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Originally published March 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 27, 2009 at 12:30 PM

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Analysis

U.S. mood shifts back to more financial regulation

Capitalism can't always be trusted. If you're too big to fail, you're too big to make all your own decisions, according to the emerging view in Washington.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Capitalism can't always be trusted. If you're too big to fail, you're too big to make all your own decisions, according to the emerging view in Washington.

Three decades after Ronald Reagan launched a determined campaign to ease government regulations on business, the pendulum is swinging the other way.

"Too big to fail is the right size to regulate," declares Rep. Al Green, D-Texas.

Riding a wave of public anger over Wall Street greed and government bailouts, the Obama administration Thursday unveiled a far-reaching plan for "better, tougher, smarter" rules over big financial companies.

The plan would crack down on major, but now lightly regulated, players such as hedge funds and traders of exotic financial products.

The administration is also pressing for closer international coordination. Allies want the U.S. to get tougher, and the new plan will give President Obama something to show when he goes to London next week for an economic summit of 20 major and developing nations.

Much of the regulatory framework now in place dates back to the Great Depression, some back to just after the Civil War.

Most of what Obama is seeking, including a new regulator to oversee the entire financial system, will require legislation. With the level of angst in the country as high as it is, it seems likely he will get at least some of the changes through the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Even administration critics acknowledge there needs to be more financial regulation to avoid any repeat of the kind of meltdown that has plunged much of the globe into painful recession.

Few would argue it's a good idea to allow sprawling financial conglomerates to be able to shop for their own regulator — pretty much what bailed-out insurer American International Group did.

But there is also fear of going too far and suppressing the entrepreneurial spirit that is part of the nation's free-market heritage.

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., says the government needs to not overregulate "to the point where we wipe out one of our great advantages as a nation, which is that we had folks willing to put money up for people willing to take risk and try to create jobs."

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Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, noted that complex investment products known as derivatives, including mortgage-backed securities, "were once seen as a great innovation and widely celebrated." Their implosion set off the global financial meltdown.

"We want more transparency but we want, at the same time, to protect innovative ideas. Everyone's so angry. What the public wants is a radical pendulum swing toward the tightest regulation. We just have to be careful that we don't overdo it," Light said.

In any event, said Light, "we're certainly done with the era of self-regulation. That's over."

Supporters of more regulation say they don't want to squelch American entrepreneurship.

"Obviously, no system is going to prevent all failures, because it would then be too restrictive," said House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass. The goal is to minimize the likelihood that big financial entities will get so heavily indebted "that their lack of success threatens the whole system," he said.

Another part of the administration's financial-regulation overhaul, unveiled earlier in the week, would grant the government the power to seize any large failing financial company, a power it now holds only for banks.

The administration also plans to send Congress legislation protecting consumers and eliminating flaws in existing regulations.

The proposals announced Thursday, designed to limit risk-taking, are "a good start to a long process," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Still, Washington always addresses the sins of the past, tries to solve old problems and doesn't have a crystal ball to deal with the future.

Whatever the rules, someone tries to come up with ways to slip around them, sometimes with Washington's help.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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