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Elliott: Reform Not Bold Enough

Douglas Elliott of the Brookings Institute says the proposed regulatory form is fine enough but left out "bolder steps." Elliott considers the lonely death of the Office of Thrift Supervision and says it's not enough.

There are significantly too many bank regulators in the United States. Different banks and bank-like institutions are regulated by: state regulators; the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC); the Federal Reserve; the Office of Thrift Supervision; the National Credit Union Administration; and, for certain important purposes, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). It appeared earlier that the administration would propose significantly reducing the number of bank regulators, perhaps to as few as a single regulator. This thought appears to have died in the face of intense opposition by many in Congress and elsewhere. No one would design the banking regulatory system the way it is now if they were starting from scratch, but there are many entrenched interests who do not want the present system to change.

The Office of Thrift Supervision is the only regulator who appears to have lacked the institutional support to retain their separate existence. The administration has proposed merging them with, and effectively into, the OCC. This move makes sense, but does not provide nearly the advantages the broader consolidation would have brought. Different regulators will inevitably have different approaches, especially as they are generally given substantial independence in order to reduce the politicization of regulatory decisions. These differing approaches can reduce the effectiveness of systemic regulation, in part by opening up the possibility of "regulatory arbitrage," where financial groups put their various activities into the affiliates which have the softest regulatory requirements. It is true that tighter regulation of consolidated groups at the holding company level will reduce the ability to arbitrage the regulators, but it is unlikely to entail supervision as detailed as that which will occur at the level of the regulated subsidiaries.