Back in 2000, when Hank Paulson was CEO of Goldman Sachs, he testified in front of the Security and Exchange Commission. Among other things, he lobbied the SEC to enact a “change to self-regulation” for Wall Street. He also urged them to change the “net capital rule” which governed the amount of leverage investment banks could use. The net capital rule was indeed changed in 2004, and is now blamed for the investment banks’ collapse.
PAULSON: The Challenge of Technology and Change to Self-Regulation in the United States
The third area for re-examination and reform is the structure of broker/dealer regulation, a function now shared by the SEC and the self regulatory organizations (“SROs”), principally the New York Stock Exchange and NASD Regulation Inc.
[W]e and other global firms have, for many years, urged the SEC to reform its net capital rule to allow for more efficient use of capital. This is the single most important factor in driving significant parts of our business offshore, so that our firms can remain competitive with our foreign competitors risk-based capital standards must become the norm. The SEC has made it clear that risk-based capital rules can be implemented only when the Commission is confident that firms employing value-at-risk models have robust credit and risk management policies in place.
For these reasons we think it is time to seriously consider the creation of a single, independent SRO to adopt, examine and enforce a core body of financial responsibility, customer protection and margin rules. We hope and expect that there would be savings generated by economies of scale.
How did Paulson’s recommendation to let investment banks borrow much, much more work out?
Here’s a story from two weeks ago:
The Securities and Exchange Commission can blame itself for the current crisis. That is the allegation being made by a former SEC official, Lee Pickard, who says a rule change in 2004 led to the failure of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Merrill Lynch.
The SEC allowed five firms â€” the three that have collapsed plus Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley â€” to more than double the leverage they were allowed to keep on their balance sheets and remove discounts that had been applied to the assets they had been required to keep to protect them from defaults…
The so-called net capital rule was created in 1975 to allow the SEC to oversee broker-dealers…The net capital rule also requires that broker dealers limit their debt-to-net capital ratio to 12-to-1…
In 2004, the European Union passed a rule allowing the SEC’s European counterpart to manage the risk both of broker dealers and their investment banking holding companies. In response, the SEC instituted a similar, voluntary program for broker dealers with capital of at least $5 billion, enabling the agency to oversee both the broker dealers and the holding companies.
This alternative approach, which all five broker-dealers that qualified â€” Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley â€” voluntarily joined, altered the way the SEC measured their capital. Using computerized models, the SEC, under its new Consolidated Supervised Entities program, allowed the broker dealers to increase their debt-to-net-capital ratios, sometimes, as in the case of Merrill Lynch, to as high as 40-to-1. It also removed the method for applying haircuts, relying instead on another math-based model for calculating risk that led to a much smaller discount.
Who murdered the American economy? It was the CEO, in the 13th Floor Conference Room, with the Prepared Testimony.