Battle brews over who will head Wall Street reform

By Tribune staff report
Posted Aug. 10, 2010 at 11:31 a.m.

The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau has no director, but infrastructure for the powerful agency that will regulate mortgages, credit cards and other consumer products already is being developed, says one of the Washington insiders under consideration to head the bureau.

“Treasury isn’t sitting and waiting for the confirmation process,” Michael Barr, assistant U.S. treasury secretary, said during a wide-ranging conversation Tuesday morning with the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board.

Barr, who is a candidate for the director’s job, identified three early initiatives of the bureau, namely to reconcile the different statements used in the home purchase closing process, to supervise the registration of non-bank mortgage lenders and, for the first time, to supervise the activities of consumer credit bureaus.

“It will take time,” Barr said of all the initiatives. “These are things that are going to have to get staged.”

Nevertheless, Barr said there is less uncertainty in the economy now that the bill has been passed. Barr was scheduled to speak to the Chicago Club Tuesday as part of the administration’s road show for its financial reform initiative.

“The kind of uncertainty people are taking about now is small [compared] to the uncertainty we had in the buildup to the financial crisis,” he said. “We are more certain today than we were three weeks ago.”

Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, chairman of a watchdog panel supervising the Troubled Asset Relief Program, also is a candidate for the job.

Barr also said the administration plans to have an outline to Congress by January for the overhaul of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  “We’re not going to have a system where you can have privatized gains and socialized losses,” Barr said. “The idea of an implicit guarantee is a thing of the past.”  That, he acknowledged is likely to put further downward pressure on home ownership rates, which last year declined for the fifth consecutive year, according to the Census Bureau.

Barr also disputed criticism Tuesday by Consumers Union of Treasury’s plan to only distribute federal Social Security and Supplemental Security benefits electronically, rather than by paper check.  In comments filed with the Treasury Department, the non-profit group that publishes Consumer Reports said consumers should be able to pick the option that best suits their personal needs.

If the government is going to encourage benefit recipients to use prepaid cards, it should do more to limit the fees charged for using them and make them easier to use,” the group wrote in its testimony.

Barr defended the plan as a cost-saving move.

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