WASHINGTON The Treasury Department seems to be broadening its thinking on ways to streamline the bank and thrift regulatory agencies.
Several sources said Tuesday that Treasury officials are mulling a plan to combine three agencies, and give the Federal Reserve Board regulation of the 20 largest banking companies. The plan would merge the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Office of Thrift Supervision, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency into one super-regulator that would oversee the rest of the industry.
Treasury Secretary Paul ONeill discussed the idea in a meeting last week with Comptroller John D. Hawke Jr., sources said. While Mr. Hawke was pitching his own proposal to use the deposit insurance funds to cover the cost supervising national and state-chartered banks, Mr. ONeill asked if it made more sense to combine three federal agencies and give the Fed oversight of the larger banks.
He raised a few different ideas for streamlining regulation and did not appear to be laying out a specific plan, sources said. But they said he seemed intrigued by the merger proposals.
A Treasury Department spokesman on Tuesday did not dispute the account of Mr. ONeills comments, but insisted that the agency is not considering such a plan.
There is absolutely zero proposal of this nature being discussed, said Rob Nichols, deputy assistant secretary for public affairs. It has not been kicked around in any way, shape, or form.
Any such proposal would be a new twist in an ongoing battle. For years, various administrations, including the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration, have advocated streamlining the bank and thrift regulators, though no such effort has made much headway.
Sources have said the new Bush administration also wants to streamline. Many observers have assumed this would mean the merger of the OCC and the OTS, both of which are units of Treasury. Mr. ONeills comments appeared to point to something beyond this.
But indications were that the plan was still in its infancy, and that there were several questions still to be resolved. For example, it was unclear if the Fed or FDIC would continue sharing regulation of state-chartered institutions with state regulators.
Industry officials are expected to be skeptical of any proposal to consolidate the three federal agencies.
The OTS, OCC, and FDIC serve important roles, and underscore the strength of our financial system I dont think one regulator would serve that purpose, said Diane Casey, the president and chief executive officer of Americas Community Bankers.
We have not seen any proposals on this from this administration and this Treasury, but agency structure has been addressed by every administration since Ive been here. What each administration ends up learning is to appreciate the charters that exist, and the regulation that accompanies them.
The notion of putting the Fed in charge of regulating the top 20 banking companies will probably be met with strong resistance.
This makes the big guys nervous, said an industry source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. They would be concerned that it would be easier to set them out as targets, but also that they would be more heavily regulated than others, because they are bigger and because they are under the Fed.
In 1993, the Clinton administration proposed merging the banking supervisory activities of the four agencies into a single body, the Federal Banking Commission, and would have left the Fed in charge of monetary policy and kept the FDIC as the insurer. But that idea was met with firm resistance from the Fed. The Fed offered an alternative plan one that sounds similar to the one Mr. ONeill is considering now.
At a congressional hearing in 1994, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan outlined a proposal that would merge the four agencies into two. It called for the merger of the OCC and the OTS into a single agency, and would have stripped the FDIC of all but its insurance responsibilities. The merged agency would have supervised national banks and thrifts, as well as all depository institutions in any banking organization whose lead banks are a national bank or thrift. Under that plan, the Fed would have supervised all state banks.
But the Feds proposal was never taken up, and a bill to merge all the agencies failed.