WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on Tuesday attempted to reassure Republican lawmakers who worry that tough new regulations in this country will put U.S. banks at a disadvantage and that taxpayers will need to bail out struggling European nations.
GOP lawmakers have said that heavy new regulations for U.S. banks — highlighted by the Dodd-Frank Act — could benefit banks in countries with lighter regulation. Another fear is the potential for European debt issues to have spillover effects on U.S. banks and taxpayers.
At a hearing with members of the House Financial Services Committee, lawmakers said Europe's burdens should not fall on the U.S. financial sector.
"Yes, we're concerned about Europe. Yes, we're concerned about their crisis. We want to assist them in any way we can. But the financial burden should not fall back on this country to resolve their problems over there," said Rep. Gary Miller, R-Calif.
Miller cited the Volcker Rule, a Dodd-Frank provision that curbs trading at U.S. banks, as an example of how foreign institutions whose governments shy from such rules could have a leg up.
"If we're ever going to get out of the situation we're in today, and we're moving slowly in recovery, we cannot put the financial services sector at a disadvantage," Miller said. "And I believe the Volcker Rule will do exactly that."
The rule, named after former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, will ban banks' proprietary trading and limit their investments in private-equity funds and hedge funds. The bank regulators' proposal for implementing the provision has been widely criticized as too complex and burdensome.
Geithner stressed that regulators are mindful of concerns raised about the regulatory burdens posed by Dodd-Frank.
"We're a careful people, and we're going to look at all the concerns expressed by these rules," Geithner said. "It is my view that we have the capacity to address those concerns. It's very important we do that."
Meanwhile, Geithner downplayed concerns among foreign nations that the Volcker Rule could harm their liquidity.
While banks could still hold U.S. Treasury bonds under the new regulation, the proposal would ban their holding foreign sovereign debt.
"I do not believe that despite the concerns expressed by governments and central banks that the rule as drafted presents a meaningful risk to liquidity or credit in those countries," Geithner said.
The statute, Geithner explained, is structured in a way to provide exemptions for certain market-making and hedging activities. But "when you design exemptions you've got to make sure … they don't swallow the rule," he said.
Still, Geithner said it would be better if other nations were on par with the U.S in setting reforms. He pointed to U.S. regulators' progress on rules regulating the derivatives market, which has sped past efforts by others.
"We are really a long way ahead of Europe in designing that basic framework for oversight transparency of derivatives markets, and the fact that they're behind us creates a bit of problem because we want to be converged to the basically similar standards," Geithner said.
He acknowledged regulators have been slow to meet deadlines for Dodd-Frank rulemakings. But he said one of the hardest jobs regulators have faced in implementing reforms is harmonizing them with foreign regimes.
"We're concerned about it, too, and we want to make sure that we bring" others nations "along so we don't put U.S. markets at a disadvantage and have the risks shift," Geithner said.
Still, he said the gulf between U.S. and European regulators is not as vast as some believe. The gap has closed substantially since the financial crisis with progress on capital and liquidity requirements.
"It's not quite right to say that the Europeans aren't adapting a similar basic framework. They've got different systems," said Geithner.
On Europe's ongoing sovereign debt crisis, lawmakers pressed Geithner on whether the U.S. would move ahead in providing additional funding to the International Monetary Fund to aid struggling countries like Greece.
While lawmakers seemed slightly encouraged by the fact that the administration had no such plans, they were still worried the administration could bypass Congress and take such action.
"Do you have legal authority outside of coming to Congress to increase the IMF contribution?" said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.
Geithner sought to negate that possibility almost immediately.
"We cannot loan money to the IMF without coming to Congress to authorize that increased contribution," he said.