Looking for a systemic risk regulator that isn´t limited by inevitable human folly? Several options that bypass growing concerns over the potential effectiveness of the Federal Reserve Board´s systemic risk oversight are floating around Washington. They involve strengthening laws, not agencies.
A group of consumer advocates, including the Greenlining Institute and the National Council of La Raza, are spinning their campaign to broaden the reach of the Community Reinvestment Act by touting its benefits to safety and soundness practices at banks.
"The CRA has been closely tied to safety and soundness," said Orson Aguilar, Greenlining´s executive director. "So not only is there regulation to assure that all communities are being served, the regulation has to ensure that the loans are sound. The regulators have more power to ensure that those loans are safe for depositors and borrowers."
Using CRA rules to strengthen banks´ good behavior is gaining popularity. Earlier this month, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp examiners gave three banks with assets over $3 billion low CRA ratings for predatory or unfair practices. The bad lending, in some cases, didn´t even happen inside the geographic confines of CRA assessment tracks-areas where low and moderate income borrowers make up the majority of the population.
But the CRA isn´t the only law that´s coming back into fashion. In testimony to the Senate Banking Committee today on modernizing insurance regulation, Robert Hunter, the insurance director for the Consumer Federation of America, suggested revisiting the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, a 1999 law that dismantled barriers between commercial and investment operations at financial institutions. Gramm-Leach-Bliley´s predecessor and antidote, the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, separated those operations.
Sen. John Tester, D-Mont. Picked up on the thread. To Hunter, he said: "You had answered a question saying we may want to reverse the course of Gramm-Leach-Bliley to see if it led to some of the AIG-related problems. That´s an interesting point-I want you to expand upon it."
Hunter replied, "If we join together these different financial services companies are we really creating a systemic risk situation that wasn´t there before? Given the current situation it might be worth looking at the role that GLB has played in this."
He added, "If we find that the systemic risk cannot be controlled in a joined-together organization, and I think that´s something we should look at, then I think we have to at least consider splitting them back up."
The idea of a new version of Glass-Steagall has surfaced in other high places. Writing in the Financial Times yesterday, former chancellor of the British exchequer Nigel Lawson proposed a similar idea, picking up where the FT´s own John Gapper had left off the week before.
In the end, there may be no way around giving the Fed the power to oversee systemic risk. But other structural changes may be needed if the agency is to do its job to any satisfactory extent.