A Real Pecora Commission

In 1932 through 1934 the Senate Banking Committee, led by its Chief Counsel Ferdinand Pecora, ferreted out the deeper fraud and corruption that led to the Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. The Pecora Committee's findings helped change the political mood, and laid the groundwork for the sweeping financial reforms of Roosevelt's New Deal. Roosevelt himself often conferred with Pecora, encouraged him, and depended on Pecora's work to build the public support for reform. He appointed Pecora to one of the newly created results of his handiwork, the Securities and Exchange Commission, though Pecora was disappointed not to be its chairman.

President Obama has now signed legislation, The Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009, which among other things creates an investigative commission inspired by Pecora.

The new Financial Markets Commission has a sweeping mandate, including subpoena powers, to investigate all the causes of the collapse. The list is as comprehensive as one could wish for.

FUNCTIONS OF THE COMMISSION.--The functions of the Commission are--

(1) to examine the causes of the current financial and economic crisis in the United States, specifically the role of--

(A) fraud and abuse in the financial sector, including fraud and abuse towards consumers in the mortgage sector;

(B) Federal and State financial regulators, including the extent to which they enforced, or failed to enforce statutory, regulatory, or supervisory requirements;

(C) the global imbalance of savings, international capital flows, and fiscal imbalances of various governments;

(D) monetary policy and the availability and terms of credit;

(E) accounting practices, including, mark-to-market and fair value rules, and treatment of off-balance sheet vehicles;

(F) tax treatment of financial products and investments;

(G) capital requirements and regulations on leverage and liquidity, including the capital structures of regulated and non-regulated financial entities;

(H) credit rating agencies in the financial system, including, reliance on credit ratings by financial institutions and Federal financial regulators, the use of credit ratings in financial regulation, and the use of credit ratings in the securitization markets;

(I) lending practices and securitization, including the originate-to-distribute model for extending credit and transferring risk;

(J) affiliations between insured depository institutions and securities, insurance, and other types of nonbanking companies;

(K) the concept that certain institutions are ''too-big-to-fail'' and its impact on market expectations;

(L) corporate governance, including the impact of company conversions from partnerships to corporations;

(M) compensation structures;

(N) changes in compensation for employees of financial companies, as compared to compensation for others with similar skill sets in the labor market;

(O) the legal and regulatory structure of the United States housing market;

(P) derivatives and unregulated financial products and practices, including credit default swaps;

(Q) short-selling;

(R) financial institution reliance on numerical models, including risk models and credit ratings;

(S) the legal and regulatory structure governing financial institutions, including the extent to which the structure creates the opportunity for financial institutions to engage in regulatory arbitrage;

(T) the legal and regulatory structure governing investor and mortgagor protection;

(U) financial institutions and government-sponsored enterprises; and

(V) the quality of due diligence undertaken by financial institutions;

(2) to examine the causes of the collapse of each major financial institution that failed (including institutions that were acquired to prevent their failure) or was likely to have failed if not for the receipt of exceptional Government assistance from the Secretary of the Treasury during the period beginning in August 2007 through April 2009;

It's hard to improve on that. Whether the commission carries out this mandate, Pecora-style, will depend entirely on who its chair and members are, and whether they hire a tough staff. The ten commission members are to be appointed, three by the Speaker of the House, three by the Senate Majority Leader, and two each by their Republican counterparts. The Staff Director is to be hired jointly by the Chair (a Democrat) and the Vice-Chair (a Republican). Interestingly, none are to be appointed by the White House, and President Obama has already issued a signing statement reserving the right to invoke executive privilege in cases where materials or testimony from the executive branch are requested under subpoena.

To get a flavor of what the original Pecora Committee did, consider this observation from Donald A. Ritchie, associate senate historian, in his study, "The Pecora Wall Street Expose""

With the power of the subpoena, his staff would descend upon a banker or broker, and go through is records, file drawer by file drawer, page by page, selecting and photostating documents. Staff lawyers and accountants would assemble this material to reconstruct motivations, discrepancies, delinquencies, and frauds involved. They drew a multitude of charts, tracing every event and statistic. After narrowing down the documentation, they outlined the subject's transactions in chronological narrative on letter-sized sheets with citations in the margins to specific documents which could prove each assertion.

Will the new Financial Markets Commission be this diligent in exposing the facts and kindling public demands for sweeping reform? You can be sure that House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be getting friendly calls urging them not to make appointments that will embarrass the administration.

Three names have surfaced in the financial press as possible chairs, supposedly based on leaks from the Democratic leadership: Paul Volcker, 81, the former Fed Chairman, Arthur Levitt, Jr., 78, SEC Chairman during the Clinton era, and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 79. Volcker, an honest conservative, has turned against financial deregulation in recent years, and Levitt was a reasonably tough SEC chair, who bucked (and sometimes buckled) in the face of intense Congressional pressure from both parties not to crack down on abuses. Levitt now advises one of the most powerful private equity companies, the Carlyle Group, not exactly a constituency for tough reform.

Here are two better names:

*Paul Sarbanes, the retired Senate Banking Committee chairman. Sarbanes, a well-liked senator with admirers in both parties was both highly expert, incorruptable, and tough. In the fight to get what became the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, cracking down on accounting fraud, he showed real leadership. Sarbanes, now a vigorous 76, stepped down in 2006.

*Harvey Goldschmid, probably the most expert and public-minded SEC commissioner in recent decades. Goldschmid, 69, is now a law professor at Columbia. He was seriously considered by President Obama to chair the SEC, but was passed over in favor of the somewhat weaker Mary Schapiro.

It is important that this investigation be conducted not by a figurehead, but by one with the knowledge, passion, and predisposition to build the public case for sweeping reform, and without fear or favor.

Some Republicans, such as Richard Shelby, the ranking minority member on the Senate Banking Committee, are as disgusted with the Wall Street corruption as progressive Democrats are, though that does not describe the minority leaders in either house, Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. John Boehner, who will make the Republican appointments.

This could be one of those rare, historic commissions that changes the course of history -- or it could be window-dressing. Stay tuned.

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