While any relief still has a long (and uncertain) path before it would be effective, on October 26, 2011, the House Financial Services Committee approved four bills (with bipartisan support) that would remove regulatory federal securities law obstacles to capital formation.
H.R. 1965 would, for banks and bank holding companies, raise the SEC registration threshold to 2,000 shareholders and the deregistration threshold to 1,200 shareholders.
H.R. 2167, the “Private Company Flexibility and Growth Act,” would raise the SEC registration threshold for all companies to 1,000 shareholders and would exclude accredited investors and certain employees from the definition of “held of record” for registration purposes.
H.R. 2940, the “Access to Capital for Job Creators Act,” would permit general solicitation and general advertising for private offerings conducted under Rule 506, so long as all purchasers were accredited investors.
House Passes Government Funding Bill, Shutdown Looms Again
The fiscal year Continuing Resolution (CR) that funds the government in lieu of Appropriations bills expires on September 30th. Therefore, Congress is required to pass another funding resolution by October 1st in order to prevent a government shutdown. The House passed its CR late Thursday night after cutting an additional $100M from the Department of Energy program that backed the Solyndra loan. The House bill contains $3.65B in disaster relief, which is partially offset by a $1.5B cut to a Department of Energy loan program for manufacturers of fuel-efficient cars. On Friday, the Senate voted to reject the House’s bill by a vote of 59 to 36 because Senate Democrat leaders are seeking greater disaster relief funding. The most likely outcome is for the House and Senate to pass a “clean” CR that funds the government until November 18 and postpones the debate over increasing disaster funding. While Congress is scheduled to be in recess next week, the House and Senate must reach an agreement on a funding resolution before recessing.
Former SEC General Counsel Testifies About Madoff Ties
On Thursday, David Becker, the former general counsel of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), testified before two Congressional panels regarding a report released this week by the SEC’s inspector general that referred Becker’s actions to the Justice Department for an investigation of possible violations of conflict-of-interest laws. Prior to Becker’s appearance before the committees, SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro and SEC Inspector General David Kotz also testified about their knowledge of the Becker matter. While Becker testified that he told numerous SEC officials about his financial connection to Madoff accounts, Schapiro told the Committee that she did not inform the other four SEC commissioners because Becker was cleared by the SEC’s ethics office. It is unclear if the Justice Department’s investigation will lead to any charges against Becker, but the SEC is already adopting several changes based on the inspector general’s report, including redirecting the top ethics officer to report directly to the chairman of the commission, rather than the general counsel.
House Subcommittee Passes First Postal Reform Bill
On Wednesday, the House Government Reform Oversight Subcommittee passed legislation to overhaul the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). The bill, sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, would allow USPS to drop a delivery day and adjust labor costs. However, Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., who chairs the House Oversight Subcommittee responsible for postal issues, introduced and passed a substitute amendment to the bill that also would cut back door-to-door delivery and reduce the postal workforce starting with retirement-eligible employees before laying off other staff. The bill now heads to the full Committee for consideration.
Geithner Meets with Eurozone Finance Ministers
On Friday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner met with seventeen European finance ministers in Poland to discuss the eurozone’s debt crisis. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Eurogroup, announced the group decided to delay till October a decision on whether to pay out the next tranche of a multi-billion euro loan to Greece. The two-day meeting of Europe’s Economic and Financial Affairs (ECOFIN) Council — hosted by Polish Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski and the president of the National Bank of Poland — comes ahead of G20 and IMF meetings later this month. The European Central Bank, along with the Fed, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan and the Swiss National Bank, also announced that three U.S. dollar auctions would be held between October and December.
Senate Committee Passes Increased Funding for SEC and CFTC
On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Financial Services Subcommittee passed its FY 2012 funding bill giving banking and commodities regulators large budget increases to help them implement sweeping new financial regulations. The bill, which will now go to the full U.S. Senate for a vote, gives the Securities and Exchange Commission a fiscal 2012 budget of $1.407 billion, an increase of roughly 19 percent from its current fiscal 2011 budget of $1.185 billion and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission an estimated 19 percent increase in its funding, jumping from $202 million to $240 million for fiscal 2012. That bill would also split oversight of the nearly $600 trillion over-the-counter derivatives market between the two regulators and give the SEC greater authority to regulate hedge funds, credit-rating agencies and municipal advisers. However, the fate of the bill remains uncertain because House Republicans oppose many of the Dodd-Frank provisions which increase the need for expanded SEC and CFTC budgets. Earlier this year, the House Appropriations Financial Services Subcommittee passed a bill that would reduce the CFTC’s budget to $171.9 million but maintain the SEC’s funding at its FY 2011 level. With the end of the year approaching, House and Senate leaders are bracing themselves for another omnibus bill that combines all the unpassed appropriations bills into one major bill. The House and Senate will most likely fail to pass similar Financial Services Appropriations bills which will cause the bill to be wrapped into the omnibus thereby reducing the chance of large increases for the SEC or CFTC.
