WASHINGTON -- Amid tightening credit, rising default rates on home loans and concerns that larger investors aren't sufficiently scrutinized, a top Treasury Department official told Congress yesterday that his agency is reviewing rules with an eye toward greater regulation of the financial services sector.
Robert K. Steel, Treasury's undersecretary of domestic finance, told the House Financial Services Committee in written remarks that by early next year Treasury would release "a blueprint of structural reforms" to provide broader and more effective regulation.
When grilled by lawmakers, Steel refused to provide details, saying he didn't want to prejudge the internal review by an interagency task force.
"The regulatory structure that we have, through our view, could use a fresh re-look. And that's what we at Treasury plan to do," Steel said. "I can't tell you where that will go. Let's do the work before we have the conclusions."
Steel added that innovation has outpaced regulation, meaning current regulation "is just not attuned as it should be."
Regulation is at the heart of today's financial turmoil. Despite a wide array of federal bank regulators, the standards used by mortgage lenders weakened considerably after 2004. For example, New Century Financial Corp., which wasn't federally regulated and is now bankrupt, underwrote millions of dubious home loans, many with adjustable-rate mortgages to so-called subprime borrowers - those with the weakest credit histories.
Sheila Bair, chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which regulates many national banks, testified yesterday that $353 billion worth of adjustable-rate subprime loans are set to jump to much higher rates between now and the end of next year, affecting an estimated 1.5 million households.
In an unusual mea culpa, Bair acknowledged in written testimony that regulators saw the mortgage industry changing but, unlike consumer advocacy groups, they "failed to fully appreciate the depth of the underwriting problems and the severity of subprime payment resets until late last year."
Bair and other witnesses suggested that the area ripest for new regulation is securitization, in which banks quickly sell mortgages into a secondary market instead of holding them on their books. Once there, the mortgages are bundled together as bonds, assigned yields commensurate to their risk and sold to investors.
In 2002, nontraditional or exotic home loans, characterized by paying only the interest or giving the borrower a multitude of payment options, made up only 3 percent of subprime loans that were packaged together in non-agency mortgage bonds. By 2005, Bair said, that number had soared to about 50 percent.
The head of regulation for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Erik Sirri, told lawmakers yesterday that his agency is examining whether bond-rating agencies such as Moody's, Standard & Poor's and Fitch sufficiently disclosed potential conflicts of interest to investors.
Those rating agencies failed to downgrade most housing-related bonds when problems appeared. Critics charge that the firms were reluctant to alter their ratings because they were earning lucrative fees from the issuers of the bundled mortgage packages that they were evaluating.