Barron’s editorial page editor highlights financial regulatory foibles

The Great Recession prompted a new set of federal government regulations targeting the financial sector. As Thomas Donlan of Barron’s details in his latest editorial commentary, the additional regulations do little to boost confidence in government regulators.

FSOC has the power to designate Systemically Important Financial Institutions, often abbreviated as SIFIs and pronounced Siffies. The law defines these critters with comical circularity as those financial institutions whose failure might trigger a financial crisis that would endanger the financial system. They are what they are, and regulators know them when they see them. Maybe.

All U.S. bank-holding companies with assets exceeding $50 billion are automatically SIFIs; the FSOC can designate others, even if they are not banks.

There are standards FSOC can follow. Dodd-Frank identifies many considerations, including: leverage, both on and off the formal balance sheet; interconnectedness with other SIFIs; the importance of a company as a source of credit for households, businesses, state and local governments, low-income and minority communities; maturity mismatch between short-term funding and long-term lending; and — the important catch-all grant of power — any other risk-related factor that the Council deems appropriate.

So where on the list of systemically important financial institutions are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Nowhere. The two firms that did as much as any to put the U.S. into its biggest bad-debt and banking crisis since 1933, with their ill-advised plunge into securities backed by mortgage loans that should never have been written? The two firms that have been under federal conservatorship because of the risk they pose to this day? The two firms that received a $187 billion federal bailout and must transfer all their profit to the Treasury? The two firms that “guarantee” most mortgages written since 2009?

As Alex J. Pollock of the American Enterprise Institute said recently in an article in National Mortgage News, the failure of the FSOC to designate Fannie and Freddie as SIFIs “makes FSOC look incompetent. If anybody at all is a SIFI, then Fannie and Freddie are SIFIs. If Fannie and Freddie are not SIFIs, then nobody is a SIFI.”

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