Financial Overhaul Plan Draws Fierce Criticism

The Bush administration is proposing the biggest overhaul of financial regulation since the Great Depression. The sweeping plan is already drawing intense criticism -- a debate unlikely to be settled until a new president takes office.

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The 200-page document, which was to be released Monday by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, proposes giving broad new powers to the Federal Reserve to combat the type of severe credit crisis currently gripping financial markets.

It would designate the Fed as a "market stability regulator" and give it the power to examine the books of any financial institution, not just banks, that might pose a threat to the stability of the financial system.

According to a 22-page executive summary obtained by The Associated Press, the plan would also eliminate the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, merging their functions into other agencies.

The Paulson plan, which the administration has been working on for a year, calls for the eventual creation of three regulatory agencies.

In addition to the Fed as a "market stability regulator," the plan would create a "prudential financial regulator" for the nation's banks, thrifts and credit unions, in place of the five agencies that perform that task now.

The third new agency would regulate business conduct and consumer protection, taking over many of the functions of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The proposed overhaul would be the most extensive since the current regulatory system was created in response to the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression.

It comes at a time when the financial system faces its most severe credit crisis in two decades, one that has resulted in billions of dollars of losses for big banks and investment houses and the near-collapse of the country's fifth-largest investment bank.

The rising tide of bad debt has made it harder for consumers and businesses to get credit, further weighing on an economy struggling with a prolonged housing slump and soaring energy prices. Many economists believe the country is already in a recession.

The market turmoil has presented an opening for critics to make the case for stronger federal rules to prevent abuses. Treasury Secretary Paulson rejects making that link.

"I do not believe it is fair or accurate to blame our regulatory structure for the current turmoil," Paulson said in a draft of remarks he was to deliver Monday.

Democrats said the plan wouldn't do enough to crack down on problems in mortgage lending and the sale of complex financial products that have been exposed by the current market turmoil.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd said that the administration blueprint "would do little if anything to alleviate the current crisis."

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is working on his own regulatory revamp, called Paulson's plan a "constructive step forward" but said it wouldn't give the Federal Reserve the regulatory authority needed for its broader market stability role.

Frank and others said that given the complexity of the issues, they expect the debate on the Paulson proposal and Democratic alternatives will continue in Congress as the next president takes office.

Business groups are split on the Paulson approach. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the securities industry support the broad outlines, but banking lobbyists are critical of some of the details affecting their industry.

"Dismantling the thrift charter and crippling state banking charters will weaken banking in America," said Edward Yingling, president of the American Bankers Association.