Frank’s Move Buoys Bankers

Posted September 23, 2009 at 6:37pm

Emboldened by House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank’s move to limit the breadth of President Barack Obama’s proposed regulatory reforms for the financial industry, financial services lobbyists are turning up the pressure on moderate Democrats on the panel to push for more concessions. Their goal is to include a federal pre-emption provision in the legislation that would exempt banks from having to comply with state consumer protection laws.

But consumer groups continue to resist efforts to alter Obama’s reform proposal.

Frank sent a memo to House Democrats on the panel Tuesday laying out a series of changes that he’ll seek to the Obama administration’s plan to address many concerns raised by industry groups and Republicans.

The Massachusetts Democrat’s plan would exempt many nonfinancial institutions like merchants, retailers, doctors and lawyers from oversight by the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency. It also would remove a requirement for financial institutions to provide “plain vanilla— loans like 30-year fixed-rate mortgages as well as the requirement of a “reasonableness— standard that would have forced financial institutions to discern whether consumers understand the products that they are offered.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who testified before the House Financial Services panel Wednesday, said he supported Frank’s modifications.

Limiting the industries affected by the agency quelled potential opposition from several powerful interest groups like trial lawyers and retailers that could have spelled disaster for moving the bill forward.

“It’s very clear the chairman is doing everything he can to narrow any potential collateral effects that would be either unintended or politically harmful to getting this scheduled for the floor,— said Paul Equale of Equale & Associates, a Washington, D.C., public affairs firm.

Despite the changes, financial services lobbyists are continuing to oppose the CFPA, arguing that adding another regulatory agency for banking entities would be too cumbersome.

“The idea that a new agency is going to create a new examination system for banks and a new examination system for nonbanks is just daunting,— said Steve Verdier of the Independent Community Bankers Association.

Scott Talbott of the Financial Services Roundtable agrees.

“We’re for the C-F-P, just not the A,— he said. “We believe the better answer, the more effective answer is to strengthen the existing regulatory structure.—

Still, Talbott acknowledged that thwarting the entire CFPA is an uphill battle given the political environment.

The FSR is part of a larger coalition of trade groups headed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbying against the CFPA. The chamber signaled Wednesday that it will not change its position despite Frank’s proposed modifications to the reform plan.

“While we appreciate Chairman Frank’s recent changes to the CFPA, we continue to believe that the CFPA is the wrong way to enhance consumer protections and will have significant unintended consequences for consumers, for the business community and the overall economy,— David Hirschmann, president and CEO of the chamber’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness, said in a statement.

Industry lobbyists are pushing moderate Democrats to take up the torch on pre-emption in order for the provision to ultimately become part of the reform package in the Senate.

“Pre-emption is a major sticking point in the whole piece of legislation,— said Richard Hunt, head of the Consumer Bankers Association. “The last thing we need are different sets of rules in the national banking system.—

Industry groups are largely relying on the 15 members of the New Democrat Coalition to carry their water to ensure that federal pre-emption remains part of the package.

Frank did not address the issue of federal pre-emption in his memo.

While the New Democrats are supportive of the changes that Frank made to the package, the group’s chairman, Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), said the “membership still is concerned with the pre-emption issue and what shape that takes.—

The coalition would like to see federal pre-emption that would capture nonbanks but not necessarily add additional regulation to existing banks and credit unions, he said.

Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) is expected to introduce a pre-emption amendment to the CFPA legislation, according to a Democratic aide.

Consumer groups are trying to persuade Frank to stay strong on maintaining federal law as the floor and not the ceiling for regulation.

Travis Plunkett of the Consumer Federation of America said federal pre-emption is a “deal-killer.—

“They are asking for more pre-emption than currently exists in law,— Plunkett said, noting that the financial services industry would like to include nonbank financial institutions among those receiving pre-emption from state law.

Finding a compromise on the issue of pre-emption to move the CFPA legislation forward before the end of the year could be a key to Frank passing his overarching legislation.

“The clock is ticking and floor time is at a premium,— Equale said. “The real issue is whether or not this can get done this year.—