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Originally published Friday, March 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Sound Economy with Jon Talton

Veteran financial journalist Jon Talton blogs daily on the most important economic news, trends and issues involving Seattle and the Northwest.

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The proposed financial-company regulations and you

How new financial regulations will affect the average person as outlined Thursday by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner for the House Financial Services Committee.

The Associated Press

Proposed new regulations outlined Thursday by the Obama administration would rein in financial-services companies like never before.

If passed by Congress, the rules would give the government new powers to take over insurance companies and strictly regulate the largest financial service companies. Also, they would regulate hedge funds, venture-capital and private-equity funds for the first time, and implement new rules for money-market funds to prevent rapid, mass withdrawals.

The financial sector is certainly eyeing these proposals closely. But how will all this affect the average person?

Here are some questions and answers about the proposed regulations and what they mean to you.

Q: What does the Obama administration hope to accomplish through these regulations?

A: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told the House Financial Services Committee on Thursday that the financial-services system is unstable and fragile and has failed in fundamental ways. He said inadequate checks and balances had attracted fraud and consumer protection had failed.

Addressing those issues, he argued, requires rules that are "simpler and more effectively enforced and produce a more stable system, that protects consumers and investors."

Q: How would regulations be tightened?

A: For starters, the government is proposing that an existing agency, or perhaps a newly created one, be given the power to regulate any type of company whose failure could harm the entire financial-services industry. That could be banks, insurance companies, hedge funds and others.

The most significant change is that this agency would have enough power to force a company to take action such as increasing capital, changing accounting policies or reducing debt to remain financially solid.

"Retail investors should find it reassuring that financial institutions will probably be subject to what I will call financial adult supervision," said John Coffee, a securities professor at Columbia Law School. "It will keep them from betting the ranch on one investment strategy or leveraging up to the eyeballs."

Geithner did not suggest which agency should get all this power and Coffee said that was probably intentional because it will be a major sticking point as the proposal goes through Congress.

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Q: What will happen to my insurance policies and annuities?

A: Insurance companies are largely regulated by states, which creates a patchwork of varying rules that can drive up costs. Uniform federal government oversight could improve efficiency and ultimately lower costs for consumers, said Jack Dolan, a spokesman for the American Council of Life Insurers.

The $5 trillion life-insurance industry, which serves 75 million customers, operates under a regulatory system mostly created in the 1800s, Dolan said.

"We just really are in a new era where you do need to have someone at the federal level overlooking the whole landscape of financial services and seeing where problems might arise."

Q: Would my investments in money-market funds be safer, or would yields be affected, if the regulations are passed?

A: The administration is proposing that the Securities and Exchange Commission strengthen the regulations around money-market funds to reduce the risk of a run on funds. The measures would also ensure money funds can always return investor cash on demand.

Consider an example of what can go wrong: Last fall, institutional investors spooked by the Lehman Brothers failure suddenly pulled huge sums out of the The Primary Fund, which forced fund managers to unload assets at fire-sale prices to come up with the money. That pushed down the value of the fund, causing investors to suffer losses in what had been characterized as one of the safest investments.

The administration's money-market proposals sound similar to measures unveiled last week by the money-market industry.

Q: How would the regulations affect hedge funds and risky, exotic types of investments?

A: Hedge funds and other funds like venture-capital funds above a certain level of assets would have to register with a government regulator. Geithner didn't say, however, what kind of authority the government would assert once the funds register.

Anyway, this is likely to have little direct impact on most of us because hedge funds typically deal with pension funds and very high-net-worth investors, said Richard Baker, chief executive of the Managed Funds Association.

Q: What happens next with the proposals?

A: They require congressional approval and will be proposed in many separate pieces of legislation. The Obama administration is pushing for quick action and has already sent Congress the first bill — one permitting the government to seize control of nonbank institutions such as insurance companies.

The chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said action could come on the bill as early as next week.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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