The Trump administration's long-awaited recommendations for financial reform would reduce the power of regulators in favor of letting banks operate more freely, with one notable exception: More influence and authority would be given to one regulator, the Treasury secretary.
The 149-page report, the first official outline of the Trump administration's goals for reshaping the financial sector, mostly calls for rolling back the new powers Congress gave to regulatory agencies in response to the financial crisis.
The day after releasing the report, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told a Senate panel that, if he were king for a day, he would repeal the entire 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
But in the report, he calls on Congress to broaden the mandate given to one regulator — himself.
Dodd-Frank created a new council of regulators, named the Financial Stability Oversight Council, to identify risks to the financial system that might be missed by individual agencies that oversee one industry. The idea was to avoid a repeat of the 2008 crisis, when regulators were blindsided by the major risks that had built up in nonbank firms such as insurer AIG.
The Treasury secretary is the chairman of the council, which includes the heads of the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and five other regulators, as well as an insurance expert. The group has the power to identify any firm as a potential threat to the financial system and subject it to the same level of regulation as a megabank.
The group's role "should be broadened" to allow it to pick one agency to lead in situations where several agencies may be at work and to coordinate data-sharing among them, the Trump Treasury report said.
Giving the council more power is an idea that fits in awkwardly with congressional Republicans who repeatedly have sought to clip the council's wings in the past several years.
"We've questioned the FSOC's power in the past," noted Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, a senior Republican on the Senate Banking Committee.
In fact, Republicans have criticized the council as unaccountable, capricious and lacking transparency.
This month, House Republicans passed the Financial Choice Act, a bill that would largely replace Dodd-Frank. Among the bill's provisions is a measure to eliminate the council's power to designate firms for more regulation and to subject the council to new transparency and accountability measures.
In the summary of their legislation, House Republicans said the council politicizes financial regulation by "stripping expert agencies of their regulatory authority and consolidating it in a body led by a Cabinet official who is beholden to the president and populated by agency heads appointed by the president."
The Treasury report steers clear of recommendations about whether to rein in the council's power to name companies for greater supervision, as that is the subject of a separate report that Trump demanded in an April executive order. It is expected, however, that the Treasury will conclude, as House Republicans did, that the authority needs to be reined in, on the logic that burdensome and unpredictable regulation leads to higher costs for consumers.
And some right-of-center financial experts who Republicans regularly rely on see some promise in the idea of giving more power to the Treasury secretary in the hopes that he would be able to prevent other regulators from instituting more harmful rules.
Peter Wallison, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, noted that empowering the council to decide which agency takes the lead in any one area "can be a decision on policy."
As an example, he pointed to the Volcker Rule. Named after former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, the rule is a key part of Dodd-Frank that prevents banks from speculating with insured deposits or owning hedge funds or private equity firms. Writing it was one of the most difficult and time-consuming tasks required by the law, involving five agencies: The Federal Reserve, the Office of the Comptroller Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
If it were the case that, for instance, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency wanted to revise the rule to make it easier for banks to carry out trades while the others did not, the council could pick the OCC to lead the way on the rule, effectively choosing the lighter-touch approach to regulation, Wallison noted.
Notably, the Trump administration did say in the Treasury report that it wants to ease the burden of the Volcker Rule, giving banks more latitude to handle transactions for their customers without having to worry about being penalized for speculating. The banking industry favors the idea of having one leader coordinate on the Volcker Rule, as indicated by the American Bankers Association in comments to the Treasury in writing its report.
Also of note is that Trump has his own people heading some agencies, such as the Treasury and the OCC, while others, such as the Fed, are still run by appointees of former President Barack Obama. Empowering Mnuchin or his successor at the Treasury to pick among agencies could, in some scenarios, give the upper hand to Trump's own people over holdovers from the Obama years.
In fact, the prospect would raise concerns about the propriety of a Cabinet official effectively handing out orders to independent agencies such as the Fed or the SEC, said Hester Peirce, an analyst at the libertarian Mercatus Institute.
"If that's the change we want to make, we really better make it carefully — who is supposed to be accountable to whom?" she asked.