Fitzpayne Nominated for Treasury Legislative Affairs Chief
On Wednesday, the White House announced that President Obama intends to nominate Alastair Fitzpayne as the next assistant secretary of Treasury for legislative affairs. Fitzpayne has been Treasury’s deputy chief of staff since January 2009. He was a legislative assistant to former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) from 2001 to 2006. From 2007 to 2009, he served as a senior policy adviser to Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).
House Republicans Introduce Disaster Funding Bill
On Wednesday, House Republican leaders introduced a stopgap spending bill to keep the government operating though mid-November and provide $3.65 billion in short-term federal assistance to replenish strained disaster reserves. The funding resolution would impose a 1.4 percent cut on most agencies and Cabinet departments, including Defense, to stay within 2012 spending caps set in August. FEMA and the Corps of Engineers would immediately benefit from a first installment of $1 billion in emergency funds to avoid any disruption in aid for these last weeks of the 2011 fiscal year ending September 30. The second $2.65 billion represents a down payment toward FEMA’s 2012 budget. With two weeks left in fiscal 2011, FEMA’s disaster reserve fund has dwindled to $377 million and the agency has been operating since late August on an “immediate needs” basis, forcing delays in longer-term recovery projects around the nation. Senate Democrats, who have been pursuing their own much larger $6.9 billion disaster aid package, said they did not support the current House approach, but left open the possibility of agreement if House Republicans consider more disaster aid. The House is schedule to vote on its bill next week.
FDIC Approves New Systematic Risk Rules
On Tuesday, the FDIC approved new sets of rules that the largest banks will have to follow in drafting plans in the event of their own collapse. The panel also approved contingency planning guidelines for insured banks. The new rules, which were authorized in the Dodd-Frank Act, are designed to eliminate the need for bailouts by giving the FDIC power to liquidate large firms whose failure could threaten the financial system. Banks with at least $50 billion in assets will have to file such plans, as will any firm designated as systemically important by the Financial Stability Oversight Council. The final rule changes the filing timeline from an April draft proposal released by the FDIC and Fed, moving toward a tiered phase-in based on the total of non-bank assets held by firms. Companies with more than $250 billion in non-bank assets are required to file the plans by July 1, 2012. Firms with non-bank assets between $100 billion and $250 billion would be required to file by July 1, 2013, and all other firms would be required to submit plans by December 2013. The agency also approved unanimously a separate rule dictating resolution plans for FDIC-insured banks with more than $50 billion in assets. The rule, which the agency began drafting before the completion of the Dodd-Frank Act, would apply to 37 banks and thrifts. Thirty four of those firms would be required to file resolution plans with the Fed because of the size of their parent company. The rule takes effect January 1, 2012, and would be subject to a 60-day public comment period.
If you have any questions regarding any of these issues, please contact:
Matt Jessee, Policy Advisor
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Q1 GDP Slows to 1.8%
On Thursday, the Bureau of Economic Analysis announced that the U.S. GDP growth rate in the first quarter of 2011 slowed to an annual rate of 1.8 percent, compared to a rate of 3.1 percent in fourth quarter 2010 and 3.7 percent in first quarter 2010. The Bureau cited a combination of lower-than-expected economic data, global energy uncertainty, and concerns about the budget deficit as causes of the growth rate decelerating.
Bernanke Announces Rates to Stay at Near Zero, Ends Bond Buying Program
On Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke held his first quarterly press conference in which he said that the economy and job market are improving moderately, but the housing market and other factors such as gas prices continue to be a drag on growth. He announced that the Fed plans to end the $600 billion treasury bond-buying program in June and will leave interest rates at their current levels. The event followed a two-day meeting of the Fed’s policymaking committee at which the central bank indicated continuity in its strategy. The Fed’s bond buying program known as the second round of quantitative easing, or “QE2,” will expire as scheduled at the end of June. The Fed also maintained its near-zero target for short-term interest rates, where it has been since December 2008, and indicated that it expects to keep rates “exceptionally low” for “an extended period.”
