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GAO: Financial regulatory system needs overhaul

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report that says the U.S. financial regulatory system is fragmented and outdated, and significant reforms are urgently needed.  A summary of the report follows:

"The current U.S. financial regulatory system has relied on a fragmented and complex arrangement of federal and state regulators--put into place over the past 150 years--that has not kept pace with major developments in financial markets and products in recent decades. As the nation finds itself in the midst of one of the worst financial crises ever, the regulatory system increasingly appears to be ill-suited to meet the nation's needs in the 21st century.

"Today, responsibilities for overseeing the financial services industry are shared among almost a dozen federal banking, securities, futures, and other regulatory agencies, numerous self-regulatory organizations, and hundreds of state financial regulatory agencies. Much of this structure has developed as the result of statutory and regulatory changes that were often implemented in response to financial crises or significant developments in the financial services sector.

"For example, the Federal Reserve System was created in 1913 in response to financial panics and instability around the turn of the century, and much of the remaining structure for bank and securities regulation was created as the result of the Great Depression turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s.

"Several key changes in financial markets and products in recent decades have highlighted significant limitations and gaps in the existing regulatory system. First, regulators have struggled, and often failed, to mitigate the systemic risks posed by large and interconnected financial conglomerates and to ensure they adequately manage their risks. The portion of firms operating as conglomerates that cross financial sectors of banking, securities, and insurance increased significantly in recent years, but none of the regulators is tasked with assessing the risks posed across the entire financial system.

"Second, regulators have had to address problems in financial markets resulting from the activities of large and sometimes less-regulated market participants--such as nonbank mortgage lenders, hedge funds, and credit rating agencies--some of which play significant roles in today's financial markets.

"Third, the increasing prevalence of new and more complex investment products has challenged regulators and investors, and consumers have faced difficulty understanding new and increasingly complex retail mortgage and credit products. Regulators failed to adequately oversee the sale of mortgage products that posed risks to consumers and the stability of the financial system. Fourth, standard setters for accounting and financial regulators have faced growing challenges in ensuring that accounting and audit standards appropriately respond to financial market developments, and in addressing challenges arising from the global convergence of accounting and auditing standards.

"Finally, despite the increasingly global aspects of financial markets, the current fragmented U.S. regulatory structure has complicated some efforts to coordinate internationally with other regulators."

The full report an be accessed at:  http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09216.pdf

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