Tough SEC boss may not make much difference
President Obama presents Mary Jo White, left, to lead the Security and Exchange Commission, and re-nominate Richard Cordray, right, to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. / AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
(Moneywatch) Does the nomination of former Federal prosecutor Mary Jo White to head the Securities and Exchange Commission mean the Obama administration is reversing course and finally getting tough with Wall Street?
White is an unusual choice to head the SEC. Unlike most previous appointees, she is neither a former Wall St. executive nor an academic expert in finance. White's primary qualification seems to be the decade she spent as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. While there, she prosecuted mobsters such as John Gotti, the terrorists responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a lot of white collar criminals. Currently she is in private practice with the firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, where she defends the same types of companies she may soon be policing.
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If White turns out to be the aggressive regulator that her supporters hope she will be, this would be a marked departure from the first four years of the Obama administration. White would replace Elisse Walter, the acting SEC chief who is serving out the rest of former SEC chair Mary Schapiro's term. Schapiro is credited with overhauling the agency which missed so many warning signs of the financial crisis. Under Schapiro the SEC investigated many firms but was criticized for settlements which some said let major financial firms off too easily.
However, even if those settlements were too light, they were far more than what was done by any other part of the executive branch, particularly the Department of Justice.
When President Obama first took office in 2009 he said his administration would be more focused on going forward than on investigating the mistakes of the past. The Justice Department and Lanny Breuer, head of the criminal division, seemed to take this unusually seriously.
During the president's first term Justice became much better known for the Wall Street prosecutions it didn't undertake than for the ones it did.
- It did not file a single charge against any of the major financial institutions or their executives over the sale of mortgage backed securities;
- It did not file a single charge against any of the largest subprime mortgage lenders or their executives;
- It did not file a single charge against a single executive of HSBC involved in knowingly laundering money for terrorists, drug cartels and criminals for a decade. Last month the bank agreed to pay a $1.9 billion fine to settle charges in the case.
This is a distinctly different reaction than the Justice Department had to the savings and loan collapse of the '80s and early '90s, when more than 1,000 bankers were convicted. One advantage Justice had at that time was that it received thousands of referrals from regulators who oversaw these institutions. To date, the department has not received even one referral from any of the regulatory agencies, many of which dismantled their criminal referral systems entirely.
No matter how aggressive White is as head of the SEC, her appointment is arguably at least four years too late to make a difference to those responsible for the financial meltdown. It is quite likely that if she -- or someone else of her temperament -- were in office a decade ago, pushing financial regulators to do their jobs, the meltdown might never have happened in the first place.
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