“I Have 13 Bankers in My Office”

The Washington Post (hat tip Mark Thoma) has a profile of Brooksley Born, who has been credited by dozens of commentators (including us) for unsuccessfully attempting to increase regulation of derivatives in the late 1990s while serving as the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. There’s much to admire, including being the first female president of the Stanford Law Review, making partner while working part-time, and, most importantly, this:

Born keeps informed, but she has other concerns, bird-watching jaunts and trips to Antarctica to plan, mystery novels to read, four grandchildren to dote on. “I’m very happily retired,” she says. “I’ve really enjoyed getting older. You don’t have ambition. You know who you are.”

Then there are the frightening flashbacks to the regulatory battles we are sure to relive this fall:

Greenspan had an unusual take on market fraud, Born recounted: “He explained there wasn’t a need for a law against fraud because if a floor broker was committing fraud, the customer would figure it out and stop doing business with him.”

Translation: Imperfections in free markets are logically impossible.

She wanted to release a “concept paper” — essentially a set of questions — that explored whether there should be regulation of over-the-counter derivatives. . . . [Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and Arthur Levitt] warned that if she did so, the market would implode and predicted tidal waves of lawsuits.

Translation: You cannot say anything that might upset the markets.

In one call, Summers said, “I have 13 bankers in my office and they say if you go forward with this you will cause the worst financial crisis since World War II.”

Translation: The Deputy Treasury Secretary should listen to the thirteen bankers in his office.

Mark Thoma sums up:

The people in charge of the regulatory agencies were convinced that unregulated markets were self-correcting, and that regulation was not needed and would more likely do harm than good. As this shows, no amount of convincing from people who weren’t as smart as the smartest guys in the room was going to change that. The question for me is whether those in charge now, Summers for example, have learned their lesson and the humility to be derived from it, or whether they will be defensive of their own role to the extent that it affects the type of regulation they can support. I’d very much like to believe they have learned their lesson, though humility seems to be lacking, but watching Summers and others argue that the private sector and the market is preferable to temporary government takeover of banks (i.e. his and the administration’s opposition to temporary nationalization),  – the continued faith that the market always knows best – makes me wonder if they have.

About James Kwak 133 Articles

James Kwak is a former McKinsey consultant, a co-founder of Guidewire Software, and currently a student at the Yale Law School. He is a co-founder of The Baseline Scenario.

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