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No Justice For The Wicked

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Although the drumbeat continues, I remain skeptical as to whether any of the criminals responsible for causing the financial crisis will ever be brought to justice.  In the weeks before President Obama’s Inauguration, the foremost question on my mind was whether the new administration would take the necessary steps to change the culture of corruption on Wall Street:

As we approach the eve of the Obama Administration’s first day, across America the new President’s supporters have visions of “change we can believe in” dancing in their heads.  For some, this change means the long overdue realization of health care reform.  For those active in the Democratic campaigns of 2006, “change” means an end to the Iraq war.  Many Americans are hoping that the new administration will crack down on the unregulated activities on Wall Street that helped bring about the current economic crisis.

On December 15, Stephen Labaton wrote an article for the New York Times, examining the recent failures of the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the environment at the SEC that facilitates such breakdowns.

At that time, I also focused on the point made in a commentary by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn, which appeared in the January 3 New York Times:

It’s not hard to see why the S.E.C. behaves as it does.  If you work for the enforcement division of the S.E.C. you probably know in the back of your mind, and in the front too, that if you maintain good relations with Wall Street you might soon be paid huge sums of money to be employed by it.

I concluded that piece with a rhetorical question:

Let’s hope our new President, the Congress and others pay serious attention to what Lewis and Einhorn have said.  Cleaning up Wall Street is going to be a dirty job.  Will those responsible for accomplishing this task be up to doing it?

By March 23, 2009, it had become obvious that our new President was more concerned about the “welfare” (pun intended) of the Wall Street banks than the well-being of the American economy.  I began my posting of that date with this statement:

We the people, who voted for Barack Obama, are about to get ripped off by our favorite Hope dealer.

On August 27 of that year, I wrote another piece expressing my disappointment with how things had (not) progressed.  My October 1, 2009 posting focused on the fact that H. David Kotz, Inspector General of the Securities and Exchange Commission, issued two reports, recommending 58 changes to improve the way the agency investigates and enforces violations of securities laws, as a result of the SEC’s failure to investigate the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.  The reports exposed a shocking degree of ineptitude at the SEC.

After the release of the report by bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas, pinpointing the causes of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, I lamented the fact that the mainstream media hadn’t shown much concern about the matter, despite the terrible fraud exposed in the report.  Nevertheless, by the next day, I was able to highlight some great commentaries on the Valukas Report and I felt optimistic enough to conclude the piece with this thought:

We can only hope that a continued investigation into the Lehman scandal will result in a very bright light directed on those privileged plutocrats who consider themselves above the law.

If only  . . .

By the eve of the mid-term elections, I had an answer to the question I had posed on January 5, 2009 as to whether our new President and Congress would be up to the task of cleaning up Wall Street:

One common theme voiced by many critics of the Obama administration has been its lack of interest in prosecuting those responsible for causing the financial crisis.  Don’t hold your breath waiting for Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless to initiate any criminal proceedings against such noteworthy individuals as Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo or Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers.  On October 23, Frank Rich of The New York Times mentioned both of those individuals while lamenting the administration’s failure to prosecute the “financial crimes that devastated the nation”:

The Obama administration seems not to have a prosecutorial gene.   It’s shy about calling a fraud a fraud when it occurs in high finance.
*   *   *
Since Obama has neither aggressively pursued the crash’s con men nor compellingly explained how they gamed the system, he sometimes looks as if he’s fronting for the industry even if he’s not.

The special treatment afforded to the perpetrators of the frauds that helped create the financial crisis wasn’t the only gift to Wall Street from the Democratically-controlled White House, Senate and Congress.  The financial “reform” bill was so badly compromised (by the Administration and Senate Democrats, themselves) as it worked its way through the legislative process, that it is now commonly regarded as nothing more than a hoax.

By the close of 2010, I noted that an expanding number of commentators shared my outrage over the likelihood that we would never see any prosecutions result from the crimes that brought about the financial crisis:

A recent article written by former New York Mayor Ed Koch began with the grim observation that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the malefactors responsible for causing the financial crisis:

Looking back on 2010 and the Great Recession, I continue to be enraged by the lack of accountability for those who wrecked our economy and brought the U.S. to its knees.  The shocking truth is that those who did the damage are still in charge.  Many who ran Wall Street before and during the debacle are either still there making millions, if not billions, of dollars, or are in charge of our country’s economic policies which led to the debacle.

