Senate says yes to financial reform, but exempts VCs from new rules

The U.S. Senate passed the 2,300-page financial reform bill today (vote was 60 to 39) after more than a year of deliberation. The Obama administration is casting it as a major victory — protecting average consumers from Wall Street excesses.

For the most part, senators voted along party lines, with only three Republicans breaking ranks to support the legislation, one of the highest domestic priorities for the Democrats.

The bill, to be signed by President Barack Obama this weekend, blocks major banks from growing irresponsibly, empowers the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Reserve to break up foundering businesses, and places hedge funds and credit rating agencies under the jurisdiction of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Large companies will now be required to have shutdown plans at the ready so that if they fail, they don’t take other segments of the economy down with them.

Most relevant for average consumers, the bill creates a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, charged with identifying and providing protections against bad financial packages, like sub-prime loans, debit cards and half-baked mortgages. This new entity, armed with a $550 million annual budget — will report to Congress, but will be led by a presidential appointee.

Venture capital got somewhat of a reprieve in the final version of the legislation. While private equity and hedge funds with assets exceeding $150 million will now have to register with the SEC and provide more transparency, VC firms do not need to register fully. So to an extent, they’re escaping a higher level of scrutiny.

That said, hedge funds and private equity firms also got a bit of a boost from the bill. A clause called the “Volcker Rule” prevents banks from trading more than 3 percent of their funds for their accounts, and from taking huge stakes in hedge funds and private equity firms. The rule could mean a lot more money for these independent firms.

Sponsored by Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the bill has riled the conservative opposition, which argues that it has missed the mark and wouldn’t have prevented the 2008 economic meltdown even if it had been in effect beforehand.

For now, though, Obama and his supporters are jubilant, having first sealed the deal on health care reform, and now financial reform. Next up: climate legislation that puts a price on carbon, using market forces to slash greenhouse gas emissions.