BREAKINGVIEWS-Uncertain SEC leadership heralds 2013 dysfunction

Fri Dec 7, 2012 10:22pm IST

(The authors are Reuters Breakingviews columnists. The opinions expressed are their own.)

By Rob Cox and Daniel Indiviglio

WASHINGTON, Dec 7 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Gridlock isn't just a problem in the U.S. Congress. It may also freeze up the Securities and Exchange Commission. By elevating one of five commissioners to replace departing Chairman Mary Schapiro, without naming a replacement, President Barack Obama has put the Wall Street watchdog in a bind. Political expediency may present substantial risks for investor protection.

The problem is simple math. Schapiro's departure next week leaves the SEC's ruling body with two commissioners from each party. To effectively govern, a fifth vote is necessary. It's precisely why the SEC, like the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and Federal Trade Commission, was established along these lines.

That affects investors for two basic reasons. First, without a deciding fifth vote it will be virtually impossible to pass new rules overseeing financial services, such as whether additional investor safeguards should be imposed on the $2.6 trillion money markets. Democrat Luis Aguilar opposed reforms supported by Schapiro until a proper study could show whether post-crisis modifications had been effective.

The report was issued last week. For the most part, it suggests that while changes made in 2010 were helpful, they alone wouldn't have prevented the Reserve Primary Fund from "breaking the buck" in 2008. The results might convince Aguilar to support some of the proposals embraced by Schapiro, Reuters reported on Friday. Absent a fifth vote, however, the objections of the two Republican commissioners would still sink the initiative.

Finally, there's the recruitment problem. Though Elisse Walter was given the chairman title, news reports suggest she's a short-term fix with her term ending in a year. That gives cold comfort to securities lawyers who might otherwise be willing to work for the SEC. Just this week, the regulator lost its general counsel, its trading and markets director and the head of the corporate finance division. Who would take a senior position at an agency whose boss is leaving soon?

The president may have avoided a confirmation battle over leadership at the SEC. But he has done no favors for investors by leaving the watchdog rudderless and, ultimately, toothless.

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CONTEXT NEWS

- U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Schapiro will step down on Dec. 14. President Barack Obama has announced that current commissioner Elisse Walter will be elevated to the top role, which will leave a vacancy on the five-person commission. The remaining commissioners will be evenly split politically, with two Democrats and two Republicans. The president has not announced a replacement for Walter.

- An SEC report was released on Nov. 30 that weighed in on money market fund regulation, an issue that has divided the commission. It found that reforms made in 2010 would not have prevented the Reserve Primary Fund from "breaking the buck" during the 2008 financial crisis. Three commissioners, including Democrat Luis Aguilar and two Republicans, ordered that the study be completed before considering more aggressive rules to protect money market funds. Departing Chairman Schapiro, who had supported the tougher regulations, criticized the delay.

- SEC releases:

General Counsel Mark Cahn to Leave SEC link.reuters.com/can54t

Trading and Markets Director Robert Cook to Leave SEC link.reuters.com/dan54t

Division of Corporation Finance Director Meredith Cross to Leave SEC link.reuters.com/fan54t

- Reuters:

SEC's Aguilar says could support money market reforms [ ID:nL1E8N74AV]

SEC study: 2010 reforms not "break the buck" panacea [ID:nL1E8N58JP]

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- For previous columns, Reuters customers can click on [COX/] and [INDI/]

(Editing by Jeffrey Goldfarb and Martin Langfield)

((rob.cox@thomsonreuters.com; daniel.indiviglio@thomsonreuters.com)(Reuters messaging rob.cox.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net; daniel.indiviglio@thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net)) Keywords: BREAKINGVIEWS SEC/

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