Most recently, Matt Taibbi has written another great article for Rolling Stone entitled, “Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail?”.  It’s nice to know that the drumbeat for justice continues.  Taibbi’s essay provided a great history of the crisis, with a particular emphasis on how whistleblowers were ignored, just as Harry Markopolos was ignored when (in May of 2000) he tried to alert the SEC to the fact that Bernie Madoff’s hedge fund was a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme.  Here is a great passage from Matt Taibbi’s essay:

In the past few years, the administration has allocated massive amounts of federal resources to catching wrongdoers — of a certain type.  Last year, the government deported 393,000 people, at a cost of $5 billion.  Since 2007, felony immigration prosecutions along the Mexican border have surged 77 percent; nonfelony prosecutions by 259 percent.  In Ohio last month, a single mother was caught lying about where she lived to put her kids into a better school district; the judge in the case tried to sentence her to 10 days in jail for fraud, declaring that letting her go free would “demean the seriousness” of the offenses.

So there you have it.  Illegal immigrants:  393,000.  Lying moms:  one.  Bankers:  zero.  The math makes sense only because the politics are so obvious.  You want to win elections, you bang on the jailable class. You build prisons and fill them with people for selling dime bags and stealing CD players.  But for stealing a billion dollars?  For fraud that puts a million people into foreclosure?  Pass.  It’s not a crime.  Prison is too harsh.  Get them to say they’re sorry, and move on.  Oh, wait — let’s not even make them say they’re sorry.  That’s too mean; let’s just give them a piece of paper with a government stamp on it, officially clearing them of the need to apologize, and make them pay a fine instead.  But don’t make them pay it out of their own pockets, and don’t ask them to give back the money they stole. In fact, let them profit from their collective crimes, to the tune of a record $135 billion in pay and benefits last year.  What’s next?  Taxpayer-funded massages for every Wall Street executive guilty of fraud?

Wouldn’t it be nice if public opinion meant more to the Obama administration than campaign contributions from Wall Street banksters?




Justice Denied

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A recent article written by former New York Mayor Ed Koch began with the grim observation that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the malefactors responsible for causing the financial crisis:

Looking back on 2010 and the Great Recession, I continue to be enraged by the lack of accountability for those who wrecked our economy and brought the U.S. to its knees.  The shocking truth is that those who did the damage are still in charge.  Many who ran Wall Street before and during the debacle are either still there making millions, if not billions, of dollars, or are in charge of our country’s economic policies which led to the debacle.

Most of us assumed that the Enron scandal had set a precedent for the prosecution of corporate financial crime.  A few Enron executives received prison sentences and the CEO, Ken Lay, died while serving time.  Enron’s auditor, Arthur Andersen & Company, was forced out of business.  In the wake of the Savings and Loan Crisis of the late 1980s, Charles Keating and a few of his associates were indicted by the State of California.  Keating eventually received a ten-year prison sentence for fraud, racketeering and conspiracy.  Keating’s prosecution resulted from pressure brought by William Black, former litigation director for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.  At one point during Black’s investigation, Keating issued a written memo to one of his minions, with this directive:  “If you can’t get Wright and Congress to get Black . . .  Kill him dead.”

These days, William Black has been doing quite a bit of speaking and writing about the need to initiate criminal proceedings against the culprits responsible for causing the financial crisis.  On December 28, Black characterized the failure to prosecute those crimes as “de facto decriminalization of elite financial fraud”:

The FBI and the DOJ remain unlikely to prosecute the elite bank officers that ran the enormous “accounting control frauds” that drove the financial crisis.  While over 1000 elites were convicted of felonies arising from the savings and loan (S&L) debacle, there are no convictions of controlling officers of the large nonprime lenders.  The only indictment of controlling officers of a far smaller nonprime lender arose not from an investigation of the nonprime loans but rather from the lender’s alleged efforts to defraud the federal government’s TARP bailout program.

What has gone so catastrophically wrong with DOJ, and why has it continued so long?  The fundamental flaw is that DOJ’s senior leadership cannot conceive of elite bankers as criminals.

