In the months leading up to the presidential election, the financial press spilled a lot of ink wondering which candidate was "preferred by Wall Street."
Speculation about that issue ended on Nov. 2, though there's never been any need to speculate about which politician is most feared by Wall Street - New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer gets the vote hands down. That's because he successfully carried out that most effective of all political attention grabbers, namely a crusade against big guys on behalf of the little guy. All indications are that he will be a formidable candidate for governor in New York in 2006.
If you've been looking for an aspiring politician with a superb ability to bring irony to life, Mr. Spitzer is your man: He advanced his career interests while pursuing the public's interest by stopping conflicts of interest in high finance.
Many observers believe that Spitzer has taken the path paved by Rudy Giuliani in the 1980s, when as a U.S. attorney he successfully prosecuted Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken. It's obviously true that Spitzer has similar political instincts, at least in realizing that you don't get much press by busting the street corner small fry. It's big fish who bring big headlines: when you issue indictments on Wall Street, voters tend to notice.
Yet Eliot Spitzer didn't go after one or two big names -- his crusade was against an entire financial establishment.
This has arguably made Spitzer New York's most successful David vs. Goliath story since Fiorello la Guardia took on Tammany Hall. From research analysts to investment bankers, from mutual fund managers to insurance companies, from the world's biggest brokerages to the New York Stock Exchange, he has so far won every fight he has started.
That's a lot of crooked financial ground to cover, and on his web site (spitzer2006.com) he will inform you that, "For a guy who makes $151,000 a year, he's brought in well over $2 billion. Not a bad employee."
How did he uncover this much corruption in that many places? More easily than you might think, though the answer comes in two parts. Part 1 is New York state's unusually broad anti-fraud statutes, which were all Spitzer needed to make a case against the financial conflicts of interest that had become an accepted way of doing business. Spitzer went after the offenders with the deepest pockets and applied the statute as broadly as possible.
Some of these conflicts had been open secrets for years, such as the sell-side research coming from big brokerages. Anyone with a shred of knowledge about the brokerage business understood that this was "research" in name only, while its true purpose was to cheerlead for stocks and get investment-banking clients. Spitzer's condition for a collective "settlement" of this conflict was $1.4 billion.
Other abuses were more disguised, such as the mutual fund "market timing" scandal, in which fund managers worked with select clients to exploit the time lag between current market conditions and the funds' closing prices. Spitzer saw to it that all told, this cost the previously unblemished mutual fund industry some $2.3 billion in penalties, restitution, and reduced fees.
Part 2 of what made Spitzer's crusade easy was the psychology of a three-year bear market. The historic run-up in stocks during the 1980s and 1990s allowed more than enough time for many conflicts of interest to become habitual, thus unnoticed or overlooked -- until, that is, the S&P 500 lost half its value, the Nasdaq even more. With 50% of U.S. households owning some form of stocks, the math was simple: A few big guys prospered at the expense of millions of families. Eliot Spitzer knew whom to side with.
What's the next major battle in Spitzer's crusade? Probably a court date with former New York Stock Exchange Chairman Dick Grasso, the only big fish that has so far refused to settle on terms dictated by Spitzer. At issue is the $140 million pay package that Grasso claims he earned under a legal employment contract. Legal arguments aside, it is no coincidence that Grasso decided to fight back in late 2003, at the end of a year when the stock market had rebounded handsomely.
It's easy enough to suppose that the stock market trend in 2005 will anticipate the jury's decision about whether Dick Grasso can keep his millions. But in Spitzer's case, the stock market's fall has already ensured his political rise. Today no one doubts that he'll make a strong run for governor. What very few people foresee is how rapidly Eliot Spitzer could climb to an even higher rung on the political ladder: If the stock market sees yet another year or two of decline, the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee may indeed hail from New York -- but that individual's name will not be Hillary Clinton.