WASHINGTON -- Passage of a sweeping overhaul of Wall Street regulations in 2010 was a hallmark of President Barack Obama's first term. Three years later, amid delays and compromises that critics say have diluted its ambitious goals, the president is trying to rekindle the law's promise.
Obama prodded the nation's top financial regulators on Monday to act swiftly and finish writing rules designed to prevent a recurrence of the 2008 financial crisis that helped precipitate a damaging recession from which the country is still recovering.
Obama met privately with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and seven other independent agency heads to emphasize his desire for comprehensive new rules as the five-year anniversary of the nation's financial near-meltdown approaches.
The law was considered a milestone in Obama's presidency, a robust response to the crisis, which led to a massive government bailout to stabilize the financial markets. But its implementation is behind schedule with scores of regulations yet to be written, let alone enforced.
Obama hoped to convey "the sense of urgency that he feels," spokesman Josh Earnest said before the president convened the meeting.
Lehman Brothers collapsed into bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008, and the administration has wanted to use that dubious milestone to look back on the lessons of the crisis and to chart the progress so far to prevent a recurrence. In a statement at the conclusion of the meeting, the White House said Obama commended the regulators for their work "but stressed the need to expeditiously finish implementing the critical remaining portions of Wall Street reform to ensure we are able to prevent the type of financial harm that led to the Great Recession from ever happening again."
Not everyone feels that way about the law, known as Dodd-Frank after its Democratic sponsors, Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank and Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd.
Republican House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, an early opponent of Dodd-Frank, dismissed Obama's meeting with the regulators, saying, "Much like Obamacare, Dodd-Frank is an incomprehensively complex piece of legislation that is harmful to our floundering economy and in dire need of repeal."
The law set up a council of regulators to be on the lookout for risks across the finance system. It also created an independent consumer financial protection bureau within the Federal Reserve to write and enforce new regulations covering lending and credit. And it placed shadow financial markets that previously escaped the oversight of regulators under new scrutiny, giving the government new powers to break up companies that regulators believe threaten the economy.
But because of the complexity of the industry, the law gave regulators extended time to write the new rules that would enforce its provisions.
So far, regulators have missed 60 percent of the rule-making deadlines, according to an analysis by the law firm of Davis Polk, which has been tracking progress on the bill. Even so, the rules are so complicated that the ones already written have filled about 13,800 pages, compared with the 848 pages in the law itself.
"I would have to give it a mediocre grade at this point," said Sheila Bair, the former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. "Most of the rules have not been finalized. A lot of them haven't even been proposed yet. When some of the rules have been proposed, they're highly complicated, they're riddled with exceptions, they're watered down."
Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets Inc., a bank watchdog group, said Obama needs to hold monthly meetings with regulators and fight for more money for the financial regulators to do their job.
"Only that level of consistent presidential leadership and involvement will turn the tide against Wall Street's relentless attacks, which is what has killed, weakened and delayed so much of financial reform," Kelleher said.
A key goal of the legislation was to prevent a rebuilding of a financial system that would permit banks to become so huge and intertwined that they would be "too big to fail." But the nation's top banks today are bigger than they were in 2008. A key proposal in the law would restrict banks from trading for their own profit, a practice known as proprietary trading. That rule, named after former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, has yet to take effect and the current proposal has been weakened from what the law initially envisioned.
Annette Nazareth, a former Securities and Exchange commissioner who is now a partner at Davis Polk, said that when it comes to the Volcker rule, the law requires that various regulators write a single rule that applies to all the regulated financial entities. "So to some extent it's not surprising that it has taken longer when they have had to reach consensus on some very tough issues," she said.
Overall, she added, "we are in a better position than we were before the financial crisis." She said banks have stronger capital positions, regulators are more aggressive and failing banks can be dismantled in ways they couldn't before. "We have the building blocks for a better, more stable financial system."
Action has varied from agency to agency. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, for example, has been criticized for moving so swiftly on rules that it has had to issue an unusual number of so-called "no action" letters relieving firms that it oversees from the regulations.
