After their experience with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, you'd think that Congress would no longer be interested in creating companies seen by the market as backed by the government. Yet that is exactly what the relevant congressional committees -- the Senate Banking Committee and the House Financial Services Committee -- are now considering.
In the wake of the financial crisis, the idea rapidly gaining strength in Washington is to create a systemic risk regulator. The principal sponsor of the plan is Barney Frank, the chair of the House Financial Services Committee. A recent report by the Group of Thirty (a private sector organization of financial regulation specialists), written by a subcommittee headed by Paul Volcker, also endorsed the idea, as has the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Securities Industry Financial Markets Association.
If implemented, this would give the government the authority to designate and supervise "systemically significant" companies. Presumably, systemically significant companies would be those that are so large, or involved in financial activities of such importance, that their failure would create systemic risk.
There are several serious problems with this plan, beginning with the fact that no one can define a systemic risk or its causes. The Congressional Oversight Panel, which was established to advise Congress on the use of the TARP funds, concluded -- with two Republicans dissenting -- that the current crisis is an example of a systemic risk evolving into a true systemic event. After all, virtually all the world's major financial institutions are seriously weakened, and many have either failed or been rescued. If this is not an example of a systemic risk, what is?