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Reform reading: SEC tackles energy payments, conflict minerals next week

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Reform watchers will find out Wednesday whether the Securities and Exchange Commission is caving in to intense pressure from oil and mining company lobbyists to weaken the Dodd-Frank law mandate for new industry disclosures.

The financial reform law requires energy and minerals producers to annually report how much they pay to foreign governments in royalties, taxes, license fees, production entitlements, bonuses and other fees. It also requires companies to disclose if they use so-called “conflict minerals” such as gold or wolframite from the Republic of Congo in manufacturing jewelry, aerospace parts, computers, and other products.

What do those issues have to do with financial reform? Well, authors Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont say the new information reported to the SEC will help investors while also combating government corruption in resource-rich countries. The new disclosure requirements rank among the most controversial issues for the SEC, which must carry out scores of new regulations mandated by Dodd-Frank.

Nearly 450 comment letters and e-mails have already been submitted to the SEC – before it releases on Wednesday its proposed rules for energy payments and conflict minerals.

Some of the letters came from Royal Dutch Shell, American Petroleum Institute, National Mining Association and industry allies, who hope to persuade the SEC to let companies disclose payments aggregated by country, instead of payments for each production project. The industry also wants the SEC to create an exemption for companies to comply with conflicting foreign laws and orders, a loophole that critics say would lead to quick passage of no-disclosure laws by many host countries at the behest of energy producers.

Other letters were submitted by the National Retail Federation, National Association of Manufacturers, Tiffany & Co., and others which worry that disclosing the use of conflict minerals will be difficult because of the complex supply chains and many hands that the minerals pass through before arriving at a manufacturing plant.

Once the SEC issues its proposed rules, a fresh round of public comment begins.

Budget boost near for SEC, CFTC

The U.S. House has approved a plan that would raise the Securities and Exchange Commission’s budget to $1.25 billion, an increase of more than 10 percent, while freezing most federal spending.

The plan would also boost the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s budget to $261 million, up a hefty 35 percent, for fiscal 2011, Bloomberg reports. The fiscal year began on Oct. 1.

Both agencies have argued that budget increases are crucial for them to hire additional staff to carry out the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro told lawmakers a few weeks ago that she needs to add about 800 employees while CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler says he needs more than 300 additional staff to handle all the new regulatory work. The Senate will take up the 2011 budget before adjourning for the holiday.

Credit cards, mortgages top Warren's to-do list

Credit cards and mortgages are the top priorities of Elizabeth Warren as she creates a blueprint for the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“When a family cannot tell the cost in full of a credit card, when it is not possible to determine the risks of a mortgage in advance, and when people can’t directly compare three or four products– apples to apples – to tell which costs the most and which bears the most risk, then the market is broken,” Warren says in a brief interview posted on the Treasury Department’s website. “This agency will drive toward making the costs clear, making the risks clear, and making it easy for consumers to compare one product with another. “

Some banks are starting to get the message. Warren says ads for bank products are starting to use phrases like “no tricks” and “simplicity” – words that the former Harvard law school professor likes to sprinkle throughout her own speeches.

The Warren interview appears on the Treasury Department’s redesigned website which debuted earlier this week. In addition to being easier to navigate, the department finally created a dedicated location for announcements about the consumer bureau here . That URL will probably change in July, when the bureau officially opens its doors as an independent agency funded by the Fed.