Describing the ability of securities regulators to keep pace with the turbocharged industry they regulate, a reporter once said that the regulators drive Fords while Wall Street drives Ferraris.
As a Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer who has actually been inside the agency's garage, I know that this is more than a metaphor.
While just about every American has been tempted by the bull market mania of the '90s, few jobs press your nose to the glass--and hold it there--quite as forcefully as that of overseeing securities markets worth trillions of dollars.
To oversee something, you have to pay attention to it. As I work at my office desktop, the immense wealth of the stock market is, quite literally, in my face, and as inescapable as the market alerts that flash across my computer screen.
In my twenties, which coincided with the go-go '80s, my friends and I shared a healthy disdain for unchecked yuppie greed. But today, like just about everyone else, I have become fairly obsessed with the stock market. Indeed, this obsession may turn out to be the real Y2K bug.
Though I started investing in mutual funds in the 1980s, and still do, I have graduated to the excitement of picking my own stocks. While I used to take a casual interest in the statements my mutual funds sent me once a quarter, a day away from the market now leaves me feeling strangely out of sorts. Instead of my old breakfast fare of international news, with assorted other topics tossed in, I now head straight for the S&P futures on CNBC.
I behave this way, and I am decidedly not a day trader. In fact, SEC rules require me to hold stock I buy for six months. In addition, I spend my days regulating mutual funds, which, of course, are also not the Ferraris of investment vehicles. But working at the SEC has a way of forcing you to think about markets--securities markets, housing markets, labor markets. Every day, my colleagues and I speak with securities lawyers in the private sector who are earning two to three times our salaries (not counting bonuses and stock options): attorneys for Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Fidelity and other Wall Street heavyweights. It hasn't been particularly difficult to make money in this bull market, and some of the entrepreneurs who also call us for legal guidance are, to put it gently, longer on enthusiasm than they are on understanding.
As a government employee speaking with these high-fliers, I frequently feel like an investor stuck holding low-interest savings bonds while equities soar all around him. This feeling does not help the SEC retain staff. At least during bull markets, we have an unending stream of goodbye parties, as co-workers tire of the (comparatively) low salaries and windowless offices that come with public service. Lured by what one colleague has called the "dark side," SEC staffers are trading in their Fords for something flashier.
Of course, there are different shades of dark. But, to me, being a regulator rather than a private lawyer means that you normally don't have to adopt a client's position in advance and then figure out how to sell it. Instead, you have the luxury of deciding what you think is right and going from there.
The pressure to "go private" is amplified by two different sources. First, there is Congress's lack of support for the SEC, as evidenced by an annual budget that has not come close to keeping pace with the astounding growth in the markets the agency oversees. Second, there is pressure from the securities industry.
Fortunately, the SEC staff is well regarded by industry insiders, many of whom have Commission experience themselves. Nevertheless, there is a lingering suspicion of those who stay on at the agency. One departing colleague joked that he had almost reached his "expiration date." It is as if those of us who stay too long--and I am talking years, not decades--risk being labeled as spoiled milk.
Which is a shame. Despite its bureaucratic challenges as a workplace, the government provides opportunities not easily found elsewhere: the chance to work on novel and important issues, the opportunity to collaborate with an unusually nice group of colleagues (especially rare for lawyers!) and, not least, the chance to feel good about what you do for a living.
Because of my peculiar status in the financial world--a participant who does not really participate in its wealth--I doubt I can remain forever happy driving a Ford (or a 1990 Acura). When I do eventually decide to trade it in, though, I hope I can forgo the Ferrari and content myself with something less sleek.
The writer is an attorney with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The views here are his own.