Financial Regulation:

Recent Crisis Reaffirms the Need to Overhaul the U.S. Regulatory System

GAO-09-1049T: Published: Sep 29, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 29, 2009.

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Orice Williams Brown
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This testimony discusses issues relating to efforts to reform the regulatory structure of the financial system. In the midst of the worst economic crisis affecting financial markets globally in more than 75 years, federal officials have taken unprecedented steps to stem the unraveling of the financial services sector. While these actions aimed to provide relief in the short term, the severity of the crisis has shown clearly that in the long term, the current U.S. financial regulatory system was in need of significant reform. Our January 2009 report presented a framework for evaluating proposals to modernize the U.S. financial regulatory system, and work we have conducted since that report further underscores the urgent need for changes in the system. Given the importance of the U.S. financial sector to the domestic and international economies, in January 2009, we also added modernization of its outdated regulatory system as a new area to our list of high-risk areas of government operations because of the fragmented and outdated regulatory structure. We noted that modernizing the U.S. financial regulatory system will be a critical step to ensuring that the challenges of the 21st century can be met. This testimony discusses (1) how regulation has evolved and recent work that further illustrates the significant limitations and gaps in the existing regulatory system, (2) the experiences of countries with other types of varying regulatory structures during the financial crisis, and (3) how certain aspects of proposals would reform the U.S. regulatory system.

The current U.S. financial regulatory system is fragmented due to complex arrangements of federal and state regulation put into place over the past 150 years. It 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. Several key changes in financial markets and products in recent decades have highlighted significant limitations and gaps in the existing U.S. regulatory system. For example, regulators have struggled, and often failed, both to identify the systemic risks posed by large and interconnected financial conglomerates and to ensure these entities adequately manage their risks. In addition, regulators have had to address problems in financial markets resulting from the activities of sometimes less-regulated and large market participants--such as nonbank mortgage lenders, hedge funds, and credit rating agencies--some of which play significant roles in today's financial markets. Further, the increasing prevalence of new and more complex financial products has challenged regulators and investors, and consumers have faced difficulty understanding new and increasingly complex retail mortgage and credit products. Our recent work has also highlighted significant gaps in the regulatory system and the need for an entity responsible for identifying existing and emerging systemic risks. Various countries have implemented changes in their regulatory systems in recent years, but the current crisis affected most countries regardless of their structure. All of the countries we reviewed have more concentrated regulatory structures than that of the United States. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, have chosen an integrated approach to regulation that unites safety and soundness and business conduct issues under a single regulator. Others, such as Australia, have chosen a "twin peaks" approach, in which separate agencies are responsible for safety and soundness and business conduct regulation. However, regardless of regulatory structure, each country we reviewed was affected to some extent by the recent financial crisis. One regulatory approach was not necessarily more effective than another in preventing or mitigating a financial crisis. However, regulators in some countries had already taken some actions that may have reduced the impact on their institutions. These and other countries also have taken or are currently contemplating additional changes to their regulatory systems to address weaknesses identified during this crisis. The Department of the Treasury's recent proposal to reform the U.S. financial regulatory system includes some elements that would likely improve oversight of the financial markets and make the financial system more sound, stable, and safer for consumers and investors. For example, under this proposal a new governmental body would have responsibility for assessing threats that could pose systemic risk. This proposal would also create an entity responsible for business conduct, that is, ensuring that consumers of financial services were adequately protected. However, our analysis indicated that additional opportunities exist beyond the Treasury's proposal for additional regulatory consolidation that could further decrease fragmentation in the regulatory system, reduce the potential for differing regulatory treatment, and improve regulatory independence.

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