Financial Regulation:

A Framework for Crafting and Assessing Proposals to Modernize the Outdated U.S. Financial Regulatory System

GAO-09-310T: Published: Jan 14, 2009. Publicly Released: Jan 14, 2009.

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This testimony discusses GAO's January 8, 2009, report that provides a framework for modernizing the outdated U.S. financial regulatory system. GAO prepared this work under the authority of the Comptroller General to help policymakers weigh various regulatory reform proposals and consider ways in which the current regulatory system could be made more effective and efficient. This testimony (1) describes how regulation has evolved in banking, securities, thrifts, credit unions, futures, insurance, secondary mortgage markets and other important areas; (2) describes several key changes in financial markets and products in recent decades that have highlighted significant limitations and gaps in the existing regulatory system; and (3) presents an evaluation framework that can be used by Congress and others to shape potential regulatory reform efforts.

The current U.S. financial regulatory system has relied on a fragmented and complex arrangement of federal and state regulators--put into place over the past 150 years--that has not kept pace with major developments in financial markets and products in recent decades. Today, almost a dozen federal regulatory agencies, numerous self-regulatory organizations, and hundreds of state financial regulatory agencies share responsibility for overseeing the financial services industry. As the nation finds itself in the midst of one of the worst financial crises ever, it has become apparent that the regulatory system is ill-suited to meet the nation's needs in the 21st century. Several key changes in financial markets and products in recent decades have highlighted significant limitations and gaps in the existing regulatory system. First, regulators have struggled, and often failed, to mitigate the systemic risks posed by large and interconnected financial conglomerates and to ensure they adequately manage their risks. Second, regulators have had to address problems in financial markets resulting from the activities of large and sometimes less-regulated market participants--such as nonbank mortgage lenders, hedge funds, and credit rating agencies--some of which play significant roles in today's financial markets. Third, the increasing prevalence of new and more complex investment products has challenged regulators and investors, and consumers have faced difficulty understanding new and increasingly complex retail mortgage and credit products. Fourth, standard setters for accounting and financial regulators have faced growing challenges in ensuring that accounting and audit standards appropriately respond to financial market developments, and in addressing challenges arising from the global convergence of accounting and auditing standards. Finally, as financial markets have become increasingly global, the current fragmented U.S. regulatory structure has complicated some efforts to coordinate internationally with other regulators. These significant developments have outpaced a fragmented and outdated regulatory structure, and, as a result, significant reforms to the U.S. regulatory system are critically and urgently needed. The current system has significant weaknesses that, if not addressed, will continue to expose the nation's financial system to serious risks. Our report offers a framework for crafting and evaluating regulatory reform proposals consisting of nine characteristics that should be reflected in any new regulatory system. By applying the elements of the framework, the relative strengths and weaknesses of any reform proposal should be better revealed, and policymakers should be able to focus on identifying trade-offs and balancing competing goals. Similarly, the framework could be used to craft proposals, or to identify aspects to be added to existing proposals to make them more effective and appropriate for addressing the limitations of the current system.

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