Bill Singer's Comment on Round One of Corzine's Congressional Testimony

December 9, 2011

If you've done this for a living, and I have, you try not to let a client put his neck in a noose and hang himself.  Frankly, easier said than done. 

To many of the high and mighty on Wall Street, lawyers are jokes - mouthpieces, suits, paid whores. Trust me, I've heard it all.  Take that dim view of the legal profession and combine it with a take-charge personality who's used to giving orders,  and you have a volatile mix that often results the sage advice given by an attorney being disregarded by the client.  Of course, as many of my colleagues would note, the client is going to pay me whether he follows my advice or not.  Yeah, the whole defense process is ripe with cynicism.

I'm not sure if Corzine asked for an opinion as to whether he should give substantive testimony to the House Agriculture Committee.  I don't know if his lawyers told him to assert the Fifth or to testify - just as I don't know whether he over-rode their advice or agreed with it.  What I do know is that if he were my client, he would have taken the Fifth and made short shrift of today's political theater.

I've been watching Corzine's testimony and have communicated with several lawyers and Wall Street participants about the Q&A.  I'm not sure Corzine accomplished what he set out to achieve.  Sure, Corzine "manned up." He gets some credit for appearing, raising his hand, and answering questions where many others - probably most others - would simply have asserted their constitutional right against self incrimination. You want a brownie point? Okay, you can have one.

However, the glow of sticking out his chin and taking the blows was a dim light, at best. In these days of anger at Wall Street, few viewers likely bought into this effort to depict poor old Jon Corzine as a sympathetic, naked figure in the public square.  Much of Corzine's testimony seems parsed, anticipated, and calculated to deflect.  The main takeaway from his first round of testimony was his reference to his "intent."  It came off as a side-step and a dodge.

In light of the day's earlier testimonies, it's also apparent that Wall Street's regulators are still living in their respective silos, defending their respective turf, and not fully invested in the concept of cooperation and sharing.  FINRA, CME, CFTC, SEC, and the others all knew months ago that MF was a firm in trouble; hell, that's one of the reasons why Corzine was brought in - to try and turn things around. Given the concerns about MF, even before Corzine came on board, you'd sort of think that there would have been more coordination among the multilayers of regulators.  It now seems that there wasn't. 

We've been here, in one form or the other, before. We've heard the Goldman Sachs testimonies. We've watched with concern developments at old Merrill Lynch, Lehman Bros., Wachovia, and Bear Stearns. In more recent days, we grew concerned about weakness at Citigroup or UBS, and looked to Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan and wondered if they are the last bulwarks. 

If Madoff and the Great Recession didn't put a dent in the pernicious culture of regulatory competition rather than coordination, what will?  Line up all the regulators, swear 'em in. Here's what each will say: Not us. Them. We did our job. They didn't.  A lot of jockeying around for position and dodging of responsibility.

Nothing was ever going to be accomplished by today's Congressional hearing.  It was a staged event for the cameras. Plays well back home with voters. The real work, the heavy lifting, will fall to career regulators and prosecutors. As to the former, they just don't seem to be up to the task in recent years.  As to the latter, I wish that Congress would just get the hell out of their way and let them get to the task.

I'm put in mind of the Captain of the Titanic. He was busy on the bridge. Reading his charts. Watching the dials. Giving orders. Listening to updates. The icebergs?  Oh, there were spotters on deck. It was their job to give the early warning, which never came.  The poor Captain wasn't to blame for steaming ahead. He was in the dark. No clue.  He never intended to ram the ship into the iceberg. Never thought the ship would sink.

That's all well and fine. Still - you know, if you knew you were in icy waters, just when did you intend to slow down?  Were you waiting to first hear the crunch of metal meeting ice? 

Come to think of it, that's how Wall Street seems to operate these days. It also seems to be how regulation and regulators work.

READ: FINRA CEO Ketchum's Dear Jon (Corzine) Moment