WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama proposed sweeping new "rules of the road" for the nation's financial system Wednesday, casting the changes as a critically important response to the economic crisis and the greatest regulatory transformation since the Great Depression.
Obama blamed the financial crisis on "a culture of irresponsibility" that he said had taken root from Wall Street to Washington to Main Street, and he said regulations crafted to deal with the depression of the 1930s had been "overwhelmed by the speed, scope and sophistication of a 21st century global economy."
The Obama plan would give new powers to the Federal Reserve to oversee the entire financial system and would also create a new consumer protection agency to guard against credit and other abuses that played a big role in the current crisis.
Obama, speaking from the White House, attributed much of the country's current problem to "a cascade of mistakes and missed opportunities" that occurred over decades. His initiative would reverse a campaign begun in the 1980s by President Ronald Reagan to cut back on federal regulations.
Two lawmakers whose committees will play a major role said they would move quickly.
"We'll have it done this year," Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said after Obama's address.
"Absolutely," agreed Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. He joked that the White House had "threatened us with a severe chastening if we don't."
"There will be maybe some debate ... but I think we're all seeking the same results," Dodd said. He has advocated an alternative plan to strip the Federal Reserve of its regulatory role entirely and create a new consolidated bank regulator who would assume the roles that the Fed and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. now play in helping regulate state-chartered banks. "There's not a lot of confidence in the Fed at this juncture," Dodd said.
The Fed's expanded authority and the rest of the new rules would reach into currently unregulated regions of the financial markets. An 88-page white paper released by the administration detailed an effort to change a regime that Obama's economic team maintained had become too porous for the innovations and intricacies of today's financial markets.
Obama said the plan was designed in consultation with lawmakers, regulators and the institutions it seeks to police.
"We seek a careful balance," Obama said.
The plan would do away with the Office of Thrift Supervision, replacing it with a system aimed at closing gaps in coverage and keeping institutions from shopping for the most lenient bank regulator. The consumer agency would place new restrictions on lenders and mortgage brokers, requiring them to offer simple loans to consumers.
"Mortgage brokers will be held to higher standards, exotic mortgages that hide exploding costs will no longer be the norm, home mortgage disclosures will be reasonable, clearly written, and concise," Obama said.
The president offered his version of the source of the financial crisis, tracing the troubles to complex financial instruments such as asset-backed securities that ended up concentrating risk. "It was easy money," he said. "But these schemes were built on a pile of sand."
The regulatory system either had gaps or overlaps with little accountability, he said.
"Millions of Americans who have worked hard and behaved responsibly have seen their life dreams eroded by the irresponsibility of others and the failure of their government to provide adequate oversight," Obama said.
The financial sector and lawmakers from both parties concede the need for significant changes in the rules that govern the intricate and interconnected world of banking and investment. But the details of Obama's proposal already are facing resistance, signaling a tough sell for a president who is spending major political capital on his health care overhaul.
Under Obama's plan, the Federal Reserve would gain power to supervise holding companies and large financial institutions considered so big that their failure could undermine the nation's financial system. But even as it gained new powers, the Fed would lose some banking authority to the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency.
Obama's proposal would require the Federal Reserve, which now can independently use emergency powers to bail out failing banks, to first obtain Treasury Department approval before extending credit to institutions in "unusual and exigent circumstances."
The plan does not attempt major consolidation of turf-conscious regulatory agencies and does not inject itself into an ongoing debate over whether to bring some insurance companies under federal oversight. Administration officials said those efforts would have distracted from the central mission of addressing the weaknesses that led to the current crisis.
The president predicted that critics will find that his efforts go too far or fall short. The expanded Fed role and the new consumer regulator will be subjects of fierce debate in Congress. Many bankers oppose a new consumer protection regulator, and many lawmakers worry the Fed could become too powerful.
In conjunction with the Fed's authority over large financial institutions and the new consumer agency, Obama also proposed: