WASHINGTON – Tom Emmer did not set out to get crossways with the secretary of the Treasury when he took a seat on the powerful House Financial Services Committee six months ago. But that’s where the Republican who represents Minnesota’s Sixth Congressional District now finds himself.
Emmer is pushing for changes in government control of big financial institutions that grew out of the Great Recession.
He says he’s only asking for more accountability from the group that decides which big financial institutions get extra regulation to protect against another economic collapse.
But Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew says a bill introduced by Emmer and several other new bills will weaken safeguards and expose taxpayers to the same threats they faced in the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression. The 2007-2009 meltdown led to more than $700 billion in publicly funded bailouts of some of the nation’s biggest financial firms.
Those bailouts gave rise to the Financial Stability Oversight Council, known as FSOC, which is now the target of Emmer and other Republicans. The council, which Lew chairs, determines which financial institutions could face stress tests and possible restrictions on things like stock buybacks or capital reserves to guard against failures like those that drove the bailouts.
Emmer and many other Republicans believe regulators have overstepped their bounds.
“We started getting complaints because they’re starting to designate too-big-to-fail guys, and they went beyond traditional banks,” Emmer said, citing an insurance company and big equity funds tagged for enhanced oversight.
“There is concern FSOC is weighing into areas where it doesn’t belong and where it doesn’t have expertise.”
Emmer said the government has been unclear in explaining to financial institutions why they have been classified for enhanced oversight and possible restrictions. Nor, he said, has the stability council been clear about changes that would allow companies to be declassified once they’ve been named.
Emmer’s part of the solution is a bill that places the stability council’s budget under new congressional scrutiny and forces the federal Office of Financial Research (OFR) to issue quarterly reports and submit its findings to public comment periods for 90 days before they are released. That bill passed out of the Financial Services Committee Nov. 4 on a party-line vote.
Emmer’s bill was part of a group of bills the committee passed earlier this month. Other legislation extends time frames for deciding which companies qualify for enhanced regulation and changes the criteria for making those determinations. Some bills attracted bipartisan support. Collectively, they aim to refine a critical piece of Wall Street reform.
They also line up with desires of the Financial Services Roundtable, the nation’s largest trade group for financial services companies.
The roundtable’s CEO, former Minnesota Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, urged committee members “to vote yes on these important bills.”
The roundtable issued a report it had paid for at the same time Emmer’s bill and the others were debated by the committee. The report concluded that the government needed to use more than asset size of at least $50 billion in deciding if financial companies are too big to fail. The roundtable would like to add “financial system interconnectedness, substitutability [sic] and complexity” to the criteria.
Emmer denied critics’ charges that the FSOC and OFR bills are an attempt to politicize the financial stability council’s work.
The stability council’s budget — $8.13 million in 2016 — will still come from assessments the Federal Reserve levies on banks worth more than $50 billion and nonbank financial companies supervised by the Fed.
Emmer says he merely wants a better explanation of where the money is going and why. He also challenged the notion that the council is independent, because the president appoints all of its voting members.
Emmer told the Star Tribune that his efforts are “really about congressional supervision and oversight and transparency and accountability.” Forcing financial researchers to accept feedback from the public, including banks, ahead of issuing reports does not taint the process, he maintained.
“I don’t think it’s politicizing if financial institutions are working hand-in-hand with the FSOC,” Emmer said. “I don’t think that takes away their autonomy at all. It probably makes them more accountable because they’re now working toward a common goal.”
Still, in a Nov. 2 letter to the financial services committee, Lew warned that the bills it was considering “would severely undermine and impair” the financial stability council and “would be a big step backward for regulatory tools” that could prevent future economic disasters.
Lew called the charge of regulatory overreach “misleading.”
“In the five years since the council was established, it has identified only four nonbank financial companies whose financial distress could pose a threat to U.S. financial stability.”
The Treasury secretary also said the legislation blessed by the House committee could double from two years to four the time it takes to determine that a financial institution is systematically important to the country’s finances.
A spokesman for the Office of Financial Research called the bills now headed to the floor of the House a threat to the group’s scientific approach to data.
Emmer’s bill “could undermine the objectivity of our analysis and straitjacket the flexibility needed to adapt to changing circumstances,” he said.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who also serves on the financial services committee, called attempts to “politicize, undercut, or overturn” Wall Street reforms “misguided.”
“We all remember what happened in 2008,” Ellison said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. “Nearly $13 trillion in wealth disappeared and 11 million people were forced from their homes.”
The Wall Street reform law passed in 2010 when Democrats controlled the U.S. Senate and House is “extremely prescriptive,” according to finance professor Andrew Winton of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
“Any regulation is going to be flawed,” Winton said.
At the same time, he noted, tightening congressional control over something like the financial stability council could place it at the ideological whim of members of the majority party, be they Democrats or Republicans.
“It’s a big mistake,” Winton said. “You’ve got wonder how much of this is being driven by big banks.”