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Some Thoughts On Obama's Sec Pick

What to make of Obama’s pick for SEC chair, Mary Shapiro? She wasn't exactly a dark horse, but the good money was on former SEC Commissioner Harvey Goldschmid and former Treasury Undersecretary Gary Gensler. But Shapiro has some particular qualifications. First, her selection is good evidence that the administration is serious about combining the SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Shapiro has served on both--including as CFTC chair--and thus brings both broad experience and a lack of territorial loyalty to one or the other. She also has experience merging regulatory bodies, having helped combine the National Association of Stock Dealers and the New York Stock Exchange’s regulatory functions into the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), which she now heads. With Shapiro in place, I’d be surprised if major reform of at least the SEC and CFTC didn’t happen in Obama’s first year.

There are a few beefs against her. First, under Shapiro FINRA has seen a drop off in new cases. That could be the result of a decline in wrong-doing, or a decline in FINRA’s enforcement zeal. Either way, it’s a question that should be answered before she’s approved. Second, some people are already grumbling about FINRA’s role--or, seemingly, the lack thereof--in regulating Madoff Investment Securities. Expect to see this line of argument gain traction in Congress; Rep. Spencer Bauchus has already issued a letter calling for an investigation. But there’s more smoke than fire here. True, Madoff had a broker-dealer arm, and FINRA regulates broker-dealers. But the fraud all happened on the now-infamous 17th floor, an operation completely separate from the FINRA-regulated operations upstairs.

Perhaps the oddest point against her, raised by the usually reliable Gary Weiss, is that she appeared on the cover of Equities, a stock-industry trade magazine. Right ... That said, Gary’s not alone in voicing a larger concern, namely that she is too much of a bureaucrat and too close to the finance industry to get much done, at a time when much needs gettin’ done. Which is all well-taken, but also not definitive. Bill Donaldson was probably the most established Wall Street figure available when Bush picked him, but he went on to shake up the SEC in a way no one expected.

--Clay Risen