After a global economic crisis fueled, in part, by loose rules and weak oversight, the administration of President Barack Obama is trying to prevent a repeat by beefing up the role of the federal government.
It's about time. The 21st century financial world has played fast and free because of a regulatory system that dates back to the Great Depression. On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner laid before Congress the president's plans for making major financial institutions more accountable -- and some of it is just plain common sense.
The proposal would require institutions to maintain larger financial cushions against losses, lenders to keep a minimum percentage of the mortgages they issue (to discourage ill-advised loans) and credit agencies to meet tougher conflict-of-interest rules. In general, the plan would extend the authority of the Federal Reserve Board beyond bank holding companies to "other large firms that pose a risk to the entire economy in the event of failure," according National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers, one of the architects of the plan.
Other key agencies would receive expanded roles, too. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. would get new authority to seize shaky banks and other companies whose impending failure could have far-reaching effects. The Securities and Exchange Commission would be able to toughen the rules on derivatives, including credit default swaps, those insurance-type contracts that are used to hedge against risk. Finally, a new consumer protection agency would be set up to oversee credit cards, mortgages and the practices of the firms that issue them.
Naturally, financial executives want to resist such controls, but the alternative is a market so unregulated and driven by greed that it's bound to return the kind of misery that last year rocked Wall Street and then virtually every American. Lawmakers have raised their own questions about elements of the plan, including whether the Federal Reserve is the proper agency to receive most of these new powers.
While some fault the Fed for being slow to act in the latest crisis, it didn't have this kind of authority a year ago.
We'll leave it up to Congress and the administration to decide whether the Federal Reserve or a new agency should have such tools, but one thing that's not debatable is too many financial heavyweights have sought wild profits through risky maneuvers that plundered billions of dollars invested by innocent people.
It's time to change all that, and the Obama proposal is a step in the right direction.