In the past, financial crises have typically led to broad regulatory changes. The SEC was created in 1933 to protect investors as the Great Depression deepened. The Glass-Steagall Act the same year forced the separation of commercial and investment banks and created an insurance safety net for savings accounts. Scandals involving Enron, WorldCom and others led to the Sarbannes-Oxley reforms in 2002 aimed at broadening corporate disclosures.
This time, the administration says it wants to make changes so sweeping they will prevent a repeat of last year's crisis — something earlier reforms failed to do.
In the years leading up to last fall's meltdown, few raised alarms about the risks of reselling pools of subprime mortgages through the global financial system — or of expanding markets for complex products whose risks were hard to calculate.
Before the crisis, then-Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan had argued that markets can generally regulate themselves. He ignored warnings about the housing bubble, including from Bair and Fed Gov. Edward Gramlich, both of whom called for tougher oversight of subprime lending as early as 2001.
In October, three years after leaving the Fed, Greenspan told a congressional panel he had "found a flaw" in his thinking. He said he had relied too much on market forces and hadn't recognized the destructive potential of subprime lending.
Many experts say the Obama administration's plan addresses the right issues — tightened oversight, limiting risk-taking at the largest firms and higher capital requirements — but aren't tough enough to prevent the next collapse. These people say the Obama administration hasn't proposed the kind of fundamental reform that would prevent another crisis, in part because those changes would meet unstoppable political opposition.
"Are they doing anything to prevent big financial firms from going wacko again and sticking us with the bill?" says Simon Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and now a management professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His answer: "Nothing."
The failure of Lehman Brothers last fall showed how deeply a large, interconnected firm could damage the global financial system. Its bankruptcy, followed by the government bailout of insurance giant American International Group Inc., set off a panic. Lending froze up.
The problems spread so fast partly because the government had no way to deal with large financial firms at risk of insolvency. Smaller banks are seized by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and sold to another bank or dissolved. By contrast, regulators have no tool to end the ties that bind huge Wall Street banks to other banks worldwide.
The administration wants to create a system for winding down these firms. It would be modeled on the FDIC approach to smaller banks. But it would give Treasury the power to put the banks under the government's wing.
Other proposals face their stiffest opposition from regulators trying to protect their turf. One would have combined bank supervision into a single agency, replacing the existing patchwork of regulators.
Before the crisis, banks that chafed at heavy oversight by their current regulator could apply to be regulated by another, less strict agency.
Industry groups and experts say a single bank regulator would stop banks from exploiting differences among the agencies and lower costs to banks and consumers. The approach also is favored by other advanced economies, like England's.
But territorial fights among regulators proved too great an obstacle, and the Obama administration dropped this idea. Instead, its proposal would eliminate only one regulator: the Office of Thrift Supervision. Banks would still answer to one more of these agencies: a renamed Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the FDIC, the Fed and state bank regulators. And if the consumer agency is created, they'll face yet another supervisor.
"The administration made a calculated decision," says Ellen Seidman, former Director of the Office of Thrift Supervision and senior fellow at The New America Foundation. "They pulled back on making the plan comprehensive in order to make it fast and politically doable."