Several months ago, a credit crisis brought the investment bank Bear Stearns to its knees, created billions of dollars in losses for Merrill Lynch as well as other security firms, cost people their jobs, and dried up the home sales market.
In light of the red ink and pink slips all around, again critics again ask: should the financial services markets be subject to revised, more rigid federal oversight as proposed by U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson?
That's a truly great question.
Having worked on Wall Street for two decades, I've seen its machinations up close. Because of my insider experiences wherein I witnessed the creativity with which savvy bankers can separate you from your money in the name of sound investments, I'm initially inclined to answer yes.
But as an individual opposed to government intervention, I'm also disposed to answer no.
The government cannot control, even to the smallest extent, its own financial dealings. Witness, as proof, its nearly $9.5 trillion national debt. Why would anyone expect it to prudently oversee money matters in the private sector?
Is, then, my response yes, no or maybe? To answer, let's weight all the factors starting with an analysis of Wall's Street purpose.
The Street—take the term in its broadest sense—needs monitoring because it exists for only one reason: to make money. Taken as a whole, the financial community serves no esthetic purpose.
Even politicians when they first embark on their careers aspire to improve their constituent's lives.
Those are—or should be—noble occupations with dignified goals.
But not Wall Street. The Street's mission is creating wealth—but not necessarily for you.
If you make a few bucks along the way, that's fine. But if you lose money, well—next sucker in line, come forward please.
In the meantime, the various sales representatives, traders and executives happy deposit into their bank accounts the revenues that accrue from managing your portfolio.
To be sure, some righteous individuals work on Wall Street.
But an industry that exists exclusively for moneymaking should be policed.
Since the government, however, has already failed across the board to protect investors from the sharks, it is the entity least qualified for that job.
The multiple regulatory bodies like the Security and Exchange Commission, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, state regulators and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority who send auditors to check up on asset managers and brokers, missed all the crisis signals.
Does their collective failure mean that we have too many regulators using too many standards on too many financial instruments or too few regulators, looking at too little information about too few securities?
Paulson's plan would consolidate and combine several existing agencies as well as create a new national insurance charter and mortgage commission.
Assuming Paulson can sell his idea, implementing the reorganization would be a monstrous assignment and ultimately ineffective. The new agency would become a sort of financial Department of Homeland Security, with several bureaucratic layers that accomplishes nothing.
Paulson's objective is to protect the small fish in the big investment pond. But how can anyone believe that a new federal super-agency would be any better than the old ones?
One of his supporters, Mary L. Schapiro, chief executive officer of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, claims that "the average investor" finds it "nearly impossible" to understand the risks and is unable "navigate" today's complex financial services landscape.
According to Shapiro: "Investors shouldn't be left exposed and confused. Retail investors should get the same basic regulatory safeguards and protections no matter which investment product they choose."
Although Shapiro endorses Paulson's idea, she's actually making an excellent case for investor self-policing.
If you, the "average investor" feel "exposed and confused" and are "unable to navigate" today's "complex financial services landscape," then for heaven's sake, buy treasury bills.
They're boring and yield next to nothing. But you'll never get skinned alive.
To survive Wall Street's wild fluctuations, investors should be guided by the oldest rule: caveat emptor.