Debt Ceiling Vote
The vote to increase the U.S. government’s borrowing ceiling beyond the current limit of $14 trillion has become the hot topic in Congress. While the Treasury Department’s original estimate was that the ceiling would need to be raised by mid-May, the Department is now saying it could hold out till July but would need to take extraordinary measures. While the measure is expected to easily pass the Senate, the question remains whether the House can pass such a bill. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said this week that he will not guarantee a vote on bill to raise the debt limit, much less passage of such a bill, without cuts in discretionary spending and alterations of entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid. Congress returns next week from its two week recess, and House Republicans plan to hold a series of meetings to gather feedback from their Members about the debt ceiling.
Japan Announces Disaster Relief Fund
On Friday, Japanese Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced a 4 trillion yen ($48.5 billion) emergency budget for disaster relief in the wake of the nuclear crisis triggered by the March tsunami. Noda said the government would not issue new bonds to pay for the fund, and the cabinet plans to submit the emergency budget to parliament on April 28. Given that the material damage alone from the disaster could top $300 billion, the government is expected to seek additional future disaster funding that will likely require tax increases and debt financing.
Justice Department Examines NYSE/Nasdaq/ICE Merger
On Wednesday, Nasdaq-OMX CEO Robert Greifeld and ICE CEO Jeffrey Sprecher disclosed in a letter to NYSE Euronext’s board that they are in discussions with the antitrust division of the Justice Department (DOJ) after buying NYSE Euronext stock which triggered the DOJ’s antitrust review. The letter also disclosed that Nasdaq-OMX and ICE are willing to pay NYSE Euronext $350 million if DOJ blocks their proposed takeover, an offer they say is now based on “fully committed financing” of $3.8 billion.
On April 10, NYSE Euronext ’s board rejected the Nasdaq/ICE unsolicited $11.3 billion proposal and affirmed its February agreement to merge with Deutsche Boerse AG for $9.5 billion in stock. The agreement with Deutsche Boerse includes a payout of 250 million euros ($358 million) should that deal fall apart. NYSE Euronext acknowledged that it had received the Nasdaq/ICE reverse break up free proposal and that its board is reviewing the matter.
S&P Changes U.S. Long Term Rating from Stable to Negative
On Monday, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services (S&P) changed its outlook on the U.S. long-term credit rating from stable to negative because ” the U.S. has relative to its ‘AAA’ peers very large budget deficits, rising government indebtedness, and the path to addressing these is not clear.” While the S&P affirmed the U.S. ‘AAA’ long-term and ‘A-1+’ short-term sovereign credit ratings, it also predicted at least a one-in-three chance that it could lower its long-term rating on the U.S. within two years because of the increased risk that the political negotiations over when and how to address both the medium and long-term fiscal challenges will persist until at least after the elections in 2012.
European Central Bank Announces Interest Rate Hike; Portugal Bailout Next
On Thursday, Jean-Claude Trichet, European Central Bank president, announced a 25 basis point rise in eurozone borrowing costs, to 1.25 percent. This will be the first of such an increase since the 2008 financial crisis. In response to the news, the euro initially dipped against the dollar but later appreciated to trade above $1.43. In his remarks, Trichet also said the ECB had encouraged Portugal to request an international bailout, which is estimated at 80 billion euros, roughly the same amount as Ireland but less than the 110 billion euro package offered to Greece. EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund officials will meet in Lisbon next week to negotiate the cuts that are deeper than those that were rejected by Portuguese opposition politicians last month.
SEC Reviews Private Company Share Rules
On Wednesday, SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro sent a letter to House Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) saying that she had ordered a review of all the rules that affect share issues by privately held companies. According to the letter, the likely changes would include raising from 499 the number of shareholders private companies can have without being required to open their books, and also making it easier for such companies to publicize share offerings. The SEC review also will examine issues raised by the growing use of “special purpose vehicles” that allow a pool of investors to buy a stake in a company, while counting as only one shareholder for the purposes of the SEC rules. Shapiro’s letter also indicated that the SEC is considering relaxing a strict ban on private companies publicizing share issues, known as the “general solicitation” ban.
FDIC Introduces New Fed Borrowing Fee
Last Friday, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) issued a new rule that increases the fees on banks that borrow overnight funds from the Federal Reserve. The FDIC introduced the higher fees as called for in last year’s Dodd-Frank financial reform law. The higher fee has led some companies to step out of the short-term lending markets, exacerbating an already low supply of Treasury bills used to back borrowing. On Tuesday, the FDIC issued a response to criticism of the rule saying that the notice of proposed rulemaking was announced in November giving banks sufficient time to make adjustments and that the Congressionally-mandated change better reflect risks to the industry-funded Deposit Insurance Fund.
