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Making Fed the enforcer is uphill battle

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KAI RYSSDAL: The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston adjourned to Cape Cod for a conference today. They invited the big boss along to share his thoughts.

And Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke had plenty. He said it’s time for Congress to approve regulatory reforms that will prevent another financial crisis. He said there needs to be somebody with an eye on the risks to the entire financial system, a systemic risk regulator who can see threats in all parts of the economy, from housing to insurance to hedge funds.

Who might that regulator be? Well, Bernanke has just the guy. Him. The whole Fed, actually.

Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale reports Mr. Bernanke is going to have to change some minds in Congress.

John Dimsdale: Bernanke said the Fed is already keeping an eye on the horizon for looming risks to the financial system. But he says he needs more authority.

Ben Bernanke: Regulators and supervisors can do a great deal, but comprehensive financial reform requires action by Congress.

In Congress, reformers want to give power to a council of regulators to rein in excessive risk taking by all sorts of financial firms, from banks to insurance companies. One idea is to put that council under the direction of the Fed.

Today, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Barney Frank, opposed that idea. And the Milken Institute’s James Barth agrees.

James Barth: I’m not so sure that the Federal Reserve should have all the powers to deal with all financial sector-type issues. The Federal Reserve didn’t particularly distinguish itself with respect to dealing with the most recent crisis.

Barth says the Fed will be preoccupied with interest rates, inflation and unemployment. And Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute says the Fed itself can create economic risks, for example, when it gets interest rates wrong.

Peter Wallison: And so to give to the Fed the authority to find systemic risk at the same time that the Fed is actually capable of creating systemic risk would seem to me to be a very silly idea.

Wallison says the Fed has no monopoly on the expertise to become a risk regulator. For example, he says, it can be found just as easily in the Treasury Department.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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