WASHINGTON - While President-elect Bill Clinton's economic program may spark a surge in tax-exempt bonds, it may also trigger extra market scrutiny by regulators, Securities and Exchange Commissioner Richard Roberts said Thursday.
A heightened interest by the incoming administration and investors could have "securities ramifications," Roberts said in a telephone interview two days after the Arkansas governor's election victory
"Clinton is most interested in public finance. The [resulting] changes could have implications for securities practitioners. It's hard to tell what the developments will be," said Roberts, whose agency is expected to undergo major shifts at the top in the next few months with the inevitable departure of SEC Chairman Richard Breeden.
But he said any steps the SEC takes to increase its oversight would not be extensive. "For the most part our mission will remain the same. The [changes) would be around the edges." said the former Alabama bond lawyer, whose name is one of several already beginning to circulate as a possible replacement for Breeden.
Roberts would not comment when asked for more details on how the agency might increase its oversight of the municipal market. But he has pushed in recent months for increased enforcement action for tax-exempts and tightened customer protection standards.
Tuesday's election is expected to result in a shift in power on the five-member SEC from the Republicans to Democrats, such as Roberts, because under federal law up to three of the five commissioners can be members of the same party as the President.
The agency currently has two Republicans, including Breeden, whose five-year term ends in June, and former Alex. Brown & Sons partner J. Carter Beese, who was confirmed by Congress late last year. Breeden had hoped to fill a third slot left vacant by Commissioner Edward Fleischman's departure in March with Chicago attorney James M. Reum, a Republican. But that nomination, which is before Congress, is expected to die.
The agency's only current Democrat is Roberts, and the only Independent is former futures industry attorney Mary Schapiro.
But the Clinton administration is expected to eventually fill Fleischman's and the chairman's slots with Democrats, tilting control to that party. As for Breeden, the sitting chairman tends to depart when there is a change in party, although he could technically stay at the SEC until his term ends.
An SEC aide said, "Breeden is not about to bolt in the next month, [although] it's fair to say he's interested in a job in the private sector. But he's very concerned that the transition here be smooth. His is an important position overseeing a critically important market."
One Washington observer said there is a great deal of speculation about who might be named chairman.
Besides Roberts, names circulating as possible chairman or commissioner are American Stock Exchange Chairman James Jones; Securities Industry Association Executive Vice President Marc Lackritz, who will become president next month; and Consuela Washington, a top aide to Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.
"This will change the whole character of the SEC very quickly." said Christopher Taylor, executive director of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board. "Richard Breeden brought a very distinctive style to the operation of the SEC," he said. But he said market watchers should not hold their breath in waiting for changes.
"The appointment of the SEC chairman comes late in the spring. It's not high on the list. I anticipate we're going to have a period of time where it won't be clear to us whether the SEC has a new or different change of emphasis in direction," Taylor said.
"People have to be confirmed" by Congress, he said. "It's a mess. It's also a very interesting time. It will be interesting to see what the pundits say about the message sent. Will [Congress] give a hoot about banking and securities issues if Clinton puts a health bill in front of them?"
Asked whether he thinks House finance panel members will hold oversight hearings on whether new rules are needed in the municipal market, as planned, Taylor said, "Making predictions now is sort of silly. You could have hearings on municipals. But you are more likely to get a discussion about infrastructure" because of the growing emphasis on that, he said.
Besides the SEC, key securities panels on Capitol Hill are undergoing upheaval. "We've lost a lot of members on the subcommittee," said one aide to the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subpanel on telecommunications and finance, chaired by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who handily won re-election.
"A dozen new slots are opening as a result of members retiring, being defeated, or running for other offices," he said.
He said while Congress will focus on health care and other top national issues, securities panels will hit the ground running with a new round of legislation to regulate financial advisers and the government securities market.
Pending legislation died at the end of the session in a crunch of opposition and time restraints, but supporters of the measures plan to move quickly in January when Congress convenes to introduce new bills and schedule hearings, the aide said.
"Keep in mind, all those bills got reported out [of committee] at a much later time," the aide said. "We will be coming out right at the gate when there are not a lot of people to run the clock on you.