WASHINGTON - A month after enactment of financial reform, regulators and industry officials are grappling with the legal details and divergent predictions about exactly how it will change the delivery of banking, securities, and insurance services.
The uncertainty that has followed initial jubilation over passage of the long-sought law was borne out Wednesday at a Women in Housing and Finance symposium on ramifications for corporate structures, regulation, and consumer privacy. Nearly 200 industry insiders disagreed over how soon the 400-plus-page law will spark more megamergers, who would buy whom, and whether financial services companies face more federal red tape or less.
Former Comptroller of the Currency Eugene A. Ludwig, now vice chairman of Deutsche Bank, predicted rapid consolidation, saying 12 financial companies will control 85% of the world's private-sector financial services assets within 20 years.
"The year 2000 will be the year that the bank/insurance company merger wave begins in earnest, a wave that will continue for some time," Mr. Ludwig said in prepared remarks. Several "blockbuster" mergers will also occur among banks next year, he said.
Mr. Ludwig, who acknowledged he was sticking his neck out, also forecast a quick expansion of equity investing. "Banks will take equity positions, and in many cases, majority positions in all manner of companies from technology to toothpaste," he said.
But some company executives said they will tread cautiously before leaping into big deals or rapidly restructuring - especially until rules implementing the new law start surfacing in March.
"We can take our time," said Barbara Shycoff, vice president of government affairs at American Express Co. "We can wait to see how some of the regulators interpret some of these provisions."
Federal Reserve Board Governor Laurence H. Meyer said the central bank, which will supervise the financial holding companies established by the law, faces challenges setting up the new oversight framework.
Under the law, state and federal agencies are supposed to regulate by function - the Securities and Exchange Commission will oversee securities activities, for example, and state insurance commissioners will supervise insurance operations - with little interference from the Fed.
The Fed is supposed to focus on the risk management and capital adequacy of the holding company and make sure banking affiliates are safe from the activities of sister nonbanks.
Mr. Meyer conceded that this structure will be difficult. "The implicit tensions among the regulators are a fact of life," he said during a luncheon speech. "Goodwill and cooperation are required if we are to carry out the law."
Yet Mr. Meyer complained about limits on the Fed's sources of data to make sure bank affiliates are safe. The law restricts the Fed to public information and reports from functional regulators "to the fullest extent possible." But Mr. Meyer said the central bank and front-line bank regulators must share more information and may need to participate in one another's exam teams.
That proposal raised red flags at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. "We are very concerned that unnecessary burdens aren't heaped on our banks," an OCC spokesman said. He said he would make no further comment until agency officials review Mr. Meyer's proposals.
Despite the many unanswered questions, Sarah A. Miller, director of the Center for Securities, Trusts, and Investments at the American Bankers Association, said banks are eager to take advantage three new powers granted them in the law: mutual fund underwriting and distribution, municipal bond underwriting, and merchant banking.