Brooksley Born, the Cassandra of the Derivatives Crisis

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Friends nudge the woman who saw the catastrophe coming.

They want Brooksley Born to say four words, four simple words: "I told you so."

Ah, but she won't -- not at legal conferences or dinner parties. Not even in a quiet moment in her living room, giving her first interview with a major news organization since last fall's economic collapse.

She just smiles, perched ever so properly in an upholstered armchair at her Kalorama home.

"More coffee?" she asks daintily, changing the subject.

A little more than a decade ago, Born foresaw a financial cataclysm, accurately predicting that exotic investments known as over-the-counter derivatives could play a crucial role in a crisis much like the one now convulsing America. Her efforts to stop that from happening ran afoul of some of the most influential men in Washington, men with names like Greenspan and Levitt and Rubin and Summers -- the same Larry Summers who is now a key economic adviser to President Obama.

She was the head of a tiny government agency who wanted to regulate the derivatives. They were the men who stopped her.

The same class of derivatives that preoccupied Born -- including the now-infamous "credit-default swaps" -- have been blamed for accelerating last fall's financial implosion. But from 1996 to 1999, when Born was the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the U.S. economy was roaring and she was getting nowhere with predictions of doom.

So, upstairs in the big house in Kalorama, Born tossed and turned. She woke repeatedly "in a cold sweat," agonizing that a financial calamity was coming, she recalled one recent afternoon.

"I was really terribly worried," she said.

Before taking office, Born had been a high-octane attorney, an American Bar Association power player, a noted advocate of feminist causes and co-founder of the National Women's Law Center. But none of that carried much weight when she crossed over into government; for all her legal experience, she was a woman who wasn't adept at playing the game. She could be unyielding and coldly analytical, with a litigator's absolute assertions of right and wrong. And she was taking on Beltway pros, masters of nuance and palace politics. She marched into congressional hearing after congressional hearing -- pin neat, always with a handbag -- but no one really wanted to listen.

The Wall Street Journal declared that "the nation's top financial regulators wish Brooksley Born would just shut up." The Bond Buyer newspaper compared her to a salmon "swimming against raging currents."


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