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Bernanke ready to battle for Fed’s powers

By Jim Kuhnhenn and Jeannine Aversa
Associated Press / March 17, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke plans to wage a fresh battle against Senate efforts to scale back the Fed’s role in supervising the nation’s banks.

In testimony prepared for a House hearing today obtained by the Associated Press, Bernanke argued that the Fed factors in information it gets from its role as a regulator into its decisions on interest rates. And Bernanke said its banking duties give the Fed insights into the health of the entire banking system.

“The insights provided by our role in supervising a range of banks, including community banks, significantly increases our effectiveness in making monetary policy and fostering financial stability,’’ Bernanke said in his prepared remarks to the House Financial Services Committee.

Bernanke’s testimony comes as the Fed faces a significant shift in its supervisory duties.

In his effort to overhaul the nation’s financial regulatory structure, Senate Banking Committee chairman Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, has offered legislation that would strip the Fed of its power to supervise state-chartered banks and bank holding companies with assets of less than $50 billion.

That would leave the Fed with 35 of the biggest bank holding companies under its supervision. Dodd’s bill, however, would also give the Fed new powers to oversee nonbank financial firms that are so large and interconnected that their failure could pose a risk to the economy.

Such firms could include insurance giant American International Group, or General Electric Co.’s GE Capital.

But with its narrower authority, the Fed’s system of 12 regional banks could face profound changes. The Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank and the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, for instance, would have no banks under their supervision.

The Obama administration has supported a broader supervisory role for the Fed.

Dodd’s bill would also place an independent consumer watchdog inside the Fed. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, however, would have its own director appointed by the president and would not fall under the authority of Bernanke.

The administration has called for a freestanding consumer agency, an approach that would strip the Fed of its consumer-protection responsibilities.

The House-passed version of a financial revamp hues to the administration’s approach.

Bernanke has argued that despite past weaknesses, the Fed should retain its consumer-protection duties.

He didn’t address the matter in his testimony prepared for today.