Conspiracy theories about the interconnectedness of Wall Street and its Washington overseers aren’t hard to find these days, and for good reason. Throw a stone and it’s likely to land on someone who’s been through the revolving door between finance and its regulators. Usually it’s a one-way move — the longtime SEC lawyer who jumps the fence for the Wall Street payday, or the Wall Street titan that goes to the Treasury Department to “give back” to the country that has made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. Sometimes, though, the same person keeps going through that revolving door, ending up on a different side each time. Arthur Levitt is one such man.
Today Goldman Sachs announced that Levitt would be joining them as an “adviser … on a range of matters, including those related to public policy.” Translation: This dude has connections on the Beltway, and even once-omnipotent Goldman Sachs will take all the help it can get these days. It’s going to take some slick moves to extricate themselves from the whole “bank holding company” bind they’ve found themselves in since last fall’s market chaos, and Levitt just might be the man to help choreograph them.
Levitt’s public-service record is highlighted by a stint as the longest-serving chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission in history, from July 1993 through February 2001. (He also served as the chairman of the New York City Economic Development Corporation.) During the nineties, he was widely lauded as an advocate of the little guy, looking out for the likes of individual investors getting fleeced by unscrupulous mutual-fund managers and their “hidden” marketing fees of 1 percent or so. (How quaint, in retrospect.) After retiring from that gig, he went back into the private sector and became a senior adviser to the Carlyle Group, one of the most secretive investment firms in history. It is our informed opinion that the Carlyle Group is entirely uninterested in looking out for the little guy’s interests.
Is it so surprising? Not really. Levitt’s SEC tenure came after an even earlier career on Wall Street, during which he teamed up with none other than Sandy Weill in a brokerage firm that was at one point called Cogan, Berlind, Weill & Levitt (“Corned Beef With Lettuce,” in Wall Street shorthand) and which later became known as Shearson Hayden Stone; Levitt was its president. He was a Wall Street macher before most of today’s crowd was out of its diapers.
Levitt is also on the board of Bloomberg LP, otherwise known as the firm that will probably one day buy the New York Times. Charitable observers might call the Times a public institution, and so it makes sense that Levitt will one day work there as well. He’s only 78 years old, for God’s sake. He’s got at least one more spin through that door in him.