Wall Street reform: Next steps

By Jennifer Liberto, senior writer


WASHINGTON (CNNMoney.com) -- Now that Wall Street reform has passed both chambers of Congress, the next step for lawmakers is to work out the differences.

Within days, congressional leaders will appoint members of the House and Senate to a special conference committee to meld two bills into one. The first negotiations are set to begin the week of June 7. After they reach agreement, each chamber will vote. The goal is to send final legislation to President Obama before the July 4 recess.

The good news: The two Wall Street reform bills have a lot in common.

They both require banks to strengthen capital cushions and create a panel of regulators tasked with sounding an alarm if the financial system is at risk. They shine a light on complex financial products and create a powerful new regulator in charge of consumer financial protection.

"If you take the administration's draft and the House and Senate bills, and put them up against a wall, and step back, you'd find they'd look pretty similar," said Doug Elliott, a former investment banker and Brookings Institution fellow.

But there are some important differences. The Senate version is tougher on Wall Street: It cracks down harder on banks that make risky bets and leaves less room for financial firms to wiggle out of tougher rules on derivatives.

Here are some of the most significant differences between the Senate and House bills that lawmakers need to hash out.

The problem: Risky derivatives

Taxpayers are on the hook for tens of billions of dollars used to keep giant financial firms like American International Group (AIG, Fortune 500) afloat. Nobody knew the depths of AIG's troubles when it was effectively taken over in September 2008, since the firm's risky bets were traded in the shadows.

Senate: Makes bets on complex financial contracts called derivatives more transparent, pushing them onto clearinghouses and exchanges, which can pinpoint the value of the securities. Makes firms post collateral, backing up the bets. Gives wiggle room to certain companies, such as airlines and farmers, that use derivatives to shed the risk of big swings in prices and interest rates.

House: Requires more transparency by forcing trades on clearinghouses and exchanges and requiring firms to post collateral, but only for big financial players who pose risk to the financial system. Also allows more leeway for more financial firms to escape tough rules, including some banks if they're working with airlines and farmers that need to shed the risk.

The problem: Banks that gamble

Taxpayers are on the hook when the government has to bail out banks that took on too much risk.

Senate: The Volcker rule, named for former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, directs regulators to limit the size and scope of banks' investment activities. The rule prevents banks from owning hedge funds and trading on their own accounts. Prohibits banks from making any derivative trades and forcing them to spin off their swaps desks.

House: Doesn't address either issue.

The Problem: Protecting consumers

Regulators dropped the ball by not ensuring that consumers were treated fairly in financial transactions.

Senate: Establishes an independent consumer protection agency inside the Federal Reserve. New regulator has strong powers over consumer loans, mortgages, credit cards and auto dealer loans. Agency's power is subject to a check by a new council of regulators, which can veto proposed rules that threaten the stability of the financial system or a bank's ability to remain safe.

House: Stand-alone agency. Has strong powers over consumer loans, credit cards and mortgages. But has no power over auto dealers. No checks on powers.

The Problem: Fees on card swipes

So-called interchange fees weren't a big problem in the financial crisis, but they remain a controversial point of difference between the bills. Retailers pay the operational cost -- typically 1% to 3% of a transaction -- when a customer swipes a debit or credit card.

Senate: Directs Federal Reserve to devise a way to make debit card fees "reasonable and proportional" to costs. Allows retailers to give price cuts to customers who pay with debit cards that carry lower transaction fees.

House: Doesn't address the issue. But the House Judiciary Committee passed similar legislation. To top of page

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