Government Shutdown Looms
With the current temporary funding resolution set to expire April 8, House and Senate Appropriations committees worked toward crafting a six-month compromise bill, setting annual spending at $1.055 trillion, $28 billion more than the House-passed level but still a $33 billion cut from the original spending measure. However, House Republicans remain splintered over whether a shutdown would be good politically, or whether they should compromise with Democrats in order to move on to larger future battles such as next year’s budget and the debt ceiling increase. Meanwhile, Democrats also remain divided over whether to allow a shutdown to happen or acquiesce to Republican cuts. Whether a compromise can be reached to avoid a shutdown will be known next week.
Unemployment Rate Drops to 8.8%
On Friday, the Department of Labor announced that the unemployment rate dipped to 8.8% in March from 8.9% in February. Nonfarm payrolls gained 216,000, with private-sector employment rising by 230,000. Payroll employment stood at 130.7 million in March. There were gains of 199,000 jobs in services and 17,000 jobs in manufacturing in March. Government employment fell by 14,000 and 9,000 jobs were lost in education. Nearly half of the unemployed have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. Private-sector wages fell 2 cents an hour to $19.30.
Ally Financial Files for IPO
On Thursday, Ally Financial, the former finance arm of General Motors, filed for an initial public offering that would allow the federal government to begin selling off its 73.8 percent stake. Ally said in its registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that it was seeking to raise $100 million. Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley are the lead underwriters. The company did not give an estimated date or share price for the offering. The Treasury Department, which invested more than $17 billion in Ally, did not say how much of its stake it intended to sell. In addition to common shares, the Treasury Department owns $5.9 billion in convertible preferred stock. Earlier this month, the Treasury Department began unwinding its holdings in Ally, selling $2.7 billion in trust preferred securities.
February Unemployment Falls to 8.9%
On Friday, the Department of Labor reported that the nation added 192,000 jobs in February, up from a gain of 63,000 in January. The unemployment rate was down to 8.9 percent, falling below 9 percent for the first time in nearly two years. Altogether, 13.7 million people are unemployed and actively looking. A broader measure of unemployment, which includes people working part-time because they could not find full-time jobs and those so discouraged that they have given up searching, was listed at 15.9 percent in February, down from 16.1 percent in January.
Congress Passes Stopgap Funding Measure
This week the House and Senate passed a continuing resolution funding the government until March 18, thereby avoiding a government shutdown and cutting $4 billion from current fiscal year spending. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said Thursday that House Republicans plan to keep cutting spending at a rate of $2 billion a week, through two-week spending bills, until the Senate makes clear its position on a budget for the rest of FY 2011. House Republicans last month passed a bill to finish out the fiscal year, cutting $61 billion from 2010 levels. However, President Obama has issued a veto threat on that bill, saying House Republicans’ cuts are unacceptable. Senate Democrats have said that the non-spending “policy” provisions of the House Republicans’ bill regarding the environment and healthcare will also have to be struck before an agreement can be reached.
SEC Votes to Restrict Bonuses
On Thursday, the Securities and Exchange Commission voted to pass new restrictions on bonuses at large brokers and investment advisers, including hedge funds. The new restrictions are nearly identical to rules proposed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) last month that apply to the banks that the FDIC oversees. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, which mandates the bonus rules, requires seven federal banking regulators to write the rules jointly. The SEC’s proposal will require brokers and advisers with more than $1 billion in assets to disclose the bonus arrangements of their executives, directors and lower-rung employees to the SEC annually. The proposal will also require firms with at least $50 billion in assets to hold half of the bonuses of top executives and heads of business units for three years. Any bonuses would have to be adjusted for losses at the firm after the pay was awarded. A 45-day public comment period follows Wednesday’s vote. A second vote by the commission is required before the proposal can be made final.
House to Pass Funding Cuts
This week the House debated an extension of the current fiscal year’s funding resolution that expires on March 4th. While the measure is not expected to pass until tonight, among the largest funding cuts passed so far are a $336 million cut to the School Turnaround Grant program, a $22.5 million cut to the National Endowment for the Arts, a $131 million cut to the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as defunding of the Federal Communications Commission’s implementation of the so-called “Net Neutrality” rules and defunding portions of the Equal Access to Justice Act. The House plans to vote on over 100 more amendments today ranging from funding cuts to the healthcare law, the IRS, and the CFPB among others. While the Senate has already recessed for the President’s Day District Work Period, after the House passes the pending funding resolution, it will also recess until the week of February 28. When both bodies return, the will attempt to resolve differences between their respective funding bills before the March 4th deadline.
