Should we expect police to double as social workers? Schoolteachers as corrections officers?
That's what federal and state governments do when they put financial regulators, whose job is to make sure banks, insurers, and investment firms collect plenty of money so they don't collapse into expensive stinking heaps, in charge of protecting their customers, too.
That's "a potentially conflicting mission," President Obama said in yesterday's 85-page plan for new bank oversight.
"Multiple agencies have authority over consumer protection," Obama says, yet their rules have "significant gaps and weaknesses." In the president's telling, this inefficient system allowed lenders to sell "overly complicated and unsuited" home loans to borrowers who couldn't afford them, sparking the credit crisis that has profoundly slowed the economy.
Obama's solution: a Consumer Financial Protection Agency that would take over bank regulators' consumer-protection powers, set national standards, and work closely with a beefed-up Federal Trade Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission.
About time, says Lance Haver, Philadelphia city government's consumer advocate, who gets an earful from homeowners surprised by balloon mortgage payments and credit card users whose rates get jacked.
"I'm hoping the [federal] agency will be given prosecutorial powers and have the ability to force institutions to compensate consumers," Haver told me.
"It's appealing that we're getting an agency that will be looking at this from a consumer's point of view. American citizens are going to get a real chance to see whose side their officials are on."
But Haver also faults Obama for relying too much on regulation to solve problems.
It is dangerous, Haver said, to let financial companies like Citigroup Inc. and American International Group Inc. grow "too big to fail. No business should be allowed to be so big it can hold Americans hostage" to bailouts.
Vanguard Group Inc., of Malvern, has expanded into Britain, with a growing London office and 11 new index funds targeting U.K. investors.
"We had made a decision to move into the U.K. before a lot of the financial crisis actually hit," James Norris, managing director of Vanguard International, told me.
Britons who lost billions of pounds in fancy managed funds are open to low-fee market-index funds, Norris said. Plus "there has been a significant push by regulators in the U.K. market for disclosure of fees and costs. That absolutely plays to our strengths" as a low-cost provider.
Vanguard has $1 trillion in U.S. investments, $60 billion in Australia, $20 billion in Europe, and $10 billion in Latin America.
Union vs. bank
Service Employees' International Union Local 32-BJ, which claims more than 100,000 members around the Northeast, has targeted Delaware's largest bank. In a newsletter to investors titled "Wilmington Trust Exposed," the union tries to embarrass the bank by calling attention to its recent operating loss, dividend cut, and dependence on federal dollars.
Why? Local 32-BJ is trying to organize a group of 40 janitors who labor at the firm's Wilmington headquarters, union organizer Eugenio Villasante told me.
The union filed unfair-labor practice charges against Optima Cleaning Systems Inc., the Wilmington firm that hires and bosses the cleaners, in March and May, according to National Labor Relations Board records.
"Most people would agree that a bank that has received $330 million from the federal bailout plan should not employ contractors that pay its cleaners at Wilmington Trust Building $7.25 an hour, with few or zero benefits," Villasante said.
Janitor Charles Henry told me he was fired for union activity. The union accuses Optima officials of illegally opposing the union campaign by punishing Henry and other union backers.
"We view the situation as a dispute between the union and the contractor. Not us," said bank spokesman Bill Benintende. Optima officials didn't return calls for comment.
SEIU says Wilmington unionists will rally in support of the janitors and the federal Free Choice Act at 14th and Washington at 4 p.m. today.