WASHINGTON — Three years after President Barack Obama signed a sweeping overhaul of lending and high-finance rules, execution of the law is behind schedule with scores of regulations yet to be written, let alone enforced. Meeting privately with the nation’s top financial regulators on Monday, Obama prodded them to act more swiftly.
The president’s push comes as the five-year anniversary of the nation’s financial near-meltdown approaches. The law, when passed in 2010, was considered a milestone in Obama’s presidency, a robust response to the crisis that led to a massive government bailout to stabilize the financial markets.
But the slow pace of implementation has prompted administration concern that banks could still pose potentially calamitous risks to the economy and to taxpayers. Obama hoped to convey “the sense of urgency that he feels,” spokesman Josh Earnest said before the president convened the meeting with the eight independent regulators in the White House Roosevelt Room.
Lehman Brothers collapsed into bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008, and the administration has wanted to use that dubious milestone to look back on the lessons of the crisis and progress so far to prevent a recurrence. In a statement at the conclusion of the meeting, the White House said Obama commended the regulators for their work “but stressed the need to expeditiously finish implementing the critical remaining portions of Wall Street reform to ensure we are able to prevent the type of financial harm that led to the Great Recession from ever happening again.”
Three years after passage, many Republican lawmakers also see the law as more negative than positive.
The law set up a council of regulators to be on the lookout for risks across the finance system. It also created an independent consumer financial protection bureau within the Federal Reserve to write and enforce new regulations covering lending and credit. And it placed shadow financial markets that previously escaped the oversight of regulators under new scrutiny, giving the government new powers to break up companies that regulators believe threaten the economy.
But because of the complexity of the industry, the law gave regulators extended time to write the new rules that would enforce its provisions.
A key goal of the legislation was to prevent a rebuilding of a financial system that would permit banks to become so huge and intertwined that they would be “too big to fail.” But the nation’s top banks today are bigger than they were in 2008. A key proposal in the law would restrict banks from trading for their own profit, a practice known as proprietary trading. That rule, named after former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, has yet to take effect and the current proposal has been weakened from what the law initially envisioned.
Annette Nazareth, a former Securities and Exchange commissioner now a partner at Davis Polk, said that when it comes to the Volcker rule, the law requires that various regulators write a single rule that applies to all the regulated financial entities. “So to some extent it’s not surprising that it has taken longer when they have had to reach consensus on some very tough issues,” she said.
Overall, she added, “we are in a better position than we were before the financial crisis.” She said banks have stronger capital positions, regulators are more aggressive and failing banks can be dismantled in ways they couldn’t before. “We have the building blocks for a better, more stable financial system.”