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Rating agency rule watered down

By Jennifer Liberto, senior writer

WASHINGTON (CNNMoney.com) -- A proposed rule to stop financial firms from shopping for credit ratings will instead be postponed and studied, under an agreement finalized Wednesday by lawmakers negotiating a final Wall Street reform package.

The deal calls for a two-year study but then would mandate that the Securities and Exchange Commission adopt a system to independently match ratings agencies with firms that want securities rated.

The change is among the most controversial so far in two days of meetings of hammering out differences between House and Senate bills. Later on Wednesday, lawmakers also came to an agreement on new congressional reviews of the Federal Reserve.

The nation's largest ratings agencies -- Standard & Poor's, Moody's and Fitch -- have been under fire for their role in the financial crisis. The agencies gave top ratings to toxic financial products, like bonds backed by subprime mortgages. Lawmakers are most concerned with preventing financial firms from fishing for top-notch ratings.

Lawmakers, particularly Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., were concerned that the credit rating agency curb, which passed overwhelmingly in the Senate, would be tough to carry out. The measure originally required the SEC to appoint an independent panel tasked with creating a random process that matched rating agencies with financial firms.

The new measure leaves the door open for the SEC to figure out a better way to match rating agencies with financial firms. But if it can't, the SEC is required to follow the original plan proposed by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., in two years.

Lawmakers on the negotiating committee said Franken indicated he could live with the agreement.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said the House agreed to the measure on Wednesday.

The provision is not the only one in the Wall Street bill aimed at credit rating agencies. The final legislation is also expected to strip federal law of any provisions that suggest credit rating agencies' seal of approval is necessary.

Auditing the Fed: The House bill subjected the Fed to ongoing audits, while the Senate had ordered a one-time audit of the central bank's loans during the financial crisis.

The compromise lawmakers are agreeing to would subject the Fed to ongoing audits. But the audits would only review the Fed's emergency and cheap loans, as well as open market transactions.

Also, the compromise may force the Fed to publicly disclose who it makes loans to, after two years.

Also, Senate negotiators are leaning toward dropping a measure they had wanted that would have made the head of the New York Fed presidentially appointed, instead of chosen by New York banks. To top of page

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