Four Non-IRS Questions for Treasury Secretary Jack Lew

Here are four questions Lew needs to answer Tuesday on the state of America's financial health.

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Evan Vucci / AP

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew arrives on Capitol Hill to testify before the Senate Banking Committee on May 21, 2013

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew testifies before the Senate Banking committee Tuesday, and is bound to spend the majority of his time answering questions about the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of right wing political groups for heightened scrutiny. While it’s important to figure out who is responsible for the bad behavior at the IRS, and how to fix it, believe it or not there are more important questions that Senators should ask Lew, and they have nothing to do with the IRS.

Like, for example, how stable is the global financial system and are Dodd-Frank measures designed to avoid another global economic collapse helping or hurting?

Fortunately, that’s the very subject on which Lew has been called to testify. The Dodd-Frank regulatory behemoth known the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which comprises the principals and staff of the major federal financial regulators, issued its annual report in March and Lew’s visit to the Hill is in fact precisely for the purpose of answering questions raised by the nearly-200 page summary of the state of America’s financial health.

Here are four FSOC-related questions that Lew should be asked about:

1) At the height of the financial panic in Sept. 2008, a run on the U.S. shadow banking system was halted only after the U.S. government stepped in and guaranteed all money market funds (MMFs). In 2010, the Securities and Exchange Commission proposed reforms to the funds, but in Nov. 2012, the FSOC rejected them, saying they “did not address the structural vulnerabilities of MMFs that leave them susceptible to destabilizing runs.” Is SEC moving ahead with structural reforms, and if so what are they, when will they be issued, and do they solve the problem?

2) Something like 90% of the mortgages in America are backed by the government via Fannie Mae and other former Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs) that were rescued during the financial crisis. FSOC member Edward DeMarco, the acting head of the Federal Housing Finance Authority, proposed in March spinning off some of the mortgage writing business, and you have said, “A great deal of work remains to attract private capital to our nation’s housing finance system and bolster a housing market showing signs of recovery.” Do you back DeMarco’s plan and what other measures do you propose to fix the housing market?

3) U.S. and Japanese banks are pouring money into Collateralized Loan Obligations (CLOs). The FSOC report says the issuance of CLOs is “close to peak levels” and that “increased issuance of leveraged loans has historically served as an early warning indicator.” The report also says the CLOs don’t appear to be being bought by overleveraged consumers and that the banks buying them seem to be well capitalized. Is there or is there not a systemic risk from renewed appetite for CLOs, or don’t you know?

4) Last year, the FSOC designated eight financial market utilities as Systemically Important Financial Institutions (SIFIs), which receive heightened oversight by regulators and higher standards for financial solidity. A fierce battle has been raging behind the scenes as insurers, holding companies and other large financial institutions try to avoid being designated as SIFIs. When will you publish the list of non-bank SIFIs, will you make public the criteria for their designation and are you confident that the designations will sufficiently protect the financial system from too-big-to-fail non-bank financial insitutions?

Oh, and is there any evidence the IRS was acting on behest of political appointees in targeting right wing political groups for heightened scrutiny of non-profit applications?