Tuesday, November 16, 1999

About the SEC, the human factor, and laughing

A couple of days ago, our SEC reported that their pension fund had also been the victim of a fraudulent stock-managing firm, and that they had lost a lot of money.

I also read recently about the Mars Climate Orbiter spaceship that, after having required an investment of 125 million dollars, had to be declared as a total loss due to a technical confusion derived from simultaneously applying metric and English measures.

If what happened to NASA or what happened to our SEC is of any mutual comfort to them, I don’t care, but what I do hope is that they have learned a bit more about humility.

I bring this opinion to the table since I recently heard that our SEC was now establishing higher capital requirements for stockbroker firms, arguing that “. . . the weak have to merge to remain. We have to get rid of the rotten apples so that we can renew the trust in the system.” As I read it, it establishes a very dangerous relationship between weak and rotten. In fact, the financially weakest stockbroker in the system could be providing the most honest services while the big ones, just because of their size, can also bring down the whole world. It has always surprised me how the financial regulatory authorities, while preaching the value of diversification, act in favor of concentration.

The SEC should not substitute the need for capital in place of the need for ethics, nor should it allow that fraudulent behavior hides amid the anonymity of huge firms. In this respect, let us not forget that the risk of social sanctions should be one of the most fundamental tools in controlling financial activities.

If there is a relation between weakness and a rotten apple, it could really be in the SEC itself, since, though they frequently complain about the lack of resources, that doesn’t stop them from transmitting institutional messages about how well they are fulfilling their responsibilities. Perhaps the best thing that the SEC could do is to stop all their actions that are creating a false sense of security in the investor, acknowledging the absence of any supervisory capacity, and instead stamp each share prospectus with a big “BUYERS BEWARE.”

We read an article in Newsweek (“Giving Big Blue a Shiner, November 1999), about the surprising 20% drop in value that IBM shares had suffered in just one day. It also states that this drop was not in any way the result of any especially surprising event. The purported lesson of the article was “To teach not to take too seriously the investigative capacity of Wall Street and to remember to laugh next time you hear that the stock-market is a rational place where the big investors know what they are doing.” I would also like to suggest remembering to laugh next time a regulator presumptuously assures you he is doing his job.

And last I want to comment on another risk of regulations. Reading about accidents in nuclear reactors in Japan and about the risks of proliferation of nuclear weapons there is no doubt that the fears of a nuclear Big Bang are being renewed.

That said, the possible Big Bang that scares me the most is the one that could happen the day those genius bank regulators in Basel, playing Gods, manage to introduce a systemic error in the financial system, which will cause the collapse of the OWB (the only bank in the world) or of the last financial dinosaur that survives at that moment.

Currently market forces favors the larger the entity is, be it banks, law firms, auditing firms, brokers, etc. Perhaps one of the things that the authorities could do, in order to diversify risks, is to create a tax on size.

Here the version in Spanish: