WASHINGTON — No doubt it is the Obama administration that will today unveil plans for a new era of regulatory oversight, but that blueprint is essentially the Federal Reserve Board's wish list.
The plan would hand the central bank power to oversee systemically important firms while consulting a council that has no authority. The Fed would police all holding companies, including former thrift holding companies and industrial loan companies — a goal it has pursued for well over a decade.
The Fed would get the primary role in setting capital standards, and realize a long-sought objective of banning commercial companies from owning a bank by the elimination of the ILC charter.
But some observers questioned the wisdom of vesting so much power in the Fed.
"In the current crisis, where was the Fed?" said Allan Meltzer, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a Fed historian. "Were they ignorant of what was going on? They have people in Citi all the time. Were they able to prevent them from doing anything? No."
Though the Fed did not write the administration's plan, its authors clearly understand the central bank's desires.
Larry Summers, the chairman of the White House's National Economic Council and a former Treasury secretary, is widely viewed as a successor to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, whose term ends in January, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner joined the administration after running the New York Fed.
"This does nothing to dispel the assumption that Larry Summers wants to go to the Fed," said Cornelius Hurley, a former Fed lawyer who is now the director of the Morin Center for Banking and Financial Law at the Boston University School of Law.
Summers did not respond to requests for comment.
Count lawmakers among the skeptics as well.
"We have resisted creating an all-powerful central bank to this point," Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a member of the Banking Committee, said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "An old African proverb says that when elephants dance, the grass gets trampled. We've got a trampled-grass problem now. I don't think we can solve it with bigger elephants — whether they are regulators or institutions."
The Fed's credibility is likely to be challenged on at least two fronts. First, during the eight years that regulators haggled over the Basel II capital rule, the Fed consistently fought against keeping the leverage ratio. Without that ratio, the banking system would have had even less capital heading into the financial crisis.
Even the final Basel II rules, which the Fed took the lead in writing, are seen as fundamentally flawed. They rely on banks' internal models and on credit rating agencies in setting risk-based capital standards — two areas that have lost credibility in the wake of the crisis. But under the administration's plan, the Fed would have more power over capital standards.
"Having the Fed set capital standards is the irony of ironies given the Basel II debacle," said William Isaac, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
The Fed has also earned a black eye for a perceived lack of oversight at the holding company level before the financial crisis. Some are worried at the prospect of giving the Fed more oversight of these entities.
"Every bank that's failed has been part of a holding company structure," said John Douglas, a former general counsel at the FDIC who is now a partner at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP. "It's not like the Fed has been sitting on the outside and not having at least some responsibility."
The administration's plan does call for the creation of a systemic risk council to advise the Fed in its oversight of systemically important firms. However, the council appears to have no teeth; the Fed could override any of its recommendations.
The only cost for its new powers appears to be the Fed's role in consumer protection, one many believe the central bank placed little value on before the crisis struck. "They're happy to do that," Meltzer said. "It's probably a blessing for them."