*   *   *

Our best bet is to continue to win the scholarly disputes and to continue to push media representatives to take fraud seriously. If the media demands for prosecution of the elite banking frauds expand there is a chance to create a bipartisan coalition in Congress and the administration supporting prosecutions.  In the S&L debacle, Representative Annunzio was one of the leading opponents of reregulation and leading supporters of Charles Keating.  After we brought several hundred successful prosecutions he began wearing a huge button:  “Jail the S&L Crooks!”  Bringing many hundreds of enforcement actions, civil suits, and prosecutions causes huge changes in the way a crisis is perceived.  It makes tens of thousands of documents detailing the frauds public.  It generates thousands of national and local news stories discussing the nature of the frauds and how wealthy the senior officers became through the frauds.  All of this increases the saliency of fraud and increases demands for serious reforms, adequate resources for the regulators and criminal justice bodies, and makes clear that elite fraud poses a severe danger.  Collectively, this creates the political space for real reform, vigorous regulators, and real prosecutors.

Hedge fund manager, David Einhorn (author of  Fooling Some of the People All of the Time) was recently interviewed by Charlie Rose.  At one point during the interview, Charlie Rose asked Einhorn to address the argument that regulators lacked the tools necessary for preventing the financial crisis.  Mr. Einhorn gave this response:

I would actually disagree with that.  I think that the problem was that the laws were not enforced.  After Enron you had Sarbanes Oxley.  And there have been hardly any prosecutions under Sarbanes Oxley.  You put in a tough anti-fraud law.  The CEO has to sign there is no fraud.

The CFO has to sign that the financial statements are correct.  If it’s not, there are going to be criminal consequences to all of this.  And the result was that effectively you passed a law but then they didn’t enforce the law.

And once the bad guys figured out that the law wasn’t being enforced, it effectively provided cover because everybody said, look we have the tough antifraud law.  The fraud must have gone away.

We often hear the expression “crime of the century” to describe some sensational act of blood lust.  Nevertheless, keep in mind that the financial crisis resulted from a massive fraud scheme, involving the packaging and “securitization” of mortgages known to be “liars’ loans”, which were then sold to unsuspecting investors by the creators of those products — who happened to be betting against the value of those items.  In consideration of the fact that the credit crisis resulting from this scam caused fifteen million people to lose their jobs as well as an expected 8 – 12 million foreclosures by 2012, one may easily conclude that this fraud scheme should be considered the crime of both the last century as well as the current century.

While many people have been getting excited about the “insider trading” investigation currently underway, I have been sitting here, wearing my tinfoil hat, viewing the entire episode as a diversionary tactic to direct public attention away from the crimes that caused the financial crisis.  Fortunately, I am not the only cynic with such an outlook.  Jesse Eisenger recently wrote a piece for the DealBook blog at The New York Times entitled, “The Feds Stage a Sideshow While the Big Tent Sits Empty”.  Here is some of what Eisenger had to say about the “insider trading” investigation:

In fact, plenty of people on Wall Street are happy about the investigation.  The ones with clean consciences like the idea that the world of special access to favorable tips is being cleaned up.

But others are pleased for a different reason:  They realize the investigation is a sideshow.

All the hype carries an air of defensiveness.  Everyone is wondering:  Where are the investigations related to the financial crisis?

John Hueston, a former lead Enron prosecutor, wonders, “Have they committed the resources in the right place?  Do these scandals warrant apparent national priority status?”

Nobody from Lehman, Merrill Lynch or Citigroup has been charged criminally with anything.  No top executives at Bear Stearns have been indicted.  All former American International Group executives are running free.  No big mortgage company executive has had to face the law.

There’s an old saying:  “Justice delayed is justice denied.”  The government has demonstrated that it is in no hurry to bring any significant criminal charges against the perpetrators of the crimes that caused the financial crisis.  With the passing of time, it becomes increasingly obvious that those crimes will go unpunished.  The cause of justice is simply no match for the ability of certain individuals to operate “above the law”.  In fact, it never has been.


