Tag: SEC

What Did the SEC Really Do in 2004?

By James Kwak

Andrew Lo’s review of twenty-one financial crisis books has been getting a fair amount of attention, including a recent mention in The Economist. Simply reading twenty-one books about the financial crisis is a demonstration of stamina that exceeds mine. I should also say at this point that I have no arguments with Lo’s description of 13 Bankers.

Lo’s main point, which he makes near the end of his article, is that it is important to get the facts straight. Too often people accept and repeat other people’s assertions—especially when they are published in reputable sources, and especially especially when those assertions back up their preexisting beliefs. This is a sentiment with which I could not agree more. One of the things I was struck by when writing 13 Bankers was learning that nonfiction books are not routinely fact-checked (Simon and I hire and pay for fact-checkers ourselves). As technology and the Internet produce a vast increase in the amount of writing on any particular subject, the base of actual facts on which all that writing rests remains the same (or even diminishes, as newspapers cut back on their staffs of journalists).

I’m not entirely convinced by Lo’s example, however. He focuses on a 2004 rule change by the SEC. According to Lo, in 2008, Lee Pickard claimed that “a rule change by the SEC in 2004 allowed broker-dealers to greatly increase their leverage, contributing to the financial crisis” (p. 33). That is Lo’s summary, not Pickard’s original. This claim was picked up by other outlets, notably The New York Times, and combined with the observation that investment bank leverage ratios increased from 2004 to 2007, leading to the belief that the SEC’s rule change was a crucial factor behind the fragility of the financial system and hence the crisis.

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What Good Is the SEC?

By James Kwak

This week’s Atlantic column is my somewhat belated response to Judge Jed Rakoff’s latest SEC takedown, this time rejecting a proposed settlement with Citigroup over a CDO-squared that the bank’s structuring desk created solely so that its trading desk could short it. I think Rakoff has identified the heart of the issue (the SEC’s settlements are unlikely to change bank behavior, so what’s the point?) but he’s really pointing to a problem that someone else is going to have to fix: we need either a stronger SEC or stronger laws. I’d like to see an aggressive, powerful SEC that can deter banks from breaking the law, but we don’t have one now.

Citizens United and Corporate Political Spending

By James Kwak

Today’s Atlantic column is about corporate political spending in the wake of Citizens United and what, if anything, can be done about it. A group of corporate and securities law professors has petitioned the SEC to write rules requiring companies to disclose their political spending, just like they have to disclose their executive compensation today. As usual, I’m not too optimistic about what disclosure can achieve, especially disclosure in SEC filings or proxy statements: who reads those things, anyway? But it’s better than nothing, and with the current makeup of the Supreme Court, nothing is just about what we’ve got now.

SEC Charges Goldman with Fraud

By James Kwak

Press release here. Complaint here. The allegation is that Goldman failed to disclose the role that John Paulson’s hedge fund played in selecting residential mortgage-backed securities that went into a CDO created by Goldman. Here’s paragraph 3 of the complaint:

“In sum, GS&Co arranged a transaction at Paulson’s request in which Paulson heavily influenced the selection of the portfolio to suit its economic interests, but failed to disclose to investors, as part of the description of the portfolio selection process contained in the marketing materials used to promote the transaction, Paulson’s role in the portfolio selection process or its adverse economic interests.”

The problem is that the marketing documents claimed that the securities were selected by ACA Management, a third-party CDO manager, when in fact the selection decisions were influenced by Paulson’s fund. Goldman had a duty to disclose that influence, especially since Paulson was simultaneously shorting the CDO. (According to paragraph 2 of the complain, he bought the credit default swaps from Goldman itself. I used to wonder about this; if he bought the CDS from another bank, then Goldman could claim it didn’t know he was shorting the CDO, implausible as that claim might be. But in this case Goldman must have known.)

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Fox, Henhouse?

One of our readers emailed in a link to this Bloomberg story about the new “chief operating officer” of the enforcement division of the SEC: Adam Storch, “a 29-year-old from Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s business intelligence unit” who “had worked since 2004 in a unit at that reviewed contracts and transactions for signs of fraud.”

I went back and forth about posting this because, as far as I can tell, it’s not that important a job; according to the WSJ, “Mr. Storch will oversee division operations that include budget, information technology and administrative services. He will also supervise the workflow associated with the collection and distribution of fair funds to harmed investors.” It’s back-office administration, not deciding whom the SEC is going to pursue. I don’t think this is in the same league as, say, Goldman’s chief lobbyist becoming the Treasury secretary’s chief of staff. (Note, however, that Zero Hedge says it is “arguably the most critical post at the SEC.”)

But still, even if it is a routine back-office job, why someone from Goldman who makes Neel Kashkari look like an elder statesman? As our reader pointed out, there are some relevant themes here. One is the revolving door. Another is cognitive capture: why does the SEC think it needs a Goldmanite to handle its budget, IT, and administrative services? There are other good companies out there, really, somewhere, or we have a much bigger problem on its hands.

Maybe he’s independently wealthy and immune to job offers from Wall Street. Maybe he’s a genius and aced his job interview. You’d think there must be something special about him that convinced the SEC to give him the job despite all the additional “Government Sachs” fodder it creates. I hope he does a wonderful job.

By James Kwak

Bernie Madoff Day

As Bernie Madoff goes to his reward today, we should be asking how this could have happened. Not only Madoff and Allen Stanford, but also dozens of “mini-Madoffs” have been unearthed since the market collapse in September and October, which seems to have reminded the SEC that it has an law enforcement function. Not surprisingly, regulators are ramping up their enforcement divisions, and Congressmen are planning legislation to increase enforcement budgets.

A little late to close the barn door.

While Christopher Cox, SEC chairman from 2005 until this January, makes an obvious target, there is a deeper phenomenon at work than just the Bush administration’s hands-off attitude toward corporate fraud (an attitude largely shared by the Clinton administration). That is the general tendency of people – investors and officials alike – to underestimate the risk of fraud during a boom and overestimate the risk of fraud during a bust.

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