THE BLOG
06/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Reviving Pecora's Ghost

We are hearing a lot about the need for a new "Pecora Commission," to conduct a comprehensive investigation of all the Wall Street abuses that led to the financial collapse and the general recession that has followed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called for such a commission. A House floor vote on a bill sponsored by Rep. John Dingell is expected this week. The bill would establish an investigative panel with full subpoena powers. A companion bill, the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, has bipartisan Senate sponsors, including Senators McCain and Grassley as well as several progressive Democrats. These efforts are an implicit rebuke to the Obama administration's economic team.

The original Pecora committee was not a commission, but the Senate Banking committee operating in investigative mode. Its chief counsel beginning in late 1932 was a former New York City prosecutor named Ferdinand Pecora. The committee began its work in March 1932, and Pecora became chief counsel later that year. It continued throughout 1933 into early 1934. The new Democratic chairman, Sen. Duncan Fletcher, who took office when the Democrats began the majority party after the 1932 election, kept Pecora in the job. Today, Fletcher is a footnote; Pecora is the name people remember. (As a former chief investigator of the Senate Banking Committee, I love to see Senate staffers make good.)

Pecora's work unearthed numerous conflicts of interest--a "preferred list" of investors (including President Coolidge and Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts) kept by Morgan who had access to lucrative securities offerings not available to ordinary customers; the unsavory practice of bank presidents of borrowing money to short stocks, including sometimes their own; and the first wave "securitization," in which investment banks made sketchy loans and repackaged them as bonds for unsuspecting investors.

Pecora's work led to several resignations of bank executives, but more importantly in created a climate for reform legislation. Pecora's findings helped inform the Glass Steagall Act of 1933 separating investment banking from government-insured commercial banking, the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. Most importantly, it functioned as a public shaming of Wall Street. It thus helped change the political climate so that radical reforms could proceed. President Roosevelt encouraged Pecora's work and he encouraged the public indignation. Pecora was subsequently appointed by Roosevelt as a commissioner of the newly created SEC.

The Obama administration is proceeding very differently, and it has little enthusiasm for a Pecora Commission or for recriminations against financial elites. There has been no dramatic rupture with Wall Street. Rather, Obama's economic team is working hand in glove with the same investment banking firms and commercial banks that invented and underwrote the financial products and subterfuges that creates the collapse.

Two of Obama's top people, Lawrence Summers and Rahm Emanuel, did lucrative stints on Wall Street before returning to government (with an outlook substantially influenced by their time in the financial markets.) A third senior official, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, was a senior member of the Bush administrations financial crisis team, in his previous job as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. So when Obama succeeded Bush, there was a seamless handoff from Geithner to.....Geithner.

Several other senior Obama economic officials were part of the Clinton economic team that was responsible for so much of the deregulation. Rather than channeling and affirming public indignation as Roosevelt did, the Obama sees populist backlash as a dangerous force to be damped down.

Although there have been some good individual hearings by particular committees on aspects of the collapse, neither of the key legislative committees in the House or Senate has shown much appetite for a Pecora-style investigation. Rather, investigative efforts have been diffused among the Congressional Oversight Panel chaired by Elizabeth Warren, which was created to oversee see the Treasury's disbursement of $700 billion in bailout money, chaired by Elizabeth Warren; the reports of the Special Inspector General; investigative work by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo; and some good hearings by subcommittees. All of the Democratic committee chairmen, however, are under subtle pressure from the White House not to embarrass the administration.

But by refusing a Roosevelt-scale break with Wall Street, the administration embarrasses itself. So we need a new Pecora committee, less to unearth new information than to focus public attention and build support for sweeping reform. Between the work of the Special Inspector General, and the work of other congressional committees, and investigative reports of the financial press, much of the core story has already been unearthed. Commercial and investment banks, their hedge fund counterparties, the mortgage companies and the corrupted credit rating agencies, perpetrated systematic frauds on the public using levels of speculative borrowing that any uncompromised regulator would have shut down. The fraud was central to the business model. William Black has coined the useful phrase, "control fraud," meaning that the fraud was systematic and emanated from the very top of the business.

With Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and Ben Bernanke working closely with major investment bankers to restart the system of securitization, this time with the Federal Reserve's money and loan guarantees from the Treasury, there will be a titanic struggle over what kind of regulatory system to have going forward. Wall Street is resisting any form of regulation of hedge funds and private equity companies, and hopes that a voluntary system for registering derivatives such as credit default swaps will head off stronger medicine.

For a time, it appeared that the issue of regulation of the shadow banking system would be finessed by making the Federal Reserve the "systemic risk regulator." The Fed (the weakest regulatory agency of the lot) would decide what entities needed additional surveillance.) But that scheme, originally proposed by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in 2006, no longer has much support in Congress. So all of the issues about what to regulate, how, and by whom, are still very much on the table--and a consensus still needs to be created. We need a latter day Pecora Committee to arouse the public and the back-benchers in Congress. Otherwise, the reform moment will pass, and we will revert to something very much like business as usual.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is "Obama"s Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency."