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Brooksley Born and the Power of an Opposing Idea

What managers can learn from the former CFTC chair's campaign. She warned the OTC derivatives market was in trouble, but no one took heed, and a crash followed

"If she just would have gotten to know us…maybe it would have gone a different way" said Arthur Levitt, former chairman of the SEC, in an excellent 2009 Frontline episode titled The Warning. The 'she' Levitt refers to is Brooksley Born, former Chair of the Commodity and Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), who waged an unsuccessful campaign to regulate the multitrillion dollar derivatives market, whose crash helped trigger the recent financial collapse.

Ms. Born, the first female president of the Law Review at Stanford, the first female to finish at the top of the class, and an expert in commodities and futures, was brought in by the Clinton Administration to run the (CFTC), a little known regulatory backwater. Soon after assuming the reins, she became aware of the over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives market, a rapidly expanding and opaque market, which she attempted to regulate. According to Frontline, "Her attempts to regulate derivatives ran into fierce resistance from then-Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and then-Deputy Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who prevailed upon Congress to stop Born and limit future regulation." Put more directly by NY Times reporter Timothy O'Brien, "they...shut her up and shut her down."