WASHINGTON Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke said Thursday it would take U.S. regulators at least another year to advance their ongoing efforts to "end too big to fail."
In his second appearance this week on Capitol Hill to update lawmakers on the state of the U.S. economy, Bernanke hedged his bets on how long it would take to implement the Dodd-Frank reform law. Instead, he seemed to seek some breathing room for U.S. regulators before lawmakers attempted to further toughen the law.
"I don't know about timing," said Bernanke, before the Senate Banking Committee, suggesting it might "take another year from now."
His forecast differed from Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew's, who said Wednesday during an interview with CNBC that "much of our remaining work will be completed in the next five months. Let me repeat: by the end of this year, the core elements of the Dodd-Frank Act will be substantially in place."
Ahead of the third anniversary of the Dodd-Frank law, Lew said progress by regulators going forward will be measured in "weeks and months, not in years."
The Treasury Secretary's remarks upped the pressure on other regulators, who have spent the last three years writing rules on complex subjects like the Volcker Rule, especially when he said: "If we get to the end of this year and we cannot, with an honest, straight face, say that we have ended 'too big to fail,' we are going to have to look at other options."
However, Bernanke's longer-term view seemed to temper how expeditiously some senators felt they needed to act to address their concerns.
"At least we now have some time on this," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who recently introduced a bill with three other senators that would effectively reinstate a Depression-era law that separated the investment and commercial sides of U.S. banks. "[The] secretary of Treasury says by the end of the year, you say maybe a year longer. We're going to keep this one under examination."
The bill is intended to address the 'too big to fail' problem by making megabanks smaller and safer and minimizing the likelihood of a government bailout. Other bills have been introduced to limit the risk of a government bailout of a systemically important financial institution that gets into trouble.
Bernanke and Lew have previously tried to persuade lawmakers to see the process through before drawing the conclusion the reform effort had fallen short. Both have also expressed willingness to revisit the issue once the rules had been finalized.
"We obviously want to look at all the tools, and I think there is probably more scope for capital, if we're not comfortable with the status of these firms," Bernanke said.
In June the Fed chairman said he expects the pace of Dodd-Frank implementation to proceed "rapidly" in the coming months.
Regulators plan to finish the Volcker Rule, which bans banks from proprietary trading and restricts investments in private-equity funds, by yearend. The same goes for the simplified mortgage disclosure rules, capital and margin rules for derivatives and prudential standards for banks and nonbank firms designated by the Financial Stability Oversight Council.
Lew said a lot of work has been done already, especially in the last 60 days, calling it "one of the most active periods of implementation."
Banking regulators have finalized capital rules and proposed a new leverage ratio. The Securities and Exchange Commission is nearing new rules to reform money market mutual funds, while the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has moved ahead with how derivatives rules will be applied internationally. The Financial Stability Oversight Council also designated American International Group and GE Capital as the first two nonbank systemically important firms.
Bernanke said U.S. regulators would also continue to move ahead with additional capital rules even if they surpassed the steps global counterparts were taking to ensure the financial stability of the system.
"The other countries may or may not follow, some will. But whether they do or not, I do agree we should do whatever we need to do to make sure the U.S. financial system is safe."
The Fed is planning to issue a number of capital rules in the coming months that will either enhance the Basel III package, such as capital surcharges, as well as additional requirements to mitigate risks associated with short-term wholesale funding and require banks to hold unsecured long-term debt to facilitate resolution in the event of a failure.
"We are in a variety of ways trying to build up the buffer that these large banks have," Bernanke said.