Comedian David Brenner once regaled a Tonight Show audience with how a Los Angeles policeman tried to gain his attention and cite him for jaywalking across a main thoroughfare.
In lieu of harsh language or similar constabulary tactics familiar to Brenner and those of us reared in the Northeast, the officer simply yelled, “Oh, yoo-hoo.”
Not exactly a fear-gnawing command that would make one suddenly stop and willingly follow any subsequent directives.
That enforcement vignette draws an uncomfortable comparison with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which for years has been perceived as less than effective as a regulator, not to mention severely understaffed and underpaid.
And during the past two weeks, the SEC, already under fire for the failures of such august financial institutions as Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, has been like someone who has inadvertently dug himself in a hole and is unwilling to put down the shovel.
The commission has, again, been taken out to the proverbial woodshed by both the media and lawmakers for its inaction on former Nasdaq chair and Wall Street maven Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, a long-running fraud that approaches $50 billion in scope, or to put that figure in perspective, three times greater than the proposed auto bailout and five times greater than the fraud perpetrated at WorldCom.
The fact that we learned the SEC had been flagged about Madoff’s firm nine years ago is mind-numbing in itself, but ultimately this should send an all-too-clear siren that the agency is in need of a top-down restructuring.
Not surprisingly, the Madoff debacle has prompted a barrage of finger pointing from present and former SEC chairs. Current SEC chair Christopher Cox has blasted the agency for its colossal failures — both on his watch and under the auspices of others — while launching an internal investigation of the Madoff matter.
Arthur Levitt, who helmed the SEC from 1993-2001, maintains that the regulator never had enough resources and staff to adequately fight corporate fraud.
Last week, President-elect Obama nominated Mary Schapiro, chief executive of the Financial Services Regulatory Authority, to succeed Cox as SEC chair in January.
In order to get the SEC to where it needs to be, the new chair needs to convince the Treasury to allow her to pay higher salaries that will hopefully attract more veteran employees, while at the same time, trim the agency’s traditional rampant turnover levels.
The agency also has to adopt a more intimidating mindset in its battles, more like Clint Eastwood’s “Make my day,” in lieu of Barney Fife meekly inquiring, “Oh yoo hoo.”
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