Other central elements of the law have fallen into place.
The Senate last month confirmed Richard Cordray as the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created by the law. Republicans had been blocking his confirmation and demanding broad changes in how the bureau was configured and how it obtained its finances. But a number of Senate Republicans withdrew their opposition, putting Cordray in place and removing one element of uncertainty that had clouded the bureau's work.
The Federal Reserve last month raised the amount of capital that big banks must hold to reduce the threat they might pose to the broader financial system. The requirements, which meet international standards agreed to after the downturn, have met some resistance from financial institutions as being too high, but have also been criticized for not being high enough.
"There is a trade-off between holding capital and the ability to lend," said Scott Talbott, a senior lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable. "Our concern is that as you take a look at all the regulations in totality, you will decrease the banks' ability to help the economy."
AP Economics Writer Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report.
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A main justification cited for the widely-debated bailouts was that regulators lacked the legal tools to effectively wind down large, complex firms like AIG. So in Dodd-Frank, they were given this ability. The FDIC and Federal Reserve have a joint proposal that requires such large firms to submit "living wills," which is expected to be finalized in August. Regulators are also divided over whether to include non-banks, such as certain hedge funds and private equity firms. And the FDIC is still in the process of reaching agreements with other countries to help wind down multinational firms.
Debit Card Fees
One of the most hotly-debated provisions -- setting limits on the charges that banks could charge merchants for the use of debit cards -- pitted giant retailers like Walmart and Home Depot against Mastercard and Visa. Though the financial services industry failed to get legislation passed in the Senate to delay the new requirements, it helped convince the Federal Reserve to raise the fees from 12 to 21 cents that merchants have to pay banks.
One looming battle is over which firms are labeled "systemically important" and therefore subject to increased government oversight. Though banks with more than $50 billion in assets automatically qualify, they are furiously lobbying to even out the damage by getting the feds to include some private-equity firms, insurers and hedge funds in that designation.
The overhaul of the massive market in derivatives -- complex financial instruments widely blamed for exacerbating the financial crisis -- has been delayed until at least October 2012. At that point, a new Congress or new administration might be less interested in taming the sector. House Republicans have also tried another tack, starving regulatory agencies of the funds they need to implement and enforce the upcoming rules.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is also one of the most polarizing elements of the law, with liberals championing its creation and conservatives condemning it as another unaccountable bureaucracy. Much of the drama centered around Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law professor who first proposed the CFPB, with Republicans vehemently opposed to her heading the new agency. After months of anticipation, the Obama administration didn't pick Warren, but chose one of her allies, former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, whose nomination did nothing to please the CFPB's GOP opponents. Otherwise, the bureau is on track, with some high-level hires and more than 200 staffers (and 1,000 expected by the end of the year.) Tomorrow, it takes over some powers including making rules for existing consumer financial laws. Yet without a director, it remains hobbled and unable to perform some of its essential duties.
Though Wall Street has vigorously fought new capital requirements -- requiring banks to hold enough capital, so as to survive times of crisis -- arguing that they would restrict lending and growth, most of the rules have been implemented. Earlier this year, regulators finalized a rule which establishes a capital floor for banks.
The Volcker Rule
The Volcker Rule, named after former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, prohibits banks from trading for their own benefit. But it has yet to be implemented, and regulators have still not released proposed rules, thought they face an October deadline. Lobbyists and regulators have been debating the definition of so-called proprietary trading.
'Skin In The Game'
Out of concern that the mortgage crisis was exacerbated since mortgage originators don't have skin in the game, the law required them to retain some of the credit risk of borrowers. But a 20 percent requirement has been opposed by the industry, which claims that it will increase the cost of borrowing. Regulators are seeking comments through August 1, and the final rule won't be ready for at least a few months.
Office of Financial Research
With experts saying that regulators' lack of information and industry data helped prevent them from anticipating the mortgage and credit crisis in 2008, Dodd-Frank authorized the creation of the Office of Financial Research. But the new office, backed by subpoena power, still lacks a director, limiting its effectiveness.