Head Of SEC To Step Down After Four Years

Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) chairwoman Mary Schapiro is stepping down. She took over the agency in 2009 as it was reeling from criticism over the financial crisis and the Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme. Schapiro is credited as a consensus builder who restored some stability to the SEC. She is being replaced by SEC commissioner Elisse Walter.

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After four years, Wall Street's top regulator, Mary Schapiro, is stepping down. President Obama appointed her to chair the Securities and Exchange Commission in January 2009, in the middle of the financial crisis.

As NPR's John Ydstie reports, Schapiro has been credited with reviving a battered regulatory agency, but also criticized for not being tough enough on Wall Street.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Mary Schapiro was the victim of some unfortunate timing. She took over the SEC just as the Bernie Madoff scandal was coming to light, a scandal that highlighted the sorry performance of SEC regulators. At the same time, critics were charging that the SEC's failure to regulate Wall Street had contributed to the financial crisis and the collapse of big Wall Street banks. John Coffee, a professor of law at Columbia University, says Schapiro faced a huge challenge.

JOHN COFFEE: No SEC chairman ever has had as difficult an assignment as Mary Schapiro has had for the last several years.

YDSTIE: In interview with NPR in May of 2011, Schapiro acknowledged the SEC's prior failings and lamented the continued unwillingness of Congress to fund the agency adequately.

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MARY SCHAPIRO: Well, we've been very, very transparent in my two years here about where the agency has not done the kind of job that the American people have a right to expect of us. And we have an entirely new leadership team across the agency. But the answer can't be to fund the agency less, or to not give it the tools it needs to do the better job that I think everybody would like to see us do.

YDSTIE: Under Schapiro, the SEC did become much more aggressive; bringing record numbers of enforcement actions, including against Goldman Sachs, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and Bank of America. The actions have returned more than $6 billion to investors since 2009. But Coffee says the actions were often seen as not tough enough.

COFFEE: There has been a policy of sort of easy settlements at low prices for our corporations and little litigation against individuals because they would resist and not settle easily. But we have to recognize, it's hard to litigate with no funds and little staff.

YDSTIE: President Obama issued a statement today saying, the SEC is stronger and our financial system is safer and better able to serve the American people, thanks in large part to the Mary's hard work. Mr. Obama also named Elisse Walter, another SEC commissioner, to take over as chairman. Walter is a protege of Schapiro's and expected to lead the agency in much the same direction.

Banking analyst Nancy Bush, of NAB Research and SNL Financial, says Walter also faces the challenge in renewing the public's faith in U.S. financial markets.

NANCY BUSH: I mean, retail investors are looking at these markets and just thinking that they're rigged. And I think the SEC has got to be, you know, the point agency on tackling that whole question and getting it resolved.

YDSTIE: Walter will take over from Schapiro on December 14. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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