WASHINGTON Spurred by statutory deadlines and political considerations, federal bank regulators are rushing to complete a handful of major regulations before the Clinton Administration leaves town Jan. 20.
There is always the end-of-year effort to clean things up, said Karen Petrou, president of the ISD/Shaw Inc. consulting firm here. The effort is magnified this year because it is also the end of a presidential administration and many of these bureaucrats may not have jobs a few weeks or months from now regardless of who wins the disputed election.
Furthermore, regulators usually try to save their most sensitive work for the last few months of the year, after lawmakers adjourn and cannot hold hearings or raise objections. But Congress stayed in session this year far longer than expected.
There is a backlog of controversial regulatory issues, Ms. Petrou said. The agencies were waiting for Congress to go out, and they never did.
The issues include new Community Reinvestment Act reporting requirements, expanded powers for financial holding companies, merchant banking rules, and a study of subordinated debt as a form of market-oriented supervision.
Topping the list of regulations likely to be completed by yearend is the long-awaited rule detailing how banks and community groups must report the terms of certain CRA agreements.
Gary Gensler, under secretary for domestic finance at the Treasury Department, said in a recent interview that regulators are extremely close to unveiling the rule enforcing the so-called CRA sunshine amendment to the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999.
Agency sources said the regulation could be issued as early as mid-December by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Federal Reserve Board, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and Office of Thrift Supervision. The four agencies are jointly writing the rule, which is seven months overdue.
The provision was part of a controversial compromise to ensure Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramms support of the financial reform enacted in November 1999. It requires banks and community groups to publicly disclose the terms of written CRA-related contracts for cash payments or grants exceeding $10,000 a year and loans valued at more than $50,000 a year. Also, banks have to file annual reports on these agreements, and community groups must detail each year how they used the funds.
Though regulators have been mum about the details, Fed Governor Edward M. Gramlich told community groups recently that they would be happy with most but not all of the rule, according to Matthew Lee, executive director of Inner City Press/Community on the Move, a Bronx-based community group.
Mr. Lee and other community activists speculated that Mr. Gramlichs comment meant the regulation would only trigger the reporting requirement for agreements made with community groups that have formally protested bank mergers.
That would create a pariah group of organizations that have protested, Mr. Lee said. If only groups that protest are covered by this, it creates an incentive not to comment.
The Treasury and the Fed are also expected shortly to propose expanded powers under Gramm-Leach-Bliley.
The agencies plan to open for public comment a request by the American Bankers Association and Financial Services Roundtable that financial holding companies be given permission to act as real estate brokers and managers, industry representatives said. A final rule letting financial holding companies act as independent finders who link buyers and sellers of products also is expected soon.
Also as required by Gramm-Leach-Bliley, the agencies will seek comment on three sets of powers: conducting certain transactions for third parties such as investing or safeguarding assets, providing the means for transferring money or assets, and facilitating financial transactions for the account of a third party.
Further, the Treasury and Fed are expected to outline the process they will use to approve more new powers in the future. Under the reform law, each agency can approve an activity as financial in nature or incidental to financial powers, but each is subject to a veto from the other. Treasury officials said the goal is to make the process as collaborative as possible.
Mr. Gensler said a joint regulation by the Fed and Treasury that will spell out Gramm-Leach-Blileys limits on merchant banking activities such as the maximum holding periods on investments and restrictions on day-to-day management and the Feds capital proposal for these activities also are on the fast track. He would not discuss details, but Fed officials have said they plan to revise their capital plan, which industry officials had said was too harsh.
Mr. Gensler also said a study on the value of subordinated debt is nearing release. The study was mandated by the financial reform bill last year to look at whether subordinated debt would be a useful tool for the market discipline of banks or if it could serve as a signal to bank regulators.
Though regulators are expected to move quickly on these initiatives, other rules are likely to be approved but not until next year.
Bank and thrift regulators are required to clarify provisions of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which says that institutions sharing certain consumer information with affiliates must send opt-out forms to their customers. Regulators will have to move somewhat quickly so that the final version does not conflict with privacy notices required by the reform bill that are to be mailed out before next July.
Similarly, a plan to simplify capital requirements for community banks is expected to be approved next year, but the proposal is still in its early stages. Though the plan would affect most banks, analysts said that it is not an immediate priority.
It is not a pressing issue, but unless somebody stands up and expresses strong reservations about it, I would think it would happen sometime next year, said Bert Ely, an independent financial consultant in Alexandria, Va.
With the presidential race still uncertain and the fate of agency leaders unclear, many other regulatory initiatives are in doubt.
The fate of deposit insurance reform, for example, probably hangs in the balance. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Donna Tanoue is widely considered the leader on this issue, and she will probably not be renominated if Gov. Bush wins the presidency. Many analysts think the plan might advance but could turn out very differently if a new chairman is in charge.