The "Peer Review of the United States" by the international Financial Stability Board has been received with a well-deserved and resounding ho-hum on our side of the ocean. Perhaps some in Washington will be happy to learn that the report issued out of Basel, Switzerland, finds that U.S. financial authorities have made "good overall progress."
In support of that view, the FSB review team cites steps by U.S. regulators to implement recommendations developed by the International Monetary Fund. And here we thought that our regulators should get their cues from Congress. To the FSB, following IMF advice seems to be what matters.
At a more granular level, the FSB team applauds the creation of the Financial Stability Oversight Council to address what team members perceive as "the systemic risk oversight gap in the U.S. regulatory framework." The international members of the team do not much like the overall structure of financial regulation in the U.S., considering it "complex" and "fragmented."
What is more, they really dislike the American system of insurance regulation, describing reform efforts in that regard as "less advanced,", at least when measured against what the IMF recommends. The report complains that "significant additional work is required to fully address" IMF recommendations. The team members identify the problem as our "architecture for insurance supervision," which they write disapprovingly as being "characterized by the multiplicity of state regulators" and "the absence of federal regulatory powers."
Of course, the Dodd-Frank Act provided nonvoting seats for insurance representation on FSOC, and created a new Federal Insurance Office, though with very little authority to do much. Those nods to national centralization (a theme that scores high on the FSB team's rating scale) receive approval.
The FSB's peer review, however, does not stop at grading our performance. Its members are equally generous in making recommendations. They recommend that FSOC develop more transparency and that it take "a more in-depth and holistic analysis of systemic risks." Unquestionably good advice, particularly in light of the clustering of regulatory challenges to our mortgage markets struggling to recover, and the accumulating imbalances from the Federal Reserve's prolonged zero-interest rate policies. These are observations that, coming from anyone, deserve thoughtful evaluation.
I met with the FSB team members during their American tour. They seemed smart and well-meaning people, ready to engage in constructive dialogue, energized about their mission. But all the while I could not help musing: We know our policymakers Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. chairman Marty Gruenberg, and Comptroller of the Currency Tom Curry, as well Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas. Who empowered these people from Basel?
I have been unable to find the record of Congressional authorization or even discussion of the merits of submitting the entire U.S. financial system to a formal review by employees of European and Asian bank regulators. What record of regulatory excellence do they draw upon worthy of emulation? Given the recent fiasco with efforts to apply the Basel III capital structure to all U.S. banks, large, small and everything in between, these are not idle questions.
That is to say, the idea of subjecting U.S. financial supervision to "peer review" by a team chaired by a representative from the German central bank, joined by three other European financial regulators, plus one from Japan, another from India and one from Canada, is a bit rich to swallow. Maybe we should not complain about a Canadian so much, given the stability of the financial system there, albeit one with a banking industry where CEOs can all fit comfortably inside of an elevator.
What do any of these international experts know about a dual banking system made up of nearly 7,000 banks of all sizes, a variety of charters, providing customers with a broad array of business models? Excessive admiration for U.S. financial supervision is not required to wonder what this team has to offer to the consideration of issues that have already long been under discussion by our own policymakers.
Where is the genuine "peer" in this review process? We should not describe the FSB team members as "out of touch" since it would be unfair to expect that they could in any way be in touch with our financial system and the customers it serves. What should we say to their counsel? Maybe a polite and diplomatic "thank you" would be best.
Wayne A. Abernathy is executive vice president for financial institutions policy and regulatory affairs at the American Bankers Association. Previously he served as assistant secretary of the Treasury for financial institutions and as staff director of the Senate Banking Committee.