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The systemic dismantling of the system.

I am taken when people like President Obama say our problem is that we had an outdated regulatory system. I beg to disagree. It was a regulatory system that in the past two decades had not become out of date, but rather had been almost entirely dismantled by Congress and the various administrations:

1) They passed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, guaranteeing large financial supermarkets that can only be too big to fail, while prohibiting the SEC from being able to require regulation of investment bank holding companies. When legislation was passed saying one could put all these businesses under one roof, without a single word in the law requiring regulation of the inherent conflicts, it was sealed in stone that there would be huge institutions the government would have to bail out if they failed. And this legislation was specifically passed to permit the merger of Citibank and Travelers to form Citigroup, now one of the largest institutions requiring a bailout.

2) They cut budgets at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the SEC year after year, dismantling those agencies block by block. They sent these agencies to a gun fight with an empty gun all too often.

3) New products such as credit derivatives were created and introduced to the credit markets, and Congress and the administrations took action to ensure those products could not be regulated. Companies such as Enron and AIG used the law to avoid regulation of these products. And history now has another chapter on how these products became "financial weapons of mass destruction."

4) Hedge and private equity funds grew exponentially in the past two decades, and Congress again exempted them from any regulatory oversight, even as they took in increasing amounts of retail money.

5) The banking regulators became "prudential supervisors" and not regulators as they allowed the banks to engage in unsound lending practices, notwithstanding the 1994 legislation giving the Federal Reserve the power to stop such destructive business practices. Congress passed legislation that even allowed the Federal Home Loan Banks to expand their lending and compete with one another for the same bank's business, with significantly increased risk. As a result, today they have balance sheets loaded up with lousy mortgage securities and loans to the likes of Citigroup, Washington Mutual, Countrywide, and Wachovia. It used to be they were simply in the business of making loans to local community and regional banks. And when Congress passed this legislation, they also allowed the compensation for the executives of these banks, whose businesses are guaranteed in the same manner as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were, to jump significantly.

6) Congress failed to provide authority, tools, and resources for the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO), the regulator of Fannie and Freddie, blocking attempts to provide for effective oversight and regulation. These agencies watched as their assets and guarantees grew to trillions of dollars without effective oversight, while the government backed them up with the guarantee of taxpayer dollars. These agencies were allowed to grow their balance sheets unchecked, with insufficient capital in light of the risks they were taking on and imposing on the taxpayer.

7) The credit rating agencies were granted exemption from accountability by the investing public it turns out they were misleading, as well as by the securities regulators. Yet it was mandated that their ratings be used. To this day, the SEC must judge the work of these credit rating agencies by the policies and procedures the rating agencies themselves decide are sufficient--even if a rating results in a bad rating. That is quite simply still the law today.

8) Congress interceded to block attempts to bring greater transparency to financial reporting of equity compensation, which grew to hundreds of millions of dollars in some cases, as the use of stock options became a drug many executives and their boards became addicted to.

9) The courts and Congress stepped in to prevent investors from getting justice through legitimate legal actions. It ultimately led to the Supreme Court ruling it was legal and quite fine for people to assist others in the commission of a securities fraud--in essence, drive the getaway car--and there would be no justice or legal course of action for those who had been their victims.

10) Shareholders were stripped of their rights--as we saw the SEC, first in 1992 and then again in 2007, deny them the right to have the same access as the management who work for them to the proxy of the companies they owned. While Congress was well aware of compensation abuses, they failed to pass legislation that would have reined in such abuses. While the House passed such legislation two to three years ago, it went nowhere in the Senate.

11) We now have Congress stepping in to put undue pressure to undo transparent accounting practices, just like they did--to very bad effect--with stock options. The FASB has become most accommodating, as the new rules they are proposing, with only a two-week comment period, will effectively become a moratorium on fair value accounting for banks. They will no longer have to report the effect of their bad investment decisions in their income statements--much like suspended disbelief occurs at the movies. We are now going back to accounting that the GAO in 1991, in a report, "Failed Institutions," said raised the cost to taxpayers of the savings and loan bailout.

12) Finally, people who did not believe in regulation were put in charge of the key agencies. Inspector General reports on the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), and the SEC cite serious lapses in regulation. From Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve, who failed to act on the 1994 HOEPA [Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act] legislation, to John C. Dugan and John D. Hawke at the OCC, who opposed state regulators' attempts to rein in predatory lending practices, to Christopher Cox at the SEC--these were all regulators who publicly opposed regulation and engaged in the dismantling of the regulatory system we once had.

Understanding the Outrage

It wasn't that we didn't have an effective system, as much as that the system we had was dismantled during the past two decades. Now tens of millions of Americans are paying for this with the loss of their jobs and their savings for retirement and their children's education. Americans will have to work for many more years when they have grown old; students will have to leave college, no longer able to afford it. It is no wonder the public is so outraged by what they see going on with Congress and at companies such as AIG.

Lynn E. Turner, CPA, is a senior advisor to Kroll, Inc., and former chief accountant of the SEC. He is a member of The CPA Journal Editorial Board.
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Title Annotation:viewpoint
Author:Turner, Lynn E.
Publication:The CPA Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2009
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