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The Next Big Fight

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October 1, 2009

On Tuesday September 29, H. David Kotz, Inspector General of the Securities and Exchange Commission, issued two reports, recommending 58 changes to improve the way the agency investigates and enforces violations of securities laws, as a result of the SEC’s failure to investigate the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.  The reports exposed a shocking degree of ineptitude at the SEC.  On September 10, Mr. Kotz testified before the Senate Banking Committee.  You can find the prepared testimony here.  (I suggest starting at page 8.)  Having read that testimony, I wasn’t too shocked at what Mr. Kotz had to say in Tuesday’s reports.  Nevertheless, as Zachery Kouwe explained in The New York Times, the level of bureaucratic incompetence at the SEC was underestimated:

Many on Wall Street and in Washington were surprised that some of Mr. Kotz’s proposals, like recording interviews with witnesses and creating a database for tips and complaints, were not already part of the S.E.C.’s standard practice.

The extent of dysfunction at the SEC has been well-documented.  Back on January 5, I wrote a piece entitled:  “Clean-Up Time On Wall Street”, expressing my hope that the incoming Obama administration might initiate some serious financial reforms.  I quoted from Steven Labaton’s New York Times report concerning other SEC scandals investigated by Mr. Kotz last year.  My posting also included a quote from a Times piece by Michael Lewis (author of Liar’s Poker) and David Einhorn, which is particularly relevant to the recent disclosures by Inspector General Kotz:

Indeed, one of the great social benefits of the Madoff scandal may be to finally reveal the S.E.C. for what it has become.

Created to protect investors from financial predators, the commission has somehow evolved into a mechanism for protecting financial predators with political clout from investors.

This sentiment was echoed on Tuesday by Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture website:

The agency is supposed to be an investor’s advocate, the chief law enforcement agency for the markets.  But that has hardly been how they have been managed, funded and operated in recent years.

Essentially the largest prosecutor’s office in the country, the SEC has been undercut at every turn:  Their staffing was far too small to handle their jurisdiction — Wall Street and public Corporations.  Their budgets have been sliced, and they were unable to keep up with the explosion in corporate criminality.  Many key positions were left unfilled, and morale was severely damaged.  A series of disastrous SEC chairs were appointed — to be “kinder and gentler.”  Not only did they fail to maintain SEC funding (via fines), but they allowed the worst corporate offenders to go unpunished.

Gee, go figure that under those circumstances, they sucked at their jobs.

*   *   *

The bottom line of the SEC is this:  If we are serious about corporate fraud, about violations of the SEC laws, about a level playing field, then we fund the agency adequately, hire enough lawyers to prosecute the crimes, and prevent Congress critters from interfering with the SEC doing its job.

To be blunt:  So far, there is no evidence we are sincere about making the SEC a serious watchdog with teeth.

Congress sure hasn’t been.  Staffing levels have been ignored, budgeting has been cut over the years.  And it’s the sort of administrative issue that does not lend itself to bumper sticker aphorisms or tea party slogans.

Financial expert Janet Tavakoli explained in a presentation to the International Monetary Fund last week, that regulatory failures in the United States helped create an even larger Ponzi scam than the Madoff ruse — the massive racket involving the trading of residential mortgage-backed securities:

Wall Street disguised these toxic “investments” with new value-destroying securitizations and derivatives.

Meanwhile, collapsing mortgage lenders paid high dividends to shareholders (old investors) and interest on credit lines to Wall Street (old investors) with money raised from new investors in doomed securities.  New money allowed Wall Street to temporarily hide losses and pay enormous bonuses.  This is a classic Ponzi scheme.

*   *   *

Had regulators done their jobs, they would have shut down Wall Street’s financial meth labs, and the Ponzi scheme would have quickly choked to death from lack of monetary oxygen.

After the Savings and Loan crisis of the late 1980’s, there were more than 1,000 felony indictments of senior officers.  Recent fraud is much more widespread and costly.  The consequences are much greater.  Congress needs to fund investigations.  Regulators need to get tough on crime.

As Simon Johnson and James Kwak explained in The Washington Post, the upcoming battle over financial reform will be hard-fought by the banking industry and its lobbyists:

The next couple of months will be crucial in determining the shape of the financial system for decades to come.  And so far, the signs are not encouraging.

*   *   *

Even back in April, the industry was able to kill Obama’s request for legislation allowing bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages.  Five months of profits later, the big banks are only stronger.  Is Obama up for this fight?

