A Watchdog Starves, Wall Street Is Tossed a Bone

A Watchdog Starves, Wall Street Is Tossed a Bone

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The economy is still suffering from the worst financial crisis since the Depression, and widespread anger persists that financial institutions that caused it received bailouts of billions of taxpayer dollars and haven’t been held accountable for any wrongdoing. Yet the House Appropriations Committee has responded by starving the agency responsible for bringing financial wrongdoers to justice — while putting over $200 million that could otherwise have been spent on investigations and enforcement actions back into the pockets of Wall Street.

A few weeks ago, the Republican-controlled appropriations committee cut the Securities and Exchange Commission’s fiscal 2012 budget request by $222.5 million, to $1.19 billion (the same as this year’s), even though the S.E.C.’s responsibilities were vastly expanded under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Charged with protecting investors and policing markets, the S.E.C. is the nation’s front-line defense against financial fraud. The committee’s accompanying report referred to the agency’s “troubled past” and “lack of ability to manage funds,” and said the committee “remains concerned with the S.E.C.’s track record in dealing with Ponzi schemes.” The report stressed, “With the federal debt exceeding $14 trillion, the committee is committed to reducing the cost and size of government.”

But cutting the S.E.C.’s budget will have no effect on the budget deficit, won’t save taxpayers a dime and could cost the Treasury millions in lost fees and penalties. That’s because the S.E.C. isn’t financed by tax revenue, but rather by fees levied on those it regulates, which include all the big securities firms.

A little-noticed provision in Dodd-Frank mandates that those fees can’t exceed the S.E.C.’s budget. So cutting its requested budget by $222.5 million saves Wall Street the same amount, and means regulated firms will pay $136 million less in fiscal 2012 than they did the previous year, the S.E.C. projects.

Moreover, enforcement actions generate billions of dollars in revenue in the form of fines, disgorgements and other penalties. Last year the S.E.C. turned over $2.2 billion to victims of financial wrongdoing and paid hundreds of millions more to the Treasury, helping to reduce the deficit.

But the S.E.C. has become a favorite whipping boy of those hostile to market reforms. Admittedly the agency has given them plenty of fodder: revelations that a few staff members were looking at pornography on their office computers; a questionable $557 million lease for new office space, subsequently unwound; and the agency’s notorious failure to catch Bernard Madoff. Nonetheless, in the wake of the recent Ponzi schemes, evidence of growing insider-trading rings involving the Galleon Group and others, potential market manipulation in the still-mystifying flash crash, not to mention myriad unanswered questions about wrongdoing during the financial crisis, the need for vigorous securities law enforcement seems both self-evident and compelling.

A bribery scandal at Tyson Foods — a scheme that Tyson itself admitted — resulted in charges against the company earlier this year. But no individuals were charged. While the S.E.C. wouldn’t disclose its reasons, the case involved foreign witnesses and was therefore expensive to investigate and prosecute. The decision not to pursue charges may have involved many factors, but one disturbing possibility was that the agency simply couldn’t afford to, given its limited resources.

Robert Khuzami, the S.E.C.’s head of enforcement, told me his division was underfunded even before Dodd-Frank expanded its responsibilities and that the proposed appropriation would leave his division in dire straits. The S.E.C. oversees more than 35,000 publicly traded companies and regulated institutions, not counting the hedge fund advisers that would be added under the new legislation. While he wouldn’t comment on Tyson, he noted that with fixed costs like salaries accounting for nearly 70 percent of the agency’s budget, “you have to squeeze the savings out of what’s left, like travel, and especially foreign travel, at a time we see more globalization, more insider trading through offshore accounts. It’s highly cost-intensive.”

An S.E.C. memo on the committee’s proposed budget warns: “We may be forced to decline to prosecute certain persons who violate the law; settle cases on terms we might otherwise not prefer; name fewer defendants in a given action; restrict the types of investigative techniques employed; or conclude investigations earlier than we otherwise would.”

It’s not just that cases aren’t being adequately investigated and filed. Under Mr. Khuzami and the S.E.C.’s chairwoman, Mary L. Schapiro, the enforcement division has tried to be more proactive, detecting complex frauds before they cost investors billions. Mr. Khuzami stressed that analyzing trading patterns involves a staggering amount of data, especially the high-frequency trading that crippled markets during last year’s flash crash, and requires investment in state-of-the-art information technology the S.E.C. lacks. Sorting through the wreckage of the mortgage crisis, with its complex derivatives and millions of mortgages bundled into esoteric trading vehicles, is highly labor-intensive.

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