Treasury Secretary Geithner Unveiling Plan to Regulate Credit Markets

March 26, 2009 - 5:20 AM
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Washington (AP) - The Obama administration is proposing an extensive overhaul of financial regulations in an effort to prevent a repeat of the banking crisis last fall that toppled once-mighty institutions and wiped out trillions of dollars in investor wealth.
 
Officials said the administration will seek to regulate the market for credit default swaps and other types of derivatives and require hedge funds to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
 
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was scheduled to outline the proposals in testimony Thursday before the House Financial Services Committee.
 
Administration officials provided details of the administration's plan before the testimony only on condition of anonymity.
 
The program the administration was presenting to Congress will also include a recommendation for creation of a systemic risk regulator, possibly at the Federal Reserve, to monitor risks to the entire system.
 
The plan also includes a measure that Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke discussed before the committee on Tuesday to give the administration expanded powers to take over major nonbank financial institutions, such as insurance companies and hedge funds that were teetering on the brink of collapse.
 
That power was aimed at preventing a repeat of the problems surrounding insurance giant American International Group Inc., which sparked a furor last week when it was revealed the company had distributed $165 million in bonuses to employees of its financial products group. The unit specialized in trading credit default swaps, the instruments that drove the company to near-collapse last fall.
 
The administration, pushing Congress to act quickly on its reform agenda, sent Congress a 61-page bill dealing with the expanded powers to seize control of nonbank institutions late Wednesday. The House Financial Services Committee, chaired by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has indicated it could move on the measure as early as next week.
 
However, it was unclear how fast the rest of the financial reform agenda might move through Congress. Geithner was providing only a broad outline of the other proposals, with many thorny details remaining to be worked out.
 
Administration officials promised that the remaining issues would be hammered out in consultation with Congress with the goal of getting legislation approved as quickly as possible.
 
The administration is proposing that hedge funds and other private pools of capital, including private equity funds and venture capital funds, be required to register with the SEC if their assets exceed a certain size. The threshold amount has yet to be determined, officials said.
 
The proposal on credit default swaps and other derivatives would require the markets on which they are traded to be regulated for the first time, and for the buying and selling of these instruments to be conducted in ways that will foster greater oversight.
 
Credit default swaps, which trade in a $60 trillion global market without government oversight, are contracts to insure against the default of financial instruments like bonds and corporate debt. They played a prominent role in the credit crisis that brought the downfall of investment banking giant Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. last fall and nearly unraveled AIG, forcing the government to provide more than $180 billion in support.
 
Hedge funds, vast pools of capital holding an estimated $1.5 trillion in assets, operate mostly outside of government supervision. As the market crisis deepened last fall, hedge fund selling was widely cited as one of the reasons for increased volatility that pounded stocks and bonds. Hedge funds also suffered huge losses last year, notably from investments in securities tied to subprime mortgages.
 
The outline of the regulatory reform was being unveiled a week before President Barack Obama was scheduled to meet for discussions among the Group of 20 major industrialized and developing countries in London to assess what needs to be done to deal with the global financial crisis.
 
While the administration is pushing other nations to follow the U.S. lead in putting together sizable economic stimulus programs to jump-start global growth, many in Europe are resisting those calls and arguing that the United States needs to do more to toughen financial regulations. They believe the current troubles can be traced to lax regulation in the United States in such key areas as hedge funds and credit default swaps.
 
Requiring hedge funds to register would open their books to inspection by regulators. The SEC sought that authority several years ago but was stymied by a federal appeals court in 2006.
 
Hedge funds have grown explosively in recent years while operating secretively. They have lured an increasing number of ordinary investors, pension funds and university endowments -- meaning millions of people now unwittingly invest in hedge funds indirectly.
 
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AP Business Writer Marcy Gordon contributed to this report.