The $50-billion investment scam allegedly pulled off by Wall Street insider Bernard Madoff has ignited predictable calls for more regulation.
The "massive fraud ... was made possible in part because the regulators who were assigned to oversee Wall Street dropped the ball," said President-elect Obama.
"This scandal underscores the need for a 21st century regulatory approach," writes Arthur Levitt Jr., former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), in The Wall Street Journal.
Notice the disconnect. Regulation failed, so we need more regulation. I see it differently. Regulation failed, so let's try free markets. That would be a change.
Regulation did indeed fail. "An executive in the securities industry, Harry Markopolos, contacted the SEC's Boston office in May 1999, urging regulators to investigate Mr. Madoff. Mr. Markopolos continued to pursue his accusations over the past nine years," The Wall Street Journal reported.
Of course, when a regulatory agency fails, the usual response is to make it bigger, not abolish it. Economist Robert Murphy notes, "In the private sector, when a firm fails, it ceases operations. The opposite happens in government. There is literally nothing a government agency could do that would make the talking heads on the Sunday shows ask, 'Should we just abolish this agency?Is it doing more harm than good?'"
Most people won't like the suggestion that we dump regulation for free markets. We can't let markets run themselves, they'll say. Someone has to protect the unsuspecting from conmen. The Madoff case shows why this view is wrong. We've always been told that regulation of financial markets protects the least knowledgeable investors. Sophisticated people know what they are doing and can fend for themselves.
But Madoff's alleged Ponzi scheme is fascinating precisely because it caught some very knowledgeable people. They knew Madoff. Everyone trusted him, including the regulators.
That's one reason those savvy investors gave him their money. But there is surely another reason. Since the 1930s, investors have been led to believe the regulatory system watches out for dishonest investment schemes. That creates a false sense of security -- and sets people up to be conned.