Updated from 12:56 p.m. EDT

A new era of hedge fund regulation is one step closer to reality.

In a widely expected move, a divided Securities and Exchange Commission approved a plan to require most hedge fund managers to register with the agency. The plan would give the SEC the power to periodically review the books of hedge funds, which now control some $850 billion in assets.

The plan, which has been under consideration for more than a year, had been hotly opposed by the hedge fund industry. Many fear the registration requirement is the first step in an inevitable path to tighter regulation of hedge funds.

But supporters of the plan, including SEC Chairman William Donaldson, say registration is necessary to help regulators spot fraudulent trading activity among the investment pools, which cater to the rich.

Donaldson, a Republican, sided with the SEC's two Democratic commissioners, Roel Campos and Harvey Goldschmid, in approving the registration requirement. Two Republican commissioners, Paul Atkins and Cynthia Glassman, voted against the proposal.

"In moments of candor, lawyers for hedge fund advisers have admitted that their clients often push the line as to what is legally permissible, and their clients don't want to be second-guessed,'' said Paul Roye, SEC director of investment management, arguing in favor of the rule. "Unfortunately, the commission's enforcement docket demonstrates that many have crossed that line.''

The registration requirement, however, is not yet the law of the land. The SEC vote begins a 60-day public comment process, after which the proposal could be amended or scrapped, although the latter option is unlikely. A final version of the registration rule probably won't take effect until later this year.

For many big hedge funds, the registration requirement is no big deal. The SEC estimates that already between 40% and 50% of hedge fund advisers are registered with the SEC. Existing regulations require any hedge fund adviser that oversees 10 or more funds to register.

If you liked this article you might like

SEC Charges Ex-CIBC Broker

SEC Charges Ex-CIBC Broker

Durus Manager Gets Hard Time

Durus Manager Gets Hard Time

Shift for SAC's Cohen

Shift for SAC's Cohen

New Frontier Holder Selling

New Frontier Holder Selling

PIPE Deal Shines Up Sun

PIPE Deal Shines Up Sun