So, here we are, four years after the great financial collapse, three years after the recovery began and in the last year of Obama’s term — and the president has finally decided to investigate the role of fraud in the great global financial crisis. Hence, this new task force — the unit of Mortgage Origination and Securitization Abuses — begins behind the curve. The statute of limitations is, in many cases, close to elapsing.
Even so, do not dismiss the investigation out of hand because of the timing: History informs us that a serious investigation can begin four years after the fact. Recall that Ferdinand Pecora was the fourth chief counsel for the Senate committee that investigated the Wall Street crash of 1929 and subsequent Depression. He was appointed in 1932 and received broad investigatory powers in 1933. His report ran thousands of pages. Thanks in large part to Pecora’s findings, Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Banking Act, which separated commercial and investment banking; the Securities Act of 1933, which established penalties for filing false information about stock offerings; and the Securities Exchange Act, which created the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate the stock exchanges. Nearly 50 years of financial stability followed.
The personality in charge can make all the difference. In an encouraging sign, Obama appointed to the task force New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, one of the few attorneys general not railroaded into a premature settlement with banks of the robo-signing-foreclosure scandal.
Critics have derided the task force as little more than election maneuvering. The politics are obvious: Both Occupy Wall Street and the tea party were very unhappy with the bank bailouts; they seem even less happy with the lack of prosecution.
It’s fair to ask: Is this new task force a meaningless exercise?
It is too soon to tell, of course. Like good poker players, we can look for “tells” that signal whether this will be a farce or a serious player. We’ll find clues in the structural setup of the office as well as the areas it investigates.
In the setup of the office, four aspects are crucial:
●Does the office have subpoena power (as the New York attorney general’s office has through the Martin Act)?
● Are there going to be public hearings (preferably in the Senate)?
●Will the commission have a significant budget?