My position in the areas of securities lawÂ and corporate law has consistently been that painful shareholderÂ lawsuits are generally likely to beÂ much more effectiveÂ deterrentsÂ than toothless legislation (SOX?) or rulemaking by an agency ill-equipped or disinclined to ruthlessly enforceÂ its rules.Â I have taken this position in my writingÂ with respect to investment banking research analysts, I have taken this position with respect to attorneys, and I have taken this position with respect to corporate directors.Â (I am soon to re-articulate my position with respect to attorneysÂ at an upcoming conference at Columbia – mark your calendar.)
In at least one of my articles, however, I cite (for purposes of disagreeing with) Peter Oh’s article titled “Gatekeeping,” in which he takes the position that the SEC is well-situated to be an effective gatekeeper.Â Peter’s position is idealistic, in my view, and, having worked for the SEC and observing the agency over the past decade, I am of the option that the SEC is hamstrung by political pressure (see, e.g., resignations of Donaldson andÂ Pitt) and thin resources.Â Mind you, the SEC is staffed with brilliant lawyers, accountants, and economists, and the SEC certainly can and should be an astoundingly effective gatekeeper, but sometimes reality gets in the way.
Exhibit A:Â The WSJ had an article today about an SEC lawsuit against some scammers who appear to have duped 64 investors out of $1.6 million.Â This suit is similar to many brought by the SEC – small-scale scammer, clearly scamming, as easy a target as fish in a barrel.Â The SEC will likely take the scammers discussed in the article off the street, which will be a good thing, but I have to say that I’d much rather the SEC go afterÂ the bigger scammers who have impacted (negatively) more investors.Â Granted, the SEC has relatively recentlyÂ (past decade) snarked at a bunch of heavy hitters – Goldman and E&Y and EnronÂ among them – but how much can the SEC really do with its (1) limited funding and (2) awkward political position (the way theÂ Pitt/Donaldson terms ended sat very poorly with me)?
Mind you, I support the SEC fully, and I think we (corp. and secs. scholars) should be encouraging our students to consider working for the SEC (incredible experience and super, super mission).Â I have nothing but the best things to say about the senior folks I was able to watch in action while at the SEC – Arthur Levitt, Harvey Goldschmid, David Becker, Dick Walker, Steve Culter, etc. – but I think that, as an “institutional” matter, the SEC is not going to soon be the knight in shining armor it could be.Â There are just too many currents toÂ swim against.Â Or at least let me just say that I will not sleep better tonight knowing that the SEC is going after Dante Jarvis, in Hicksville, NY.