Newsflash: While America's financial house burned to the ground last year, senior SEC staffers were, um, distracted with decidedly non-financial preoccupations.
Newswires are ablaze with reports of an investigation revealing that dozens of SEC employees have been caught surfing porn sites at work. Between the years of 2005 and 2010, as many as 33 employees were investigated for spending significant chunks of work time surfing porn sites, when they should have been keeping an eye on Wall Street instead. As Lehman lurched towards the precipice, Bear Stearns went bankrupt, and Bank of America
Although the investigations ended and the reports were compiled months ago, Sen. Charles Grassley requested that the report be dug up again this month. Curiously, this was just weeks after the SEC voted along party lines to charge Goldman Sachs
People who live in glass houses…
Legislators such as California Rep. Darrell Issa, ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wasted no time taking the hint. Said Issa: "This stunning report should make everyone question the wisdom of moving forward with plans to give regulators like the SEC even more widespread authority."
But is that really the lesson we should be drawing from the porn report? According to a 2008 study by Nielsen Online, "fully one quarter of employees who use the Internet visit porn sites during the workday." In the U.K., the figure is said to be one in three. And the true figures could be even higher. The Society for Human Resource Management notes that polls of 500 human resources professionals in America revealed two out of three claiming they had found porn on their company's employees' computers.
In short, the fact that fewer than 1% of the SEC's 3,600 employees have been caught viewing porn seems less an indictment of the agency, and more a clue that the investigators didn't do a thorough enough job. Statistically speaking, I'd be far more surprised to learn that only 33 SEC staffers were guilty of this, than to discover there are hundreds of undocumented cases yet to be revealed.
Call me a cynic, but to my Foolish eye, last week's "news" is just one more salvo in the PR wars. We see such exchanges whenever legislation conflicts with vested business interests. In fact, at this very moment, there are at least two more high-profile PR wars ongoing. Boeing
…should remember that windows look in as well as out
So what's next in the PR wars? A Congressional witch hunt to ferret out the dozens of drones who slipped through the initial investigation, hamstringing efforts to prosecute Goldman? Or perhaps a Drudge Report asserting that, in addition to making billions of dollars' worth of bad bets on mortgage securities, 10% of AIG employees prefer soccer and quiche over baseball and apple pie? When do we see the YouTube video ostensibly showing Moody's CEO flipping a coin and mumbling "heads, triple-A; tails, quadruple A" … then pausing to kick a puppy?
More importantly, who cares!? So some SEC workers surf porn. Goldman Sachs tried to make money on housing prices going down, just as they did when housing prices were going up. The U.S. Treasury is run by an accused tax evader. But does any of this change the fact that we still have trillions of dollars of derivatives contracts floating around out there, and nobody knows who owes how much to whom, or when the system could implode all over again?
- Or that corporate boards remain an oligopoly, immune from shareholder democracy?
- That Glass-Steagall is still dead as a doorstop?
- Or that far from being broken up into more risk-manageable chunks post-Meltdown, America's megabanks have become now Too-Bigger-to-Fail than ever?
In a word: No. It doesn't. What matters to investors is the substance. What matters is that reform be enacted, banking excesses curbed, risk mitigated, and shareholders empowered.
As the Bard would have said: Everything else is just sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. Moody's and FedEx are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. United Parcel Service is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. Motley Fool Options has recommended writing puts on Moody's, which is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.