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Who Should Police Wall Street

Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chief Christopher Cox is facing criticism for his lack of involvement in handling Bear Stearns’ financial crisis. The failure of Bear Stearns and alleged neglect from Cox has stimulated debate over who should be in charge of Wall Street, the SEC or the Fed.

Treasury secretary Henry Paulson suggested broadening the Fed’s responsibilities to include overseeing investment banks. 

Bear Stearns began having problems last July when two large hedge funds collapsed due to securities tied to subprime mortgages. The firm incurred $1 billion in write-downs by December. Some critics argue that Cox and the SEC should have pressured Bear Stearns to raise capital and increase the confidence in their investors.  

Cox was said to have been absent during crucial conferences with the Fed and the Treasury, who negotiated a bailout plan for Bear Stearns. One such call discussed J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. granting a loan to Bear Stearns, and the other meeting discussed J.P. Morgan potentially buying out Bear Stearns and the Fed’s role in lending money to investment banks.  

Many of Cox’s predecessors, such as Richard Breeden and Harvey Pitt, were seen as more proactive in taking charge over the securities market during times of financial turmoil.

According to reports, Mr. Cox claimed that the SEC acted appropriately during the Treasury and Fed bailout negotiations because the SEC’s responsibility was to regulate the industry—not arrange its deals.

Cox has encouraged constructive debate over the issue of shifting authority to the Fed, but his stance is primarily passive, saying that the outcome is up to lawmakers in Congress and not the SEC. He also says that if the Fed continues to loan money to investment banks, it will inevitably play a larger role in Wall Street.

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