Two of the most important financial regulators in the country have a message for Congress: We need more money.
At a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee Tuesday morning, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Schapiro and Commodity Futures Trading Commission Chairman Gary Gensler told lawmakers that the demands on their agencies to expand oversight are growing, but that their pocketbooks are not.
"We’re way underfunded at the CFTC," Gensler told lawmakers, after a question on the subject from Senator Chuck Schumer (D- N.Y.). "Imagine if, all of a sudden, there are eight times the number of teams on the [football] field, but only seven refs," Gensler said. "There would be would be mayhem on the field. The fans would lose confidence."
Similarly, Gensler said, investors are losing confidence when when mayhem breaks out in the financial markets as a result of lax oversight. "They feel that the market is unfair."
SEC chief Schapiro echoed the point: "We've been asked to take on very significant new responsibilities," she said. Though the SEC has made progress in hiring new staffers and improving its technological capabilities, Schapiro conceded that, in some areas, the efforts haven't gone far enough.
"We’re still way outgunned by the firms we regulate in terms of technology," she said.
The inadequacy of the SEC budget is an issue that Schapiro has raised in the past, and one that sits at the heart of criticism that the regulator is not able to fully monitor and regulate financial markets. Last month, a number of former SEC enforcement lawyers told The Huffington Post that the SEC is playing catch-up in some of its oversight. "The SEC just doesn't have the resources to be everywhere -- to regulate and to be the cop on the beat," Paul Berger, a former associate director of the SEC's enforcement division who left in 2006 for the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton told The Huffington Post at the time.
The Senate Banking Committee convened Tuesday's hearing in the wake of trading losses JPMorgan Chase disclosed two weeks ago, resulting from bad bets the bank made on credit derivatives. Since those losses were initially disclosed, the amount lost has risen from $2 billion to $3 billion, according to some estimates.
On the question of the JPMorgan losses specifically, Schapiro told legislators that her agency will look into the "appropriateness and completeness" of the bank's financial reporting.
Since JPMorgan disclosed those losses, the question of what steps regulators could take to avoid similar losses in the future has been central to the ongoing debate over the future of financial regulation.
At Tuesday's hearing, CFTC chief Gensler suggested greater regulation of derivatives could help. "The more transparent markets are, the harder it is to misunderstand the risk you have," he said.
That echoes comments made by one of his predecessors, Formef CFTC chair Brooksley Born. One of the earliest U.S. officials to warn of the dangers of unregulated derivatives, Born recently told The Huffington Post: "Derivatives regulation is absolutely necessary for the safety of our financial system. Something like [the JPMorgan loss], or something many times worse, could happen at any time, and we don't know about it. Nobody knows."
But Gensler also suggested a need for stricter regulation of hedging and proprietary trading by banks. Sloppy hedging strategies have been blamed for the losses at JP Morgan. Making sure that banks hedge risk without turning those hedging operations into money-making units in their own right (which critics have accused JPMorgan of doing in this case) is a core goal of the so-called Volcker Rule. That rule, part of the Dodd-Frank financial-reform act, would ban proprietary trading by federally-insured banks and is set to take effect this summer. Without stricter oversight, Gensler said, banks "are tempted to swing for the fences" in an effort to turn a profit.
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