Few family names around Hamilton’s campus are as instantly recognizable as Arthur Levitt’s. The Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center honoring the late Arthur Levitt Sr. supports student-led research and hosts its own speaker series, among many other programs. The 15 members of Hamilton’s New York Program had the opportunity on Sept. 19 to meet with his son, Arthur Levitt Jr., a generous Hamilton benefactor and former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
Levitt captured the group’s attention as he guided the conversation through his relationship with Hamilton College, the regulation of financial markets, and the eccentricity of his career.
Levitt, a Williams College graduate, is clearly a proponent and product of a liberal arts education. During the talk, he stated early and frequently his opinion that education is the most important building block of an individual and a nation. Despite never attending Hamilton College (though his daughter attended and both he and his father received honorary degrees) he greatly supports the school. He ended his comments on Hamilton noting both its improvements in recent history and its potential to become better still, and conveyed great pride in helping to establish the Levitt Public Affairs Center.
Levitt spoke freely about the current regulatory environment and his time with the SEC. He supports an almost total reexamination of regulations relating to financial products and markets in a globalized electronic system. Levitt urges policy makers to carefully reevaluate the whole rule book. Even so, he also thinks that Dodd-Frank is a “flawed” law, commenting that it is extraordinarily complex. He also noted that only one-third of the law has been implemented. Moreover, Levitt expressed his concern about the overpowering role of money in politics and the influence of lobbying in financial reform.
Levitt’s own tenure as chairman of the SEC focused on investor protection above all else. This was accomplished in the face of deregulatory pressure from Congress. Though he clearly took great pride in his work, he expressed regret for yielding to pressure from President Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin and then-Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan not to regulate the tools which would play a large role in the 2008 global financial crisis.
Deregulation notwithstanding, Levitt spoke fondly of every aspect of his career. Over the course of his life, he served in the U.S. Air Force, in agriculture as a securities broker, as a newspaper owner and as chairman of the SEC. He recalled his time in Washington D.C., where he gained his appreciation for public affairs and those seeking that career path. At the end of our discussion on his career, he suggested that every single part of his life experience prepared him better for the next undertaking.
Finally, he offered sage (albeit surprising) advice on our own career choices. Indeed, the 14 economics majors in the room shifted uncomfortably when Levitt—himself an investment consultant at several prestigious financial services firms—encouraged them to pursue an undertaking in public service, teaching, studying abroad, or working internationally before making a decision to pursue careers in financial services.