In a recent interview, SEC whistleblower Gary Aguirre offered his insights into the regulatory failings that allowed the Bernie Madoff scheme to reach such enormous proportions for so long.
Aguirre places particular blame upon the “revolving door” culture that hangs over the SEC’s workforce, with its attendant promise of a lucrative move to the private sector in store for those whose approach to regulation is deemed acceptable to the regulated.
The system maintains itself, because those that stay know their turn will come if they play the game. They see a director or associate director move onto a $2 million job with a Wall Street law firm. Then, the departed employee calls back to his former colleagues and says, “you know I really don’t think there is much of a case against so-and-so, I’d like for you to take a look at it.” And the case goes away; the system goes on in perpetuity … [There’s a] culture of ‘don’t rock the boat,’ the industry does not want ‘boy scouts,’ and if you can be effective with the SEC through your contacts, that is a very valuable asset you can bring to the table.
To summarize, Gary Aguirre says that a large part of the SEC’s widely-acknowledged (though not as yet fully comprehended) dysfunction results from the self-reinforcing cycle of:
- High level SEC staffers accepting positions with powerful institutional market participants, in order that they might…
- Pressure their former associates to take regulatory action beneficial to their employers, and in the process…
- Impressing upon former associates the value of regulating selectively – as the former staffer had done – in order to ensure their own eventual move to the private sector.
This revolving door dynamic is at the heart of the high degree of “regulatory capture” observed at the SEC and a central focus of this blog.
But enough of the theory of the SEC’s revolving door…let’s look at it in practice (as Mark Mitchell did in a superb item last month) through the example of Richard Sauer, former assistant director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement.
First, a little background.
In June of 2003, after 13 years with the Commission – including seven as assistant director – Richard Sauer left the SEC for the law firm of Vinson & Elkins. There, among his clients, Sauer counted Rocker Partners hedge fund.
On October 6, 2006, the New York Times published Bring on the Bears, a rather lengthy opinion-editorial authored by Sauer, which argues, on the surface, that short sellers are as vital to healthy markets as predators are to healthy ecosystems.
But set in the shadow of that well-worn market truism are some disconcerting clues as to Sauer’s mindset, both present and past.
For one, Sauer is dismissive of the uptick rule (a provision created to prevent bear raids intended to drive a company’s stock down) as an unfair vestige of a by-gone era, calling for its elimination.
For another, Sauer reveals that while at the SEC, he initiated many investigations into public companies based on the tips from short sellers betting on a drop in those companies’ stock prices. Indeed, he says short sellers were his only source for these kinds of investigations.
And for yet another, Sauer defends the relationship short-biased hedge funds have with journalists such as Herb Greenberg, Roddy Boyd, Carol Remond and Bethany McLean, while calling on the SEC to initiate enforcement actions against companies that “attribute their woes to conspiracies by short sellers,” and “retaliate against critics through defamation campaigns and manipulative short squeezes.”
As unsound as his logic is, on one point we can be certain: Sauer is at least telling the truth. A former co-worker confirms that while he and Sauer worked together at the SEC, Sauer had been involved, at least tangentially, in most of the investigations instigated by short-selling hedge fund Rocker Partners.
But the most telling sentence in Sauer’s op-ed piece is the one he didn’t even write, but which appears a the end, as an editor’s note. It reads:
Richard Sauer, a former administrator in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement division, joined the management at a short-biased hedge fund this week.
Of course, that short-biased hedge fund turned out to be Rocker Partners (which had recently changed its name to Copper River Partners).
In December of 2006 Institutional Investor Magazine published a small story on Sauer’s new gig, noting that “[hedge] funds regularly brought [Sauer] complaints of possible wrongdoing at companies they were betting against.”
When asked whether his job description at Rocker Partners might include getting future SEC investigations launched, Sauer responded, “it remains to be seen.”
In point of fact, thanks to emails produced through discovery in the Fairfax Financial (NYSE:FFH) vs. SAC Capital, et al, lawsuit, we know that there was nothing at all remaining to be seen, for by mid-November of 2006, Sauer had already emailed firstname.lastname@example.org (someone he apparently knew well enough to address only as “Rob”), pointing him to one of the anti-Fairfax sites set up by Spyro Contogouris, and attempting to spin Contogouris’ then-recent arrest on embezzlement charges as a Fairfax-motivated act of retribution.
In light of what we’ve just learned, let’s revisit Gary Aguirre’s theory of regulatory capture at the SEC:
- Former Associate Director of Enforcement Richard Sauer accepts a position with Copper River Partners, a short-biased hedge fund known to be heavily shorting Fairfax Financial.
- Sauer pressures former SEC colleague Robert Keyes to take regulatory action likely to negatively impact the share price of Fairfax.
- Keyes is impressed by the need to regulate selectively – as Sauer had most likely done while at the SEC – in order to ensure his own eventual move to the private sector.
And the cycle continues.
Of Aguirre’s three requirements, we can state with certainty that in the case of Richard Sauer, the first two are satisfied. It is my opinion that the third requirement has been, as well.
What all this means is not that Richard Sauer is a bad person, for I don’t know a thing about his character. What I do know is that he has spent most of his professional career enabling bad people, first from within a fatally flawed regulatory agency, and later from without.
Mr. Sauer, if you’re reading this, given your recent unemployment following Copper River’s collapse, I sincerely hope you’ll hold out for a job that breaks the cycle of regulatory capture and actually makes the world a better place in the process.
If this article concerns you, and you wish to help, then:
1) email it to a dozen friends;
2) go here for additional suggestions: “So You Say You Want a Revolution?“