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Three Takeaways for Banks from Obama's State of the Union Address

JAN 29, 2014 11:21am ET
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President Obama hit on several important issues for bankers in his annual address to Congress Tuesday night, though as expected financial services issues took a backseat to other national concerns, like unemployment and the minimum wage.

The president did not blast the banking industry as he has in years past, nor did he declare victory on the implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act, as some had predicted. Indeed, he didn't even tout his success getting key regulators like Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Mel Watt, head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, confirmed to their posts in 2013.

But he did touch on the need for housing finance reform and announced a plan to launch government-backed retirement accounts that may prove to be a new line of business for the banking industry.

Below are three key takeaways from the night, including reactions from key lawmakers on the Senate Banking and House Financial Services Committees.

If you sneezed or turned your head at the wrong time you might have missed it, but ongoing efforts in Congress to overhaul Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac did get shout-out, albeit a vague one, during the speech.

Obama asked lawmakers to "send me legislation that protects taxpayers from footing the bill for a housing crisis ever again, and keeps the dream of homeownership alive for future generations of Americans," building on his earlier support last fall of Senate efforts at a bipartisan housing reform.

A White House fact sheet accompanying the speech noted that Obama remains "encouraged" by efforts on the Senate Banking Committee to forge an agreement on the issue. Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, the ranking member, have been working together for several months and are said to be working toward introducing legislation addressing the government-sponsored enterprises sometime later this year. Their efforts will likely build on work by Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., who were also praised in the fact sheet.

After the speech, lawmakers acknowledged that the issue is a terribly complex one, making a nuanced discussion unlikely during a high level address watched by millions of Americans.

"GSEs are a hard thing to cover in the State of the Union because it's a very detailed, granular topic," said Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., who is developing his own mortgage finance reform plan with two other House Democrats, in an interview. "You're never going to get a lot of detail on GSEs because you either talk about GSEs for 30 seconds or for 30 minutes, there's kind of no in-between."

Moreover, Michael Stegman, a counselor to the Treasury Secretary on housing finance policy, gave a lengthy and detailed speech just last week at a securitization conference in Las Vegas that reiterated the White House's commitment on the issue, likely sating many in the industry for now.

Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, added that Obama has already helped along the mortgage finance reform movement by getting Watt, a former Democratic congressman from North Carolina and member of the House Financial Services Committee, confirmed as director of the FHFA late last year.

"That's significant because he came right off the committee, he knows what's going on at the committee level," Green said in an interview. "I think it's going to be a real plus for our nation to have someone who has had a hands-on experience in the House with these concerns and who can relate across the aisle."

Still, Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., author of a conservative plan to overhaul the GSEs pending in the House, downplayed Obama's efforts on the issue, arguing that more concrete work needs to be done.

"We've been waiting for his five years for them to do anything on housing finance, and they haven't done anything," he said in an interview. "He's talked about it in the past, so now he's talked about it again."

President Obama also detailed a new government-backed retirement savings program during the speech, an effort that could provide additional fee income for banks.

Obama said that he would direct the Treasury Department on Wednesday to establish "to create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings: MyRA."

But there were few specifics on the plan—and what was said about it was confusing. During the speech, Obama called it a "new savings bond that encourages folks to build a nest egg" and "guarantees a decent return with no risk of losing what you put in."

Yet a White House fact sheet referred to it as "starter retirement account" that would be offered through Roth IRA accounts and, like a savings bond, be backed by the U.S. government.

The Treasury Department is expected to release more details on the idea on Wednesday. If it is an account, it could provide banks with additional fee income if they are held and managed by private institutions.

For their part, lawmakers after the speech were interested.

"Anything to democratize savings is a good idea," said Delaney, a former entrepreneur and banker, adding that there could be "business opportunities around something like that where you could tie it into financial services a lot of different ways."

Green agreed.

"Any way we can give people an opportunity to save money and do it in such a way as to take care of their future needs, I think that's a positive thing," said Green. "So I see this as one additional tool that is to be utilized."

Still, while reaction to the State of the Union address largely split along party lines, there was some concern on both sides of the aisle about the president's focus on implementing executive actions, rather than going to Congress, on a number of issues. Phrases like "and if Congress wants to help" were uttered several times throughout the speech.

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