It is the most powerful federal agency you’ve never heard of -- and lawmakers from both parties on Thursday vowed to keep abreast of its astonishing growth and rein it in, if necessary.
The Office of Financial Research, or OFR, was created by the Dodd-Frank financial services overhaul that President Obama signed into law in July 2010. Technically housed under the Treasury Department, the agency has until now received its funding not from the Congress, but directly from the Federal Reserve.
Starting in July, the OFR Fiscal Year 2013 budget, estimated at $158 million, will be funded entirely through assessments -- also known as taxes -- on bank-holding firms with consolidated assets worth at least $50 billion.
But as became clear at Thursday’s hearing by the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, a close reading of the law the president signed provides no limit on the growth of OFR’s budget, nor on the taxes the agency can impose on big banks to fund it.
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The agency’s official mission is to collect financial data and funnel it to another Dodd-Frank creation: the Financial Stability Oversight Council. These agencies were designed with the idea of preventing another systemic shock of Lehman Brothers magnitude.
Toward that end, OFR was invested with virtually unlimited subpoena power. It can compel just about any company in America to turn over to the federal government sensitive internal data, even proprietary information.
“We're only going to be collecting the data that we absolutely need, to fulfill our mission,” testified Michele Shannon, the new agency’s chief operating officer. “We're trying to fill data gaps. We're not going to be collecting for collection's sake. We're going to be making sure that only those people who absolutely need to have access to sensitive data have that access.”