WASHINGTON It took a few hours for lawmakers to ask the perennial question to Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen that is apparently required for every regulator testifying on Capitol Hill: Did the Dodd-Frank Act end "too big to fail"?
Yellen's answer in a word "hopefully" was in keeping with what her predecessor Ben Bernanke said in the past.
"We have a broad program that's designed to deal with 'too big to fail.' It's the Dodd-Frank program," said Yellen, who appeared before the House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday to testify on the Fed's semiannual monetary policy report to Congress. "I'm very hopeful that this is going to effectively deal with it. We will monitor as we go forward if more needs to be done."
During his final press conference, Bernanke left the door ajar that further regulations could be needed in order to keep the financial system safe.
"Whether more needs to be done I leave that as an open question," said Bernanke. "I think we will be working on this for some time."
Regulators have consistently described financial reform as a moving target, and a job that will never quite be completed. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew summed it up late last year by saying that regulators will definitively show that "too big to fail" is over when another financial crisis occurs. But he added one caveat.
"There is no precise point at which you can prove with certainty that we have done enough," said Lew, in a December 5 speech. "If, in the future, we need to take further action, we will not hesitate."
Top Fed officials, including Bernanke, have approached the issue of "too big to fail" in a two-fold manner by insisting that the current reform process be allowed an opportunity to be completed and by showing a willingness to do more if problems remain unsolved.
U.S. regulators spent last year trying to expedite completing a number of critical rules such as finishing tougher capital requirements under Basel III, proposing a requirement to strengthen the types of liquid assets banks would have to hold to absorb shocks during times of crisis, and finalizing a rule that prohibits banks from making risky trades with taxpayer money. But more work remains.
One outstanding and critical piece of the reform process looks poised to be finalized next week. The Fed announced plans on Tuesday to hold a public board meeting on Feb. 17 to release a final rule that sets capital and liquidity standards for banks that hold $50 billion or more in assets as well as foreign institutions operating in the U.S.
During her testimony, Yellen echoed Fed Gov. Daniel Tarullo's guidance from last week's committee hearing by saying regulators were also nearing completion of a heightened leverage ratio requirement that would apply to the eight largest U.S. banks, such as JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp.