Consumer privacy and market consolidation are the hottest topics among government studies ordered up by the House and Senate financial modernization bills.
Federal banking regulators would have six months from the date of enactment to assess whether existing laws that govern the way banks share customer data with affiliates adequately protect consumers.
"The only one with any teeth to it is the study to look at affiliate information sharing," said Karen Shaw Petrou, president of the ISD/Shaw consulting firm here. "It mandates legislative or administrative recommendations."
Actually, about half of the 15 studies required by the House or Senate ask the authors to propose a legislative or regulatory solution.
Under the House bill, the General Accounting Office would have to complete an annual study on market concentration in the financial services industry and its effect on consumers. The GAO is also instructed to study the impact of the bill on financial institutions with assets of $100 million or less.
Because the law would allow banks, securities firms, and insurance companies to merge, the House version asks the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to study the risks new conglomerates pose to the Bank and Savings Association Insurance funds.
Within nine months of enactment, the FDIC would have to look at the adequacy of the funds' reserves in light of the size of newly merged institutions and their geographic concentration levels. The agency is also supposed to lay out a plan to merge the two funds.
Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president for the Independent Community Bankers of America, said this study could lead to an increase in the $100,000 cap on deposit insurance coverage.
"I think this will open the door in the next Congress regarding the whole issue of coverage," Mr. Guenther said.
The House bill would give the Treasury Department two years to examine the effectiveness of the Community Reinvestment Act.
The federal banking agencies would get one year from enactment to deliver recommendations on adjusting their regulations to accommodate the move toward electronic banking.
The Federal Reserve Board would get two years to tote up the total annual costs and benefits of all federal financial regulations and regulatory requirements applicable to banks.
The GAO, however, will do the bulk of the reports.
The watchdog arm of Congress has one year to study the conflict of interest faced by the Fed in regard to its roles as a regulator of the payment system and a competitor.
The GAO also gets 12 months to study the impact of regulations limiting any commissions, fees, markups, or other costs incurred by customers to acquire financial products.
The agency has six months from enactment to determine the feasibility of requiring notices that clearly tell a customer the fee charged for an ATM transaction.
GAO researchers have a year to study the Federal Home Loan Bank System to look at possible revisions to its capital structure.
Finally, the GAO will investigate possible revisions governing S corporations. That six-month study will look at the impact on community banks of changing certain rules, such as increasing the number of allowable shareholders.
The Senate financial reform bill gives the Securities and Exchange Commission six months to produce a report on the advertising practices of on-line brokerage services. The agency must examine whether the promotions improperly influence investors, and whether there is proper disclosure about the risks of trading and investing in capital markets.
Past banking laws have also required a slew of studies.
For example, a 1995 law gave the Treasury one year to scrutinize credit union regulation and suggest improvements. But it was late 1997 before the report was delivered, and it had little effect.
Still, financial services industry consultant Bert Ely said the studies can pave the road for future change.
Mr. Ely said a study "may not have an immediate effect, but it percolates so that at some point down the road, something can happen."