Friday, September 19, 2008

Wall Street's Fall Guy

The market isn't the only thing in turmoil this week; so is honesty in politics.

As recently as two months ago, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission was considered a top contender for the Republican vice presidential nomination. Christopher Cox has been long appreciated by conservatives, and he'd done a surprisingly good job of reassuring liberals, who feared he would be too passive in his post. 

Cox reinvigorated the S.E.C. and the conservative American Spectator called him "the best [VP] choice, bar none."

Now John McCain is saying Cox "has betrayed the public trust," and "If I were president today, I'd fire him."

What happened?

Nothing that Cox did, or didn't do. He moved actively to address market problems, and weeks ago, increased criticism of "naked" short sellers seeking to profit from a falling market... the very problem that prompted McCain's comments. Cox's fault here was being in the line of fire.

The McCain criticism is all the more disingenuous because Republicans have been clamoring for less market intervention, not more. It's hard to pick up a newspaper - before today, at least - without reading about conservatives moaning about 'moral hazard' (the presumption firms will assume even more risk if they believe the government will save them. See my next blog entry for more on this canard). 

It's even worse when you consider how Cox arrived at the S.E.C.. The first Bush appointee, Harvey Pitt, resigned under universal criticism of his passive approach (called a "patsy for accounting firms," even the Wall Street Journal called on him to step down.) His replacement, William Webster, wasn't much better. Remember that when President Bush spoke on Wall Street during the first market crisis of his administration, markets fell on news that he wanted to reduce regulation.

Today's Republicans (my apologies to anyone who, like me, believed in the values of Goldwater or the early Reagan years) believe that government action is always bad. But Wall Street does not. When things are going well, firms want the government to keep a safe distance, but in times of crisis, they want America's safety net to be a strong one.

Cox has been the most forward-thinking S.E.C. chairman in several years. He's no Arthur Levitt (Clinton's brilliant appointee), but he's a huge step ahead of his immediate predecessors and a market supervisor who has played a more active role than most Republicans have endorsed.

And now they're attacking him for doing too little?

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