Our new President must know by now, that sinking a three-point shot is much easier than the juggling act he has undertaken with health care reform, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as his recent quest to help Chicago win the bid for the 2016 Olympics.  If Mr. Obama can’t beat the health insurance lobby with both the Senate and Congress under Democratic control — how will the voters feel if he drops another ball in the fight for financial reform?   Thanks to Harry Truman, the American public knows where “the buck stops”.  The previously-quoted Washington Post commentary looked even further back in history to explain this burden of leadership:

During the reign of Louis XIV, when the common people complained of some oppressive government policy, they would say, “If only the king knew . . . .”  Occasionally people will make similar statements about Barack Obama, blaming the policies they don’t like on his lieutenants.

But Barack Obama, like Louis XIV before him, knows exactly what is going on.  Now is the time for him to show what his priorities are and how hard he is willing to fight for them. Elections have consequences, people used to say.  This election brought in a popular Democratic president with reasonably large majorities in both houses of Congress.  The financial crisis exposed the worst side of the financial services industry to the bright light of day.  If we cannot get meaningful financial regulatory reform this year, we can’t blame it all on the banking lobby.

Let the games begin!



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The SEC Is Out To Lunch

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August 27, 2009

Back on January 5, I wrote a piece entitled:  “Clean-Up Time On Wall Street” in which I pondered whether our new President-elect and his administration would really “crack down on the unregulated activities on Wall Street that helped bring about the current economic crisis”.  I quoted from a December 15 article by Stephen Labaton of The New York Times, examining the failures of the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the environment at the SEC that facilitated such breakdowns.  Some of the highlights from the Times piece included these points:

.  .  .  H. David Kotz, the commission’s new inspector general, has documented several major botched investigations.  He has told lawmakers of one case in which the commission’s enforcement chief improperly tipped off a private lawyer about an insider-trading inquiry.

*  *  *

There are other difficulties plaguing the agency. A recent report to Congress by Mr. Kotz is a catalog of major and minor problems, including an investigation into accusations that several S.E.C. employees have engaged in illegal insider trading and falsified financial disclosure forms.

I then questioned the wisdom of Barack Obama’s appointment of Mary Schapiro as the new Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, quoting from an article by Randall Smith and Kara Scannell of The Wall Street Journal concerning Schapiro’s track record as chair of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA):

Robert Banks, a director of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, an industry group for plaintiff lawyers . . .  said that under Ms. Schapiro, “Finra has not put much of a dent in fraud,” and the entire system needs an overhaul.  “The government needs to treat regulation seriously, and for the past eight years we have not had real securities regulation in this country,” Mr. Banks said.

*   *   *

In 2001 she appointed Mark Madoff, son of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff, to the board of the National Adjudicatory Council, the national committee that reviews initial decisions rendered in Finra disciplinary and membership proceedings.

I also quoted from a two-part op-ed piece for the January 3  New York Times, written by Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker, and David Einhorn.  Here’s what they had to say about the SEC:

Created to protect investors from financial predators, the commission has somehow evolved into a mechanism for protecting financial predators with political clout from investors.  (The task it has performed most diligently during this crisis has been to question, intimidate and impose rules on short-sellers — the only market players who have a financial incentive to expose fraud and abuse.)

Keeping all of this in mind, let’s have a look at the current lawsuit brought by the SEC against Bank of America, pending before Judge Jed S. Rakoff of The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.  The matter was succinctly described by Louise Story of The New York Times:

The case centers on $3.6 billion bonuses that were paid out by Merrill Lynch late last year, just before that firm was merged with Bank of America.  Neither company disclosed the bonuses to shareholders, and the S.E.C. has charged that the companies’ proxy statement about the merger were misleading in their description of the bonuses.

To make a long story short, Bank of America agreed to settle the case for a mere $33 million, despite its insistence that it properly disclosed to its shareholders, the bonuses it authorized for Merrill Lynch & Co employees.  The mis-handling of this case by the SEC was best described by Rolfe Winkler of Reuters.  The moral outrage over this entire matter was best expressed by Karl Denninger of The Market Ticker.  Denninger’s bottom line was this:

It is time for the damn gloves to come off.  Our economy cannot recover until the scam street games are stopped, the fraudsters are removed from the executive suites (and if necessary from Washington) and the underlying frauds – particularly including the games played with the so-called “value” of assets on the balance sheets of various firms are all flushed out.

