Obama will announce his Treasury secretary nomination in the next few days, and the safe bet is on Larry Summers or Timothy Geithner. But an almost equally important pick will be his SEC chair. After a remarkable period of reform under William Donaldson, the commission has languished under Chris Cox. To his credit, Cox didn’t do as much damage as people expected--he resisted efforts to de-regulate aggressively, at times clashing with the Commission’s free-market fanatic, Paul Atkins. But he was way behind the curve on the key issues, and he’s been barely relevant over the last month of turmoil.
Fortunately, if this Wall Street Journal report is accurate, Obama is focusing on two great choices for SEC chair, Harvey Goldschmid and Damon Silvers. Goldschmid teaches at Columbia Law and is a former SEC commissioner; Silvers is an associate general counsel at the AFL-CIO and a longtime consumer advocate. Both are experts on financial regulation, and both tilt heavily toward investor and consumer protections. Obviously Silvers would face opposition from business interests, but if there’s any time to get a friend of labor in the chairman’s office, it’s now.
Whoever gets the job will face the task of rebuilding a drifting agency in the middle of a financial storm: According to the Journal, the SEC’s corporate-finance chief, John White, is leaving, and rumor has it others are soon to follow. But the bigger issue is whether, in a year, there will even be an SEC, at least as we know it. There is bipartisan agreement that the financial regulatory system needs top-down restructuring, at the very least a merging of the SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. But it will also mean halting the bleeding of regulatory power to the Fed, the FDIC, and the Treasury. I personally favor a strong SEC, which is why I back Goldschmid for the job--his experience at the SEC makes him better able to expand his agency’s reach from day one. But the choice between the two is a good problem to have.