Angry Cox Expects SEC to Grow, Not Die

The commission chairman defends himself and the agency against Wall Street Journal criticism of its role in the Bear Stearns crisis.

Rarely in its 74-year history has the Securities and Exchange Commission been so squarely on the griddle, with new reforms seeming to target its very existence and Chairman Christopher Cox personally being criticized as “peripheral,” in the words of a critical Monday profile on the Wall Street Journal’s front page.

Cox has said little publicly about the criticism, much of which relates to his and the SEC’s role in dealing with the collapse of Bear Stearns and its later bailout managed by the Fed. But in internal memos made available to CFO.com, the chairman clearly seems to be simmering close to the boiling point.

In a 17-paragraph memo to the entire SEC staff that started with a note that he was “very disappointed” by the Journal story, Cox defended the SEC’s role in dealing with Bear as “one of a high degree of inter-agency cooperation.” And he noted that the SEC’s position in the case of the bailout was legally limited because the agency could not be “cast in the role of regulator of the merger and also potentially enforcer of the laws against fraud in connection with the transaction.”

The Journal also cited several comments that Cox had made earlier in the year about Bear Stearns’s financial position being strong. The story said that the SEC chairman defended those positions in the interview, saying it was a lack of confidence, rather than a lack of capital, that did in the investment bank. Asked by CFO.com about Cox’s earlier positions on Bear, SEC spokesman John Nester said that liquidity was not what did Bear in; rather, it was the short-term “sudden cessation of secured funding.”

A central point of dispute between Cox and the Journal’s account, however, related more to questions about the future of the SEC.

The newspaper story pictured Cox as having reacted weakly in an April 1 staff memo responding to a Treasury Department proposal that “called for dissolving the SEC and handing its Wall Street brief to another federal body.” Cox, according to the paper, told staffers the Treasury report was a “think piece,” and said they should “make up their own minds about whether it would lead to the SEC’s elimination.”

That April Cox memo, in response to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s “Blueprint for a Modernized Financial Regulatory Structure,” was also made available to CFO.com. Far from eliminating the SEC, Cox wrote that he believed the blueprint “would significantly expand the role and responsibilities” of the commission.

His April memo continued: “Yet some press reports (notably a piece in yesterday’s Wall St. Journal) have characterized the proposed changes as an ‘elimination’ of the agency. Read the Blueprint yourself and make up your own mind; but most importantly, view it as a provocative think piece, not an actionable plan for legislative action.”

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