“During my lifetime, the small investor has never had a better friend than the former SEC Chairman, Arthur Levitt. His goal was unwavering: to have markets that served the interests of investors, both large and small.” — Warren Buffett
Arthur Levitt, retired as the longest serving head of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), discussed his book Take on the Street(Pantheon) as guest of the Kentucky Author Forum Nov. 21, 2002, in Louisville.
When Levitt retired in 2001 after eight years as SEC chair, Business Weekasserted that Levitt successfully battled “Wall Street, Corporate America, and Congress in his quest to become the investor’s champion. As the 90’s bull market drew in millions of new investors, Levitt’s SEC championed lower fees, fuller disclosure, and crackdowns on insider games and internet fraud.”
“What Wall Street and Corporate America Don’t Want You Know – What You Can Do to Fight Back,” the subtitle to Levitt’s book, describes his efforts to provide answers and advice on how to take matters into one’s own hands and, ultimately, how to fight back in safeguarding one’s financial future.
Levitt’s many years on Wall Street, first as a trader and partner in a brokerage firm, and then as chair and CEO of the American Stock Exchange (AMEX), made him a consummate insider. However, his background included politically-active parents who depended on public pensions for their retirement — his mother a public-school teacher, and his father the state controller for New York for 24 years. With these influences Levitt wore the mantle of the populist tradition of the Roosevelt administration, which created the SEC in 1934 to ensure the integrity of American financial markets, when he was appointed by President Clinton to head the agency in 1993.
Almost from the start, Levitt faced the 90s’ bull market and a new economy spawning accounting schemes that raised concerns. During his tenure, he was best known for his aggressive campaigns to protect investors. He had many successes in serving investors but found the accounting profession a tough foe when proposing significant reforms. “They waged a war against us, a total war,” Levitt said. Major accounting firms used campaign contributions to forge congressional support opposing changes in regulations, even pushing for cuts in the SEC budget.
New Mexico Representative Tom Udall supported Levitt against “the herd mentality” in Congress. “Levitt was out to solve these things before people realized there was a problem. That’s the sign of a leader. But the special interests have such a hold on members of Congress that they were able to stop a lot of things,” Udall said. Ironically, accounting industry lobbyist Harvey Pitt succeeded Levitt as the new SEC chair under President Bush.
Arthur Levitt was interviewed at Kentucky Author Forum by Jane Bryant Quinn, an award-winning Newsweek columnist who is one of the nation’s leading commentators on personal finance. Named by the World Almanac as one of the 25 most influential women in the U.S., Quinn’s many awards include an Emmy for outstanding coverage of news on television and the Gerald Loeb Award for lifetime achievement in business and financial journalism.