The conservatives fulminating about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and President Obama’s recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head it may feel outmaneuvered at the moment. But if history is any guide, the bureau will not be too big a threat to the financial powers that be.
The federal government is filled with regulatory agencies whose main mission seems to be to protect the interests of the largest companies they are charged with regulating. There’s always the possibility that the CFPB will be the exception to the rule of regulatory capture, but the fledgling entity would have to clear some high hurdles.
Cordray and his colleagues would do well to study the track record of the federal agency that has supposedly served as a financial watchdog for the past seven decades: the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The CFPB is getting off the ground just as the SEC is embroiled in a dispute that reveals its cozy relationship with the big banks and its feckless approach to enforcement.
Back in October, as part of its belated and half-hearted response to the chicanery that led to the financial meltdown of 2008, the SEC announced that giant Citigroup had agreed to pay $285 million to settle charges that it had misled investors about a $1 billion issuance of housing-related collateralized debt obligations that Citi knew to be of dubious value and had bet against with its own money. As is typical in such SEC cases, Citi neither admitted nor denied doing any wrong.
That would have been the end of a typical case if the judge overseeing the matter, Jed Rakoff the Southern District of New York, had not done something remarkable. He declined to rubberstamp the settlement and raised a host of questions about the size of the settlement—which was well below the estimated $700 million lost by investors—and the failure of the SEC to get Citi to admit guilt.
Rakoff (illustration), who had questioned settlements in several other SEC cases, rejected the deal the agency made with Citi and ordered a trial on the matter. In his November 28 order (which I retrieved, along with other case documents, from the PACER subscription database), Judge Rakoff called the amount of the settlement “pocket change to any entity as large as Citigroup” and said it would have little deterrent effect. He also pointed out that the SEC’s decision to charge Citi with mere negligence and allow it to avoid admitting guilt “deals a double blow to any assistance the defrauded investors might seek to derive from the S.E.C. litigation in attempting to recoup their losses through private litigation, since private investors not only cannot bring securities claims based on negligence.” In other words, Rakoff was accusing the agency of protecting the interests of the big bank.
Calling the deal “neither reasonable, nor fair, nor adequate, nor in the public interest,” Rakoff thundered:
An application of judicial power that does not rest on facts is worse than mindless, it is inherently dangerous. The injunctive power of the judiciary is not a free roving remedy to be invoked at the whim of a regulatory agency, even with the consent of the regulated. If its deployment does not rest on facts – cold, hard solid facts, established by admissions or by trials -it serves no lawful or moral purpose and is simply an engine of oppression.
Finally, in any case like this that touches on the transparency of financial markets whose gyrations have so depressed our economy and debilitated our lives, there is an overriding public interest in knowing the truth. In much of the world, propaganda reigns, and truth is confined to secretive, fearful whispers. Even in our nation, apologists for suppressing or obscuring the truth may always be found. But the S.E.C., of all agencies, has a duty, inherent in its statutory mission, to see that the truth emerges; and if fails to do so, this Court must not, in the name of deference or convenience, grant judicial enforcement to the agency’s contrivances.
Instead of using Rakoff’s powerful order as leverage to extract a larger settlement from Citi, the SEC went on the attack against the judge. It appealed Rakoff’s order to the federal court of appeals, arguing that its enforcement process would be crippled if it had to hold out for admissions of guilt. Rakoff fired back with a charge that the agency had misled the appeals court and had withheld key information from him.
As the pissing match continues, one could only imagine the satisfaction felt by Citi at being able to sit on the sidelines and watch its regulator do battle with the judiciary to preserve its ability to handle financial misconduct with kid gloves. The SEC has suddenly become aggressive—not in fighting fraud but in defending its right to be a weak regulator. Richard Cordray, take heed.