More than a year ago, President Barack Obama unveiled a broad outline for new financial regulations. It took that long for Congress to hash out the details and get the legislation passed. The final bill looks a great deal like the framework Obama outlined in June 2009. Here are its major provisions.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Consumer advocates have been pushing for an agency to look out for the interests of everyday Americans. The bureau will be responsible for writing new rules on financial consumer products (mostly loans and credit cards) and enforcing existing bank and credit union regulations. It will monitor payday lenders and check-cashing businesses. The agency, which is part of the Federal Reserve, will be led by a director appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
New mortgage rules. Lenders are now required to verify applicants' credit history, income, and employment status. There are also restrictions on how many loans banks can sell to investors. The new rule is supposed to make banks bear more risk to limit lending to people at a high risk of default.
Size matters. The bill creates the "Financial Stability Oversight Council," which is supposed to monitor the U.S. economy for underlying systemic risks. It will make recommendations to the Federal Reserve for how to keep the economy from crashing by keeping tabs on firms that are deeply interconnected within the financial system.
Liquidation authority. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will have a mechanism to unwind "failing systemically significant financial companies." Taxpayers will bear no cost for liquidating large, interconnected financial companies, according to the bill summary.
An audit for the Fed. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) will perform a one-time review of Federal Reserve emergency lending. The details should be on the Federal Reserve website by December 1, 2010. The GAO will have the authority to conduct more audits in the future, but there is no requirement.
Credit card rules. The law directs the Federal Reserve to issue rules that ensure that the "fees charged to merchants by credit card companies for credit or debit card transactions are reasonable and proportional to the cost of processing those transactions."
The Volcker Rule. Named after the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, the new rule prohibits banks from engaging in proprietary trading, i.e. trading the bank's money to turn a profit. Advocates for this rule say these kinds of trades tend to put banks into a conflict of interest with their customers. The rules also would limit banks' relationships with hedge funds and private equity funds.
Derivatives. A derivative is simply an investment the value of which depends on an underlying asset. Here's an example of a good derivative: Southwest Airlines has to buy jet fuel over the coming year to run its planes. If oil prices skyrocket, Southwest loses money. So the airline enters into an agreement that will pay if oil prices increase, reducing its potential for losses. But not all derivatives are so benign, and many blame their misuse for contributing to the financial panic of 2008. The new law gives the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission along with the Securities and Exchange Commission authority to regulate over-the-counter derivatives. Banks would also be prohibited from trading certain forms of derivatives, and most of the trading must occur on transparent exchanges.
Hedge funds. Generally speaking, hedge funds are investment vehicles for select groups of elite investors. The name comes from hedging, or being careful about risk, but hedge funds generally are managed to increase profits which also increases risk. They often buy derivatives or other unusual types of investments. Under the new regulations, large hedge funds would have to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission and report their activities.
Credit rating agencies. The law seeks to address the conflict of interest that arises when banks and financial institutions pay a credit rating agency to evaluate their securities. It calls for a study on the issue, and says that regulators will issue new rules in the future.
"Say on pay." Shareholders of publicly traded companies get to vote on executive pay, though the vote is nonbinding.
The legislation won final approval on July 15, 2010, when the U.S. Senate approved a conference report with the House of Representatives. President Obama formally signed the legislation on July 21. So we rate this Promise Kept.