On a similarly disappointing note, there is the not-so-small matter of:  “Where did all the TARP money go?”  You may have read about Elizabeth Warren and you may have seen her on television, discussing her role as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, tasked with scrutinizing the TARP bank bailouts.  Neil Barofsky was appointed Special Investigator General of TARP (SIGTARP).  Why did all of this become necessary?  Let’s take another look back to last January.  At that time, a number of Democratic Senators, including:  Russ Feingold (Wisconsin), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), Evan Bayh (Indiana) and Maria Cantwell (Washington) voted to oppose the immediate distribution of the second $350 billion in TARP funds.  The vote actually concerned a “resolution of disapproval” to block distribution of the TARP money, so that those voting in favor of the resolution were actually voting against releasing the funds.  Barack Obama had threatened to veto this resolution if it passed. The resolution was defeated with 52 votes (contrasted with 42 votes in favor of it).  At that time, Obama was engaged in a game of “trust me”, assuring those in doubt that the second $350 billion would not be squandered in the same undocumented manner as the first $350 billion.  As Jeremy Pelofsky reported for Reuters on January 15:

To win approval, Obama and his team made extensive promises to Democrats and Republicans that the funds would be used to better address the deepening mortgage foreclosure crisis and that tighter accounting standards would be enforced.

“My pledge is to change the way this plan is implemented and keep faith with the American taxpayer by placing strict conditions on CEO pay and providing more loans to small businesses,” Obama said in a statement, adding there would be more transparency and “more sensible regulations.”

Although it was a nice-sounding pledge, the new President never lived up to it.  Worse yet, we now have to rely on Congress, to insist on getting to the bottom of where all the money went.  Although Elizabeth Warren was able to pressure “Turbo” Tim Geithner into providing some measure of disclosure, there are still lots of questions that remain unanswered.  I’m sure many people, including Turbo Tim, are uncomfortable with the fact that Neil Barofsky is doing “too good” of a job as SIGTARP.  This is probably why Congress has now thrown a “human monkey wrench” into the works, with its addition of former SEC commissioner Paul Atkins to the Congressional Oversight Panel.  Expressing his disgust over this development, David Reilly wrote a piece for Bloomberg News, entitled: “Wall Street Fox Beds Down in Taxpayer Henhouse”.  He discussed the cynical appointment of Atkins with this explanation:

Atkins was named last week to be one of two Republicans on the five-member TARP panel headed by Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren.  He replaces former Senator John Sununu, who stepped down in July.

*   *   *

And while a power-broker within the commission, Atkins was also seen as the sharp tip of the deregulatory spear during George W. Bush’s presidency.

Atkins didn’t waver from his hands-off position, even as the credit crunch intensified.  Speaking less than two months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Atkins in one of his last speeches at the SEC warned against calls for a “new regulatory order.”

He added, “We must not immediately jump to the conclusion that failures of firms in the marketplace or the unavailability of credit in the marketplace is caused by market failure, or indeed regulatory failure.”

When I spoke with him yesterday, Atkins hadn’t changed his tune.  “If the takeaway by some people is that deregulation is the thing that led to problems in the marketplace, that’s completely wrong,” he said.  “The problems happened in the most heavily regulated areas of the financial-services industry.”

Regulated by whom?

Clean-Up Time On Wall Street

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January 5, 2009

As we approach the eve of the Obama Administration’s first day, across America the new President’s supporters have visions of “change we can believe in” dancing in their heads.  For some, this change means the long overdue realization of health care reform.  For those active in the Democratic campaigns of 2006, “change” means an end to the Iraq war.  Many Americans are hoping that the new administration will crack down on the unregulated activities on Wall Street that helped bring about the current economic crisis.