Issa Issues Subpoenas to Bank of America for Countrywide Documents
On Tuesday, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) issued subpoenas regarding Countrywide Financial’s VIP program. The subpoenas ask for Bank of American to turnover all communications and documents relating to government officials in the VIP loan program by March 7th.
OCC Pushes for Mortgage Probe Settlement
On Wednesday, Federal Housing Administration Commissioner David Stevens announced that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the federal bank regulator which oversees the nation’s banks, is pushing for a settlement to the months-long federal and state probes into abusive mortgage practices to take place in the next month. The federal review involves the OCC and other bank regulators, as well as the Departments of Justice, Housing and Urban Development and the newly formed Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. The 50-state probe involves state attorneys general and state bank regulators. According to sources, the OCC is negotiating an agreement that would cost the industry less than $5 billion in fines and mortgage modifications for troubled homeowners.
Corporations Campaign For Foreign Revenue Repatriation Deal
A group of multinational corporations is planning a campaign for a tax holiday that would allow them to repatriate their estimated $1 trillion in current foreign revenue. Specifically, the companies’ aim is to win a one-year tax amnesty on their foreign earnings, allowing them to repatriate that money at a tax rate of 5%, instead of the current 35% rate. In 2004, multinationals were successful in convincing Congress to approve a similar one-year foreign revenue tax holiday.
Corporations Weigh in On New SEC Whistleblower Program
In 2010, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act created a new corporate whistleblower program within the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). With the SEC set to release the final rules in April, more than two dozen companies Fortune 500 companies have written letters asking the agency to revise its proposed rules for awarding workers who report information about corporate fraud or wrongdoing. The letters express concern that employees will bypass hot lines and other internal reporting mechanisms and thus hurt the companies’ internal efforts to encourage employees’ compliance with the law. Under the current law, the SEC offers awards of at least $100,000 and as much as 30% of the penalties and recovered funds to people who report knowledge of a fraud. To qualify for an award, the information must lead to a successful enforcement action with sanctions of at least $1 million. Under the SEC’s draft rules proposed in November, whistleblowers would not be required to report suspected wrongdoing to their employers in order to win a reward. In an effort to address the companies’ concerns, the SEC proposed to encourage internal reporting by giving credit to informants for first reporting the wrongdoing through company channels in setting the size of the award.
Obama Budget Includes New CFTC User Fees
On Monday, President Obama released his FY 2012 Budget which included proposed user fees as an option to help the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) carry out its derivatives oversight. The user fees, which require congressional approval, would raise $117 million in the 2012 fiscal year and $588 million through 2016. The CFTC would assess the fees on “the regulated community” to pay for the CFTC’s non-enforcement activities. The user fees represent an alternative source of funds for the CFTC, which is now funded through annual funding legislation.
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Administration Unveils Housing Reform Plan
On Friday, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner announced the Obama Administration’s recommendations to phase out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and to set minimum down-payments for buyers. The proposal includes a mandatory 10 percent down payment for home buyers and three options for Fannie and Freddie to be wound down but stopped short of recommending outright privatization or closure. However, critics were quick to point out that there are no specific timelines for action in the proposal, and regardless of Geithner’s recommendations, ultimately it will be up to Congress to enact legislation on the issue.
Kevin Warsh to Leave Fed
On Thursday, Federal Reserve Board Governor Kevin Warsh announced that he is stepping down from his position at the end of March. President Obama will now have the opportunity to replace Warsh, a Bush appointee, with his own nominee. President Obama currently has another nominee, Peter Diamond, pending before the Senate for confirmation. Once President Obama has filled these two vacant slots, he will have named six of the seven currently sitting Fed Governors.
Senate Banking Committee Sets First Dodd-Frank Hearing
On Friday, the Senate Banking Committee announced it will hold its first hearing of the 112th Congress on the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform Act on February 17. The hearing will focus on the Administration’s progress report six-months after the bill’s passage. Witnesses will include Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, FDIC Chair Sheila Bair, SEC Chair Mary Schapiro, CFTC Chair Gary Gensler and Acting Comptroller John Walsh.