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Brooksley Born, the Cassandra of the Derivatives Crisis

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That last one cracks her up.

"Maybe not an inappropriate analogy!" she says.

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Now that she is retired and far from a position of influence, Born, 68, may be closer than ever to vindication. No longer an outlier, she attended a small, private dinner at the Treasury Department last week with current and former regulators at the invitation of Secretary Tim Geithner, according to two sources. And the Obama administration has unveiled a plan to regulate some of the derivatives she warned about, though the proposal must still get through Congress and falls short of regulating the entire over-the-counter market that kept her awake all those years ago.

Still, maybe -- just maybe -- her old friends say, the people in charge are beginning to realize what they thought all along: "the lady with the handbag was right."

The Maestro Balks

Born's baptism as a new agency head in 1996 came in the form of an invitation. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan -- routinely hailed as a "genius," the "maestro," the "Oracle" -- wanted her to come over for lunch.

Greenspan had an unusual take on market fraud, Born recounted: "He explained there wasn't a need for a law against fraud because if a floor broker was committing fraud, the customer would figure it out and stop doing business with him."

This made no sense to her. She'd spent much of the 1980s defending clients caught up in a vast conspiracy by two wealthy brothers, Nelson and William Hunt, who duped investors while trying to corner the world silver market.

"After all," Born said, looking back, "I'm a lawyer, and I think the existence of fraud prohibitions is critically important."

But Greenspan was insistent, she said.

Finally, he said, "Well, Brooksley, I guess you and I will never agree about fraud." (Greenspan did not respond to requests for comment. Daniel Waldman and Michael Greenberger, both top aides of Born's, were briefed on the lunch at the time and independently confirmed Born's recollection of the conversation.)

That was just the beginning. By early 1998, Born had also tangled with Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, his deputy, Summers, and Securities and Exchange Commission head Arthur Levitt, not to mention members of Congress, financial industry heavyweights and business columnists. She wanted to release a "concept paper" -- essentially a set of questions -- that explored whether there should be regulation of over-the-counter derivatives. (Derivatives are so-named because they derive their value from something else, such as currency or bond rates.)

They warned that if she did so, the market would implode and predicted tidal waves of lawsuits. On top of that, Rubin told her, she didn't have legal authority to regulate the derivatives anyway.


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