Private Equity tries to chip away at Dodd-Frank with House Bill

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, private equity suffered a rare setback on Capitol Hill.

The Dodd-Frank Act, the sweeping legislation passed in response to the crisis, saddled the industry with new regulations. The largest private equity firms, which had operated for decades with relatively little federal oversight, suddenly faced regulatory exams and reporting obligations.

But the industry did not give up.

Six years after Dodd-Frank’s passage, these firms are now lobbying Congress to undo some of the recent requirements — and the House of Representatives appears poised to do so.

On Friday, the House is scheduled to vote on the Investment Advisers Modernization Act of 2016, a bill championed by the private equity industry’s trade group.

The bill would maintain important components of Dodd-Frank — there would still be federal exams of private equity firms, which manage money for pension funds and other large investors. Yet it represents a significant challenge for Dodd-Frank’s staunchest supporters, who denounced the new bill for, among other things, loosening the requirements on what information the industry must report to regulators about the nature of its investments.

Already, the bill has divided pockets of Washington and the financial regulatory world, laying battle lines that transcend partisan politics. The bill has drawn support from Republicans and Democrats alike, along with a sharp rebuke from Representative Maxine Waters of California, the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee. One of the nation’s largest public pension funds also opposes the bill, as does Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, and the White House, which has threatened a possible veto.

The staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the regulator that oversees the private equity industry, raised concerns about the bill behind the scenes in Washington, people briefed on the matter said. But after a Democratic amendment was offered this week, removing some aspects of the bill, the S.E.C. declined to publicly oppose it, even though the agency’s chairwoman, Mary Jo White, is said to have lingering concerns.

A spokeswoman for Ms. White declined to comment.

In a statement, the head of the American Investment Council, the private equity trade group, said, “These common-sense, thoughtful modifications show a commitment to improving the regulatory structure for private funds.”

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“We look forward to seeing this bill advance,” said Mike Sommers, the group’s president and chief executive, who previously was chief of staff for former House Speaker John Boehner.

With the latest compromises, the bill is expected to sail through the House. It might stall in the Senate, but if the bill receives enough support, lawmakers could attach it to a spending measure or other must-pass legislation, a strategy that worked for the banks in a 2014 deregulation effort.

Banks and other Wall Street groups have spent years trying to chip away at Dodd-Frank, recognizing that a full repeal would be impossible under the Obama administration. The efforts could accelerate depending on the outcome of the presidential election. Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee, has vowed to dismantle the law, and House Republicans are circulating another House bill that would strip away even more of Dodd-Frank’s restrictions on private equity.

The vote this week comes on the heels of several S.E.C. enforcement actions against private equity firms and a New York Times investigation showing how the industry has expanded into the daily lives of Americans, sometimes with detrimental effects.

The industry made its name using debt to buy underperforming companies, hoping to strengthen operations and sell them for a profit. But in recent years, the largest firms have expanded their reach into an array of public and financial services central to American life — ambulances, infrastructure and subprime lending, among them, The Times found.

“According to The New York Times, profit-driven private equity firms are increasingly investing in emergency services companies and the mortgage market, which has led to slower reaction times for emergency services, aggressive mortgage collection practices and the same sort of foreclosureabuses that we witnessed before the financial crisis,” Ms. Waters said.

In a subsequent statement, she said, “It’s clear that we need more oversight of private equity, not less.”

The bill’s chief sponsor, Representative Robert Hurt, a Virginia Republican, tied the legislation to job creation, explaining that his district has benefited from “jobs that have been maintained and created by small companies backed by private equity investment.”

“This bipartisan effort to streamline the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 does not curtail the ability of the Securities and Exchange Commission to carry out its role, nor does it repeal the registration requirements imposed by Dodd-Frank,” Mr. Hurt said about the bill, which is also supported by the United States Chamber of Commerce, the Investment Adviser Association and Small Business Investor Alliance.

After years of exposing private equity to little oversight, Congress switched gears with the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. The law required private fund advisers that manage more than $150 million to register with the S.E.C. and detail aspects of their business to the agency, which also began periodic examinations of the managers. The new scrutiny opened a window into the industry’s conduct, leading the S.E.C. to penalize a number of private equity firms for misleading investors.

The bill’s opponents — including Ms. Waters and the advocacy group Americans for Financial Reform — question why Congress would undo some restrictions on private equity just as the S.E.C. was identifying problems in the industry.

In particular, the opponents have raised concerns about a provision that would reduce the amount of information that large private equity fund managers report to regulators, according to a document prepared by the bill’s critics and reviewed by The Times. The information, including details about how the managers finance investments and whether the companies they own default, is recorded on what is known as Form PF, a private document that allows the S.E.C. and other authorities to monitor risks.

In its statement, the American Investment Council said there was no need to worry because private equity did not “present any systemic risks.” The group also noted that fund managers would still complete other portions of the Form PF, arguing that “the bill would merely tailor” how private equity files the form, “so it would be less burdensome.”

Even so, critics seized on other aspects of the bill, including a section that would excuse private equity firms from having to notify clients, or obtain their approval, if a fund underwent a change in control or management. The critics also attacked the bill for allowing private equity managers to cite past recommendations from clients in advertising materials, which they said could create a false perception of future performance.

The American Investment Council said the bill would reverse “outdated” provisions on advertising. It added that “sophisticated investors are able to accurately assess the value of quotes from other investors.”

For critics, it could have been worse. Representative Bill Foster, an Illinois Democrat who is co-sponsoring the bill, offered an amendment this week that would remove provisions that critics found most objectionable.

Still, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the giant public pension fund known as Calpers, echoed some of the critics’ concerns. In a statement, Calpers said the bill “would undermine the significant gains achieved under Dodd-Frank by diminishing transparency into private funds and restricting the S.E.C.’s ability to protect investors.”

In its own statement, the White House noted that pension funds that “support our nation’s teachers, police officers and firefighters” invest in private equity and argued that lawmakers “should be encouraging the S.E.C. to fully implement the enhanced investor safeguards provided in current law, not repealing important protections.”

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