WASHINGTON — Three high-level bank regulators on Thursday reflected on a year’s worth of work implementing the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, expressing satisfaction with their accomplishments so far, disappointment that U.S. institutions have not taken full advantage of the new law, and abiding frustration with Congress for handing them a sometimes impossible task.

Federal Reserve Board Governor Laurence H. Meyer, Fed General Counsel J. Virgil Mattingly Jr., and Comptroller of the Currency John D. Hawke Jr. were among the speakers at a conference here, sponsored by the American Law Institute-American Bar Association, on the aftermath of the 1999 financial services reform law.

In the keynote address Mr. Meyer said that regulators have come a long way toward full implementation of the law, but added, “In keeping with the complexity of both the legislation and the issues, much remains to do.”

Mr. Meyer spoke candidly about his agency’s difficulty in developing capital standards for merchant banking, a power available to institutions that opt to become financial holding companies under the law.

The initial proposal provoked howls of protest from the industry, with bankers claiming that the Fed had grossly overestimated the amount of capital necessary for merchant banking investments. A second proposal, released last month, got a more civil reception.

The development of the capital proposal was “a case study in the benefits of the public comment system,” Mr. Meyer said. “Public comments led us to fundamentally review our approach.”

But not all elements of the new law resulted in satisfying rulemaking experiences.

A recurrent theme at the conference was that issues only indirectly related to the restructuring of the financial services industry had taken up a tremendous amount of time and effort on the part of the regulators. Chief among them were consumer privacy requirements and the law’s “CRA sunshine” provision, which requires extensive reporting of Community Reinvestment Act-related loans or grants by banks to community groups.

Calling the sunshine provision “one of the more difficult assignments the [law] handed to the banking agencies,” Mr. Meyer said “the difficulty is that the legislation is quite specific in places and … ambiguous if not conflicting in others.”

The speakers also debated the apparent lack of interest in many of the new powers that the law made available to financial institutions. While nearly 500 institutions have opted for financial holding company status, very few have used the law to move into previously prohibited areas such as insurance underwriting.

To date, only two nonbank institutions in the United States — the brokerage Charles Schwab & Co. and MetLife Inc. — have elected to buy banks and become financial holding companies. So far, the only large banks to take advantage of their new ability to buy securities firms are based overseas.

“Having accomplished so much in the legislation, one must be disappointed in the extent to which it has been used to engage in new activities,” Mr. Hawke said.

Responding to critics who blame the Fed, Mr. Meyer said he doubted that the fear of burdensome regulation by the central bank has prevented many nonbank institutions from applying for financial holding company status or swayed existing financial holding companies not to move into the insurance market.

However, he added, “I continue to believe that the modest pace of financial restructuring can be explained by institutions’ taking the time to choose the businesses, markets, and structures that best fit their individual strategies.”


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