Would Paulson’s CBRA Have Fangs?

April 1st, 2008 by Phil Mattera

Although anything coming from the Bush Administration has to be regarded with suspicion, one aspect of the Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s plan to revamp the regulation of financial institutions is intriguing. As part of the replacement of the current alphabet soup of agencies with a new minestrone, Paulson called for the creation of a single entity to oversee consumer protection issues relating to all regulated financial institutions. Although the Paulson blueprint often refers to this as the “business conduct regulator,” the formal proposed name is the Conduct of Business Regulatory Agency, or CBRA for short.

The new agency would combine selected functions now handled (or neglected) by entities such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the various bank regulators. Other SEC functions—presumably including oversight of the securities of non-financial companies—would apparently reside in a new agency formed by the merger of the SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

CBRA’s proposed mission is described (p.19) as follows:

Business conduct regulation in this context includes key aspects of consumer protection such as disclosures, business practices, and chartering and licensing of certain types of financial firms. One agency responsible for all financial products should bring greater consistency to areas of business conduct regulation where overlapping requirements currently exist. The business conduct regulator’s chartering and licensing function should be different than the prudential regulator’s financial oversight responsibilities. More specifically, the focus of the business conduct regulator should be on providing appropriate standards for firms to be able to enter the financial services industry and sell their products and services to customers… CBRA’s main areas of authority would include disclosure issues related to policy forms, unfair trade practices, and claims handling procedures.

It’s difficult to know how seriously to take this. Is Paulson suggesting that CBRA would be able to establish strict consumer protection standards before a company is allowed to set up shop anywhere in the financial services marketplace? If so, then bring it on.

Also appealing (from a researcher’s perspective) is the emphasis on disclosure, especially relating to information apart from data that Paulson puts under the purview of the “corporate finance regulator.” Today, the disclosure needs of investors are too often put ahead of the disclosure needs of consumers, workers and the general public.

Paulson’s blueprint may go nowhere, but if it does, let’s hope that his CBRA would really have fangs.

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