The Securities and Exchange Commission can blame itself for the current crisis. That is the allegation being made by a former SEC official, Lee Pickard, who says a rule change in 2004 led to the failure of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Merrill Lynch.
The SEC allowed five firms — the three that have collapsed plus Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley — to more than double the leverage they were allowed to keep on their balance sheets and remove discounts that had been applied to the assets they had been required to keep to protect them from defaults.
Making matters worse, according to Mr. Pickard, who helped write the original rule in 1975 as director of the SEC's trading and markets division, is a move by the SEC this month to further erode the restraints on surviving broker-dealers by withdrawing requirements that they maintain a certain level of rating from the ratings agencies.
"They constructed a mechanism that simply didn't work," Mr. Pickard said. "The proof is in the pudding — three of the five broker-dealers have blown up."
The so-called net capital rule was created in 1975 to allow the SEC to oversee broker-dealers, or companies that trade securities for customers as well as their own accounts. It requires that firms value all of their tradable assets at market prices, and then it applies a haircut, or a discount, to account for the assets' market risk. So equities, for example, have a haircut of 15%, while a 30-year Treasury bill, because it is less risky, has a 6% haircut.
The net capital rule also requires that broker dealers limit their debt-to-net capital ratio to 12-to-1, although they must issue an early warning if they begin approaching this limit, and are forced to stop trading if they exceed it, so broker dealers often keep their debt-to-net capital ratios much lower.
In 2004, the European Union passed a rule allowing the SEC's European counterpart to manage the risk both of broker dealers and their investment banking holding companies. In response, the SEC instituted a similar, voluntary program for broker dealers with capital of at least $5 billion, enabling the agency to oversee both the broker dealers and the holding companies.
This alternative approach, which all five broker-dealers that qualified — Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley — voluntarily joined, altered the way the SEC measured their capital. Using computerized models, the SEC, under its new Consolidated Supervised Entities program, allowed the broker dealers to increase their debt-to-net-capital ratios, sometimes, as in the case of Merrill Lynch, to as high as 40-to-1. It also removed the method for applying haircuts, relying instead on another math-based model for calculating risk that led to a much smaller discount.
The SEC justified the less stringent capital requirements by arguing it was now able to manage the consolidated entity of the broker dealer and the holding company, which would ensure it could better manage the risk.
"The Commission's 2004 rules strengthened oversight of the securities markets, because prior to their adoption there was no formal regulatory oversight, no liquidity requirements, and no capital requirements for investment bank holding companies," a spokesman for the agency, John Heine, said.
In addition to computerizing the risk calculations, the new program required time-consuming oversight of the broker dealers by SEC officials, and in many cases, the use of subjective judgment calls.
"An important component of the CSE program is the regular interaction of Commission staff with senior managers in the firm's own control functions, including risk management, treasury, financial controllers, and the internal auditor, as well as onsite testing to determine whether the firms are implementing robustly their documented controls," SEC chairman Christopher Cox testified in a hearing of the House Committee on Financial Services in July.
Despite the increased oversight and supposed strengthening of the rule, the SEC did reexamine its efficacy after the Bear Stearns collapse. "Immediately after the events of mid-March, when the run-on-the-bank phenomenon to which Bear Stearns was exposed demonstrated the importance of incorporating loss of short-term secured funding into regulatory stress scenarios, the CSE program revised the analysis of liquidity risk management, with enhanced focus on the use and resilience of secured funding," Mr. Cox testified at the July hearing. "The SEC has also worked closely with the Federal Reserve in directing this additional stress testing."
Two months after Mr. Cox testified, however, two more broker dealers have collapsed, and yesterday there were reports that one of the two remaining broker dealers — Morgan Stanley — is now in talks to merge with Wachovia.
"The SEC modification in 2004 is the primary reason for all of the losses that have occurred," Mr. Pickard, who is now a senior partner at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Pickard & Djinis, said.
The director of equity research at Fusion IQ and an influential Web logger, Barry Ritholtz, called the 2004 rule change "a hornets nest" that "proves the importance of having stringent rules in place."
The SEC said it has no plans to re-examine the impact of the 2004 changes to the net capital rule, and last week, it put out a proposal to revise the rule once again. This time, it is looking to remove the requirement that broker dealers maintain a certain rating from the ratings agencies.
"The SEC doesn't want to appear they are endorsing the efficacy of ratings agencies, but once again, they are going to simply cause more problems down the road," Mr. Pickard said.