On December 15, Stephen Labaton wrote an article for the New York Times, examining the recent failures of the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the environment at the SEC that facilitates such breakdowns.  Some of the highlights from the piece included these points:

.   .   .    H. David Kotz, the commission’s new inspector general, has documented several major botched investigations.  He has told lawmakers of one case in which the commission’s enforcement chief improperly tipped off a private lawyer about an insider-trading inquiry.
*   *   *
There are other difficulties plaguing the agency.  A recent report to Congress by Mr. Kotz is a catalog of major and minor problems, including an investigation into accusations that several S.E.C. employees have engaged in illegal insider trading and falsified financial disclosure forms.
*   *   *
Some experts said that appointees of the Bush administration had hollowed out the commission, much the way they did various corners of the Justice Department.  The result, they say, is hobbled enforcement and inspection programs.

On December 18, Barack Obama announced his intention to name Mary Schapiro as the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.  Many news outlets, including National Public Radio, presented an enthusiastic look toward the tenure of Ms. Schapiro in this office:

Speaking at the news conference on Thursday, Schapiro said there must be “consistent and robust enforcement” of regulations to protect investors, saying it will be her top priority as SEC chief.

On the other hand, in the December 18 Wall Street Journal, Randall Smith and Kara Scannell provided us with a more informative analysis of the SEC nominee’s track record:

She was credited with beefing up enforcement while at the National Association of Securities Dealers and guiding the creation of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which she now leads.  But some in the industry questioned whether she would be strong enough to get the SEC back on track.
*  *  *
Robert Banks, a director of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, an industry group for plaintiff lawyers  . . .  said that under Ms. Schapiro, “Finra has not put much of a dent in fraud,” and the entire system needs an overhaul. ” The government needs to treat regulation seriously, and for the past eight years we have not had real securities regulation in this country,” Mr. Banks said.

Since Ms. Schapiro took over Finra in 2006, the number of enforcement cases has dropped, in part because actions stemming from the tech-bubble collapse ebbed and the markets rebounded from 2002 to 2007.  The agency has been on the fringe of the major Wall Street blowups, and opted to focus on more bread-and-butter issues such as fraud aimed at senior citizens.

Out of the gate, Ms. Schapiro faces potential controversy.  In 2001 she appointed Mark Madoff, son of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff, to the board of the National Adjudicatory Council, the national committee that reviews initial decisions rendered in Finra disciplinary and membership proceedings.  Both sons of Mr. Madoff have denied any involvement in the massive Ponzi scheme their father has been accused of running.

It appears as though we might see Ms. Schapiro face some grilling about the Madoff appointment, when she faces her confirmation hearing.  Beyond that, the points raised by Randall Smith and Kara Scannell underscore the question of whether Mary Schapiro will really be an agent of change on Wall Street or just another “insider” overseeing “business as usual”.  To assuage such concern, many commentators have emphasized that Ms. Schapiro has never worked for a brokerage firm or investment bank.  Her Wall Street experience has been limited to regulatory activity.  Despite this, one must keep in mind a point made by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn in the January 3 New York Times:

It’s not hard to see why the S.E.C. behaves as it does.  If you work for the enforcement division of the S.E.C. you probably know in the back of your mind, and in the front too, that if you maintain good relations with Wall Street you might soon be paid huge sums of money to be employed by it.

Michael Lewis is the author of Liar’s Poker, a non-fiction book about his own Wall Street experience as a bond salesman.  With David Einhorn, he wrote a two-part op-ed piece for the January 3 New York Times.  The above-quoted passage was from the first part, entitled:  “The End of the Financial World as We Know It”.  The second part is entitled:  “How to Repair a Broken Financial World”.  The first section looked at the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, using it to underscore this often-ignored reality about the Securities and Exchange Commission and its inability to prevent or even cope with the current financial crisis:

Indeed, one of the great social benefits of the Madoff scandal may be to finally reveal the S.E.C. for what it has become.

Created to protect investors from financial predators, the commission has somehow evolved into a mechanism for protecting financial predators with political clout from investors.  (The task it has performed most diligently during this crisis has been to question, intimidate and impose rules on short-sellers — the only market players who have a financial incentive to expose fraud and abuse.)

In the second section of their commentary, Lewis and Einhorn suggest six changes to the financial system “to prevent some version of what has happened from happening all over again”.  Let’s hope our new President, the Congress and others pay serious attention to what Lewis and Einhorn have said.  Cleaning up Wall Street is going to be a dirty job.  Will those responsible for accomplishing this task be up to doing it?