Does Mary Jo White Need A DeLorean?

Posted On Friday, January 25, 2013

The news that Mary Jo White has been nominated to serve as chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission has a lot of folks buzzing about the potential for increased Wall Street prosecutions.

Columbia University law professor John Coffee calls her “tough as nails.”  Senator Charles Schumer of New York says she’s, well, “tough as nails.”  And President Obama says, “You don’t mess with Mary Jo.”  (Probably because she’s tough as nails).

But Stephen Gandel is not so impressed.  Over at Fortune, he calls White “the right person at the wrong time” and laments that her prosecutorial skills might have been better used in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis:

The window for pursing crimes from the financial crisis is rapidly closing. And enforcement is only one part of what the SEC does. It also needs to regulate the market to make sure it’s fair for everyone. High-frequency traders, for example, can probably breathe a sigh of relief, for now. Shapiro had been examining their turf, but this is not an area in which White has a lot of experience.

Gandel’s point has broader implications for regulation in general.  The tendency to get stuck fighting the last battle is great and can lead us to ignore obvious warning signs from newly developing threats.  That’s one reason why prediction is hard, and most of us are bad at it.

White’s level of dexterity in navigating the obstacles few, if any, of us can foresee will probably do more to determine if she succeeds at the SEC than any nail-like tendencies she apparently possesses.