That would be a significant expansion of the central bank’s regulatory mission.
When Fed officials agreed this month to rescue Bear Stearns, once the nation’s fifth-largest investment bank, they pointedly noted that the Fed never had the authority to monitor its financial condition or order it to bolster its protections against a collapse.
In two unprecedented moves, the Fed engineered a marriage between JPMorgan Chase and Bear Stearns, lending $29 billion to JPMorgan to prevent a Bear bankruptcy and a chain of defaults that might have felled much of the financial system.
For the first time since the 1930s, the Fed also agreed to let investment banks borrow hundreds of billions of dollars from its discount window, an emergency lending program reserved for commercial banks and other depository institutions.
But Mr. Paulson’s proposal would fall well short of the kind of regulation that Democrats have been proposing. Mr. Frank and other senior Democrats have argued that investment banks and other lightly regulated institutions now compete with commercial banks and should be subject to similar regulation, including examiners who regularly pore over their books and quietly demand changes in their practices.
In a recent interview, Mr. Frank said he realized the need for tighter regulation of Wall Street firms after a meeting with Charles O. Prince III, then chairman of Citigroup.
When Mr. Frank asked why Citigroup had kept billions of dollars in “structured investment vehicles” off the firm’s balance sheet, he recalled, Mr. Prince responded that Citigroup, as a bank holding company, would have been at a disadvantage because investment firms can operate with higher debt and lower capital reserves.
Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, has taken a similar stance.
“Commercial banks continue to be supervised closely, and are subject to a host of rules meant to limit systemic risk,” Mr. Schumer wrote in an op-ed article on Friday in The Wall Street Journal. “But many other financial institutions, including investment banks and hedge funds, are regulated lightly, if at all, even though they act in many ways like banks.”
Mr. Paulson’s proposal is likely to provoke bruising turf battles in Congress among agencies and rival industry groups that benefit from the current regulations.
Administration officials acknowledged on Friday that they did not expect the proposal to become law this year, but said they hoped it would help frame a policy debate that would extend well after the elections in November.
In a nod to the debacle in mortgage lending, the administration proposed a Mortgage Origination Commission to evaluate the effectiveness of state governments in regulating mortgage brokers and protecting consumers.
The bulk of the proposal, however, was developed before soaring mortgage defaults set off a much broader credit crisis, and most of the proposals are geared to streamlining regulation.
This plan would consolidate a large number of regulators into roughly three big new agencies.
Bank supervision, now divided among five federal agencies, would be led by a Prudential Financial Regulator, which could send examiners into any bank or depository institution that is protected by either federal deposit insurance or other federal backstops. It would eliminate the distinction between “banks” and “thrift institutions,” which are already indistinguishable to most consumers, and shut down the Office of Thrift Supervision.
Any effort to merge the Commodity Futures Trading Commission with the S.E.C. is likely to provoke battles.
Yet another proposal would, for the first time, create a national regulator for insurance companies, an industry that state governments now oversee.
Administration officials argue that a national system would eliminate the inefficiencies of having 50 different state regulators, who have jealously guarded their powers and are likely to fight any federal encroachment.
Arthur Levitt, a former S.E.C. chairman who has long pushed for stronger investor protection, said his first impression of the plan was positive. Even though the S.E.C.’s powers might be reduced, Mr. Levitt said, the plan would create a broader agency to regulate business conduct in all financial services.
“It’s a thoughtful document,” he said. “I’m intrigued by the fact that it puts an emphasis on investor protection, and that it establishes an agency specifically for that purpose, which would operate across all markets. I think that’s a very constructive first step.”