarching initiative to protect investors and markets, the measures we take will necessarily also have an impact on the financial system as a whole. Systemic risks, where they exist, by definition obviously would not be addressed by any one agency alone."

Meanwhile, in a statement, Financial Services Roundtable chief executive Tim Pawlenty said the group supported the council's move to seek industry input.

"This request is a positive step in the right direction and the industry stands ready to work with regulators to provide input," Pawlenty said in a press release. "We hope that FSOC officials will seriously consider applying this same approach to other aspects of their work, including FSOC's ongoing review of non-bank institutions that have already been labeled as systemically risky."

Other regulators on the council expressed hope the comment process would help shine a clearer light on industry's risks.

"For my own part, I'm particularly attuned to risk that comes from a buildup of leverage across the financial system," said Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. "I hope the public comment will give the council a better understanding of how and to what extent different investment funds use derivatives to gain leverage, and how risks to such exposures are being managed."

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