Did Anti-Terror Enforcement Help Fuel the Financial Meltdown?
The Times (of London) recently reported that “The F.B.I. has been forced to transfer agents from its counter-terrorism divisions to work on Bernard Madoff‘s alleged $50 billion fraud scheme.”
This might lead you to ask an obvious counter-question: Has the anti-terror enforcement since 9/11 in the U.S. helped fuel the financial meltdown? That is, has the diversion of resources, personnel, and mindshare toward preventing future terrorist attacks — including, you’d have to say, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — contributed to a sloppy stewardship of the financial industry?
The Times (of New York) followed with an article by Eric Lichtblau that at least partially answered the question:
Federal officials are bringing far fewer prosecutions as a result of fraudulent stock schemes than they did eight years ago, according to new data, raising further questions about whether the Bush administration has been too lax in policing Wall Street.
Legal and financial experts say that a loosening of enforcement measures, cutbacks in staffing at the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a shift in resources toward terrorism at the F.B.I. have combined to make the federal government something of a paper tiger in investigating securities crimes.
At a time when the financial news is being dominated by the $50 billion Ponzi scheme that Bernard L. Madoff is accused of running, federal officials are on pace this year to bring the fewest prosecutions for securities fraud since at least 1991, according to the data, compiled by a Syracuse University research group using Justice Department figures.
The degree of cause and effect here is an obviously broad and perhaps unanswerable question. Part of the problem is that we’ll never know how much something like “security theater” may prevent an actual attack.
Furthermore, just as it is hard to prove a negative in general, it is hard to prove that, e.g., a terrorist attack didn’t happen because of certain preventive measures. What we do know, however, is that governments in particular have a hard time focusing on more than a few big problems at once, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suspect that the anti-terror focus of the past several years has meant that less attention was paid to far more typical issues like financial fraud, etc.
More than anything, the Madoff fraud makes me appreciate (yet again) Warren Buffett‘s distaste for anything opaque and inexplicable. As he famously put it: “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.”