Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

The Distorting Incentives Facing the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission

Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

The Distorting Incentives Facing the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission

Article excerpt


This Article is about the incentives that motivate the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the ways in which those incentives influence the SEC's policies. Unlike most other treatments of bureaucratic incentives, (1) this analysis begins with the assumption that the SEC is populated by honest, professional, and skilled personnel who work hard and are motivated to succeed. Despite the high quality of its staff, the SEC has not been successful in recent years. This Article argues that the SEC's lack of success results from the way that staff members respond to three sets of endogenous incentives.

First, of course, the SEC wants approval from its congressional overseers and from the general public. Unfortunately, however, these constituencies have short attention spans and are not particularly sophisticated observers. Consequently, the SEC tends to pursue high profile matters, to change its priorities frequently in accordance with public opinion, and perhaps most significantly, to pursue readily observable objectives, often at the expense of more important but less observable objectives. In particular, the SEC's performance is measured by Congress and in the court of public opinion on the simplistic basis of how many cases it brings and on the size of the fines it collects. This inclination to value only what can be easily measured has not served the SEC well. For example, the SEC's narrow focus on such measurable indicia of success as the raw number of cases brought explains, among other things, the SEC's complete lack of interest in exposing the fraud at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, LLC.

A second major factor that influences the SEC's conduct is the metamorphosis of the SEC from an administrative agency dominated by a combination of industry experts, economists and lawyers into an agency dominated exclusively by lawyers. (2) This metamorphosis has affected the culture of the SEC profoundly. In particular, the glacial speed at which the SEC operates is largely attributable to the Commission's lawyer-dominated culture. The culture has also exacerbated the problems associated with the revolving door connecting the SEC with Wall Street. SEC staffers are now focused narrowly on maximizing their reputations within the legal community rather than within economics and business as well as law.

Thirdly, the SEC has strong incentives to promote the appearance that the capital markets are in crisis and to eschew the development of market mechanisms that might solve the very problems that the SEC is tasked with solving. So long as people believe that the SEC is needed in times of crisis and that there are no superior substitutes for the SEC's style of crisis intervention, then there will be a need for the Commission. Ironically, the more financial crises there are, the more the SEC can claim a need for greater resources to meet such crises.

Nonetheless, the SEC is virtually untouched by scandal. This fact is in keeping with the argument, advanced in this Article, that the SEC as an institution, and its staff as individuals, are both professionally ambitious and ethically honest. Because corruption weakens the future mobility of SEC personnel, it is highly costly and studiously avoided. In this narrow context, at least, the SEC's response to incentives has produced positive social results.

At the same time, there have been significant, ongoing, and valid criticisms of the SEC's performance over the past decade. These criticisms became very loud when the SEC failed to recognize the fraud and attendant abuses at Enron in 2001, shortly followed by similar problems at Adelphia, WorldCom, Global Crossings, Tyco, and a host of other companies. Only months later, Eliot Spitzer issued scathing attacks on the SEC's dismal performance in regulating mutual fund abuses. (3) This was followed by the SEC's failure to respond to, or even to comprehend, the excessive risk-taking at Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and other broker-dealer firms. …

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