Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and other regulators gave Congress an update Thursday on their efforts to implement the biggest overhaul of the nation's financial rules since the Great Depression.
In testimony to the Senate Banking Committee, Bernanke said the Fed will unveil new regulations this summer that would protect the U.S. economy from another meltdown of the nation's largest banks and financial companies.
Congress directed the Fed to write the rules when it passed last year's financial regulatory overhaul. The law aims to prevent another financial crisis like the one in 2008 that plunged the economy deeper into recession.
The rules will require big banks and others, such as Wall Street firms, hedge funds and insurance companies, whose failure could endanger the economy, to be subject to more strict requirements for the amount of capital and cash they must have on hand to cushion against potential losses if another financial crisis were to strike.
"Our goal is to produce a well-integrated set of rules that meaningfully reduces the probability of failure of our largest, most complex financial firms, and that minimizes the losses to the financial system and the economy if such a firm should fail," Bernanke said in the testimony.
The Fed will allow the public, banks and other interested parties to comment on the proposed regulations before implementing them in January 2012.
Bernanke also acknowledged that some small banks could be hurt if regulators allow them to charge more than big banks for processing debt card transactions.
The higher fees, paid by retailers each time Americans swipe their cards, could make debit cards issued by smaller banks less attractive to merchants.
"There's good reason to be concerned about it," Bernanke said. It could result in some smaller banks "being less profitable or even failing," he said.
Currently, the fees typically range between 1 and 2 percent of each purchase, averaging 44 cents. The Fed has proposed capping that at 12 cents, though smaller banks could charge more. Bankers want lawmakers to delay the change in hopes that it will eventually be killed or toned down.
Separately, Bernanke and Neal Wolin, the Treasury Department's No. 2 official, urged Congress to raise the $14.3 trillion limit on the United States' borrowing authority.
"Using the debt limit as a bargaining chip is quite risky," Bernanke said. Republicans in Congress want cuts in federal spending in exchange for any increase in the government's borrowing authority.
Failing to raise the limit would cause interest rates on mortgages and other consumer loans to rise, rattle financial markets and hurt the economy, he said.
Wolin said it would be "unthinkable."
On the international front, Bernanke said regulators in the United States and in other countries are trying to make sure that big banks and other major financial companies are regulated in a consistent manner. That's important to maintaining "a level international playing field," Bernanke said.
Regulators are scrambling to implement hundreds of new rules, many required to be completed before the law's one-year anniversary on July 21.
"We are moving as quickly and carefully as we can," said Wolin, deputy secretary of the Treasury Department.
Republicans, who opposed the financial overhaul legislation, say the law goes too far and could make it harder for U.S banks to compete globally. Some are seeking to reduce funding for agencies set up under the law and limit the scope of new rules. Democrats say the law is needed to help ward off future economic meltdowns.
Other regulators testifying include the chiefs of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
The law also created the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which is headed by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and is responsible for keeping watch over the entire financial system. The council includes regulators from the Fed, the SEC and the FDIC, and is preparing a report on its efforts to monitor risky practices.
AP Business Writer Marcy Gordon contributed to this report