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Little Scrutiny of Gov't's Rapid Financial Rule Changes

Mario Tama/Getty ImagesWith the global financial system teetering on the edge, the U.S. government has been making historic moves on a near-daily basis. Some -- like the $700 billion bailout -- have garnered big headlines. Other decisions have been little noted in the whirlwind.

The changes "affect everything from the way Americans protect their money to the way businesses finance inventory; from the way banks raise capital to the way banks borrow funds from each other," says the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.).

The Journal notes that the new rules have something else in common: The "details are almost always hashed out behind closed doors."

As the Journal puts it, the government has "redrawn the rules under which U.S. financial markets operate," and even changes "authorized by Congress -- such as higher ceilings on federal deposit insurance -- were approved at the last minute with little if any discussion."

"The lack of accountability and thoughtful review of these initiatives is really sort of jaw dropping," said Tom Schlesinger, who heads a nonprofit that monitors the Federal Reserve.

Of course, such quick action and circumventing of the rule-making process may well be necessary. "I wish we had more time," House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told the Journal. "These are hard choices and hard judgments, but I'm not inclined to think that our second-guessing them is a good idea."

At the least, the Journal provides a helpful overview of what all the changes have been. A small sample, from the WSJ:

  • Tuesday, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. proposed roughly doubling the fees it charges banks to recapitalize the fund that guarantees bank deposits, which has been depleted by recent bank failures.
  • Last month, the Fed waived normal review and public debate when it quickly approved applications from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley to become bank holding companies.
  • Federal regulators also proposed allowing banks to set aside less capital to cover potential losses from holdings of debt issued by mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
  • The Internal Revenue Service issued a three-page notice last week that makes it more attractive for one bank to buy another bank by allowing earnings to be offset in certain cases.

As the Journal notes, "it is unclear when or if" the changes will be rolled back.

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