Financial Regulation:

A Framework for Crafting and Assessing Proposals to Modernize the Outdated U.S. Financial Regulatory System

GAO-09-216: Published: Jan 8, 2009. Publicly Released: Jan 8, 2009.

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The United States and other countries are in the midst of the worst financial crisis in more than 75 years. While much of the attention of policymakers understandably has been focused on taking short-term steps to address the immediate nature of the crisis, these events have served to strikingly demonstrate that the current U.S. financial regulatory system is in need of significant reform. To help policymakers better understand existing problems with the financial regulatory system and craft and evaluate reform proposals, this report (1) describes the origins of the current financial regulatory system, (2) describes various market developments and changes that have created challenges for the current system, and (3) presents an evaluation framework that can be used by Congress and others to shape potential regulatory reform efforts. To do this work, GAO synthesized existing GAO work and other studies and met with dozens of representatives of financial regulatory agencies, industry associations, consumer advocacy organizations, and others. Twenty-nine regulators, industry associations, and consumer groups also reviewed a draft of this report and provided valuable input that was incorporated as appropriate. In general, reviewers commented that the report represented an important and thorough review of the issues related to regulatory reform.

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. As the nation finds itself in the midst of one of the worst financial crises ever, the regulatory system increasingly appears to be ill-suited to meet the nation's needs in the 21st century. Today, responsibilities for overseeing the financial services industry are shared among almost a dozen federal banking, securities, futures, and other regulatory agencies, numerous self-regulatory organizations, and hundreds of state financial regulatory agencies. Much of this structure has developed as the result of statutory and regulatory changes that were often implemented in response to financial crises or significant developments in the financial services sector. For example, the Federal Reserve System was created in 1913 in response to financial panics and instability around the turn of the century, and much of the remaining structure for bank and securities regulation was created as the result of the Great Depression turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s. 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. The portion of firms operating as conglomerates that cross financial sectors of banking, securities, and insurance increased significantly in recent years, but none of the regulators is tasked with assessing the risks posed across the entire financial system. 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. Regulators failed to adequately oversee the sale of mortgage products that posed risks to consumers and the stability of the financial system. 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, despite the increasingly global aspects of financial markets, the current fragmented U.S. regulatory structure has complicated some efforts to coordinate internationally with other regulators.