After the 2008 economic crisis, President Obama pledged to hold banks and financial institutions more accountable and shine a light on the government agencies that regulate them, but watchdogs say a new panel created to head off another market meltdown is shrouding itself in secrecy.
Created by the so-called Dodd-Frank Act, the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) is tasked with identifying threats to U.S. markets and imposing market discipline. The little-known panel, headed by the Treasury secretary and composed of leaders from the major U.S. financial regulatory agencies, decides whether certain sectors need more regulation and directs the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission to take action.
But financial analysts from the right and the left — conservatives who oppose Dodd-Frank and want fewer restrictions on banks and the market, as well as progressives who want more laws and regulations -- say the FSOC's activities are too opaque. They complain that the panel is holding too many closed-door meetings and not doing enough to publicize its activities.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, in September issued a report faulting the panel for lacking accountability, transparency and collaboration with key financial regulators. The report also said FSOC needs to do a better job of sharing key financial-risk indicators with other regulators, communicating with the public and setting specific performance goals. The GAO also suggested the panel improve its website.
But watchdogs and experts on financial-services regulation say the FSOC secrecy issues are far worse than the GAO reported.
"The FSOC's proceedings make the Politburo look open by comparison," said Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets, a nonprofit that lobbies for stricter banking laws. "No one in America even knows who they are. At the few open meetings they have, they snap their fingers and it's over, and they are all scripted. They treat their information as if it were state secrets."
Even though he comes from an ideologically opposite point of view, Peter J. Wallison has similar concerns. Mr. Wallison co-directs the American Enterprise Institute's program on financial-policy studies and wrote the new book "Bad History, Worse Policy: How a False Narrative about the Financial Crisis Led to the Dodd-Frank Act."
"After a meeting, in many cases, a decision has popped out, and no one has any idea of who participated in the discussion, who took what position — it is a very closed process," he said.
Mr. Wallison also is perplexed that Congress created a regulatory oversight panel topped by the Treasury secretary, a political appointee of the president.
"That's also a huge mistake," he said. "I did spend some time at the White House and at Treasury [in my career], and we were unable and absolutely forbidden to talk to the regulators. They were supposed to be independent and free from politics. Now what we have done is reverse that process entirely."
An upcoming FSOC decision about regulating the money-market fund sector has both sides on edge. During its last meeting in mid-January — which was closed to the public — the panel extended the comment period on new regulations for money-market funds, and this week all 12 regional Federal Reserve bank leaders submitted a letter singling out money-market funds as potential risks to the global financial system.
Central bankers have pointed to ongoing vulnerabilities in the money-market fund sector as a source of concern for several years now — and if nothing is done, many bankers think investors could panic and dump their funds, destabilizing the market.
Attempting to address the issue, the FSOC in November proposed a series of reforms, including higher liquidity levels for the funds, as well as requirements that investors maintain a minimum balance that would limit the desire to flee at the first sign of trouble.
There are no minutes of the closed January meeting on the FSOC website, only a notice of the extension of the public comment period, which was unanimously approved. Treasury spokeswoman Suzanne Elio provided a five-line readout of another closed-door Jan. 31 meeting that tersely noted that the panel continued its "analysis of nonbank financial companies."
"As noted in the council's interpretative guidance, the council does not intend to publicly announce the name of any nonbank financial company that is under evaluation before a final determination with respect to such a company," she said in the readout.
Even though the panel meets nearly once a month, internal FSOC rules require that only two meeting per year be public. The panel held three open meetings in 2011 and four in 2012.
The low profile, according to the panel, is needed to protect market-sensitive information and avoid compromising the council's mission.
Since the GAO report in September, FSOC redesigned its website to improve access to documents and reports and to allow users to receive updates when new content is added. Minutes of private meetings are posted and generally state what issues were discussed, but the back-and-forth debate over issues is still left out.
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Susan Crabtree is an award-winning investigative reporter with more than 15 years of reporting experience in Washington, D.C. Her reporting about bribery, corruption and conflict-of-interest issues on Capitol Hill has led to several FBI and ethics investigations, as well as consequences for members within their caucuses and at the ballot box. Susan can be reached at email@example.com.
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