Benjamin Lawsky: The Man Who Picked a Fight With Wall Street

Meet the state’s top banking regulator

Lawsky refuses to see it that way, though he does cop to feeling a little sad on occasion.

"I'll tell ya, I was a little depressed reading the papers this morning," he says, drumming at the Yale Club's white tablecloth. The New York Times had just produced a riveting story about Goldman Sachs manipulating the price of aluminum, while electricity price-gouging allegations had been leveled at JPMorgan.

"It makes you wonder how much progress we're making," he muses.

Willie Davis
Willie Davis

That said, he has no desire for his office to wield the hammer of criminal prosecution. "I know what it is to have that power, that very heavy burden, to put people in jail," Lawsky says. "And if you make a mistake, it's a very big deal to get it wrong. As I said, I'm very aware of the powers that DFS has. They're extraordinary powers, and we try to wield them humbly and carefully. So I don't sit around and say I wish I had the power to put people in jail. That's other people. That's the job of the attorney general of the United States. We have a lot of criminal prosecutors who have a lot of power and a lot of resources and a lot of people."

Yet Attorney General Holder isn't using those powers, and it seems increasingly unlikely that he will. Last month, the big buzz in the financial world was over the impending arrests of two former JPMorgan traders who allegedly tried to hide $6 billion in lost trades. It's the closest thing America gets to real punishment on Wall Street: two guys, nowhere near the top of the bank hierarchy, who may or may not actually go to prison. (One of the traders, Javier Martin-Arajo, was finally arrested in Spain at the end of August; he's currently fighting extradition to the U.S. The other, Julien Grout, is in his native France, which historically has been reluctant to ship off its citizens to the U.S.; his lawyer told the press his client "has not yet decided" whether he'll return to face charges.)

Barofsky is still betting on Lawsky. He says the culture of Wall Street can be changed, but only with fines so large and punishments so strict that banks and insurers simply have no choice but to take them seriously.

"The banks didn't get this type of political and economic power overnight," he says. "They spent decades amassing it. You're not going to just snap your fingers and undo the status quo like that. It's a grind."

People like Lawsky and Elizabeth Warren, Barofsky says, "are making incremental success. That's good. I'm extraordinarily confident that we'll get past this era of bank dominance and universal banks. Hopefully it's before the next crisis. It's an unsustainable model, so one way or another it's going to go down. It's just a question of whether we'll be smart enough to do it before we repeat what we did in 2008, only perhaps on a larger scale. And the best way to avoid repeating it is with regulators like Ben Lawsky."

Lawsky is more modest. "We're trying to make reforms that make the system better. Are we gonna fix every problem out there? No; I'm not self-delusional enough to think that the world will become a great place. And, look, in every society there are good apples and bad apples. And I think sometimes the problems are just the result of bad apples, and we're always gonna have some bad apples."

Adds the lone-wolf regulator: "I'm hopeful." He says it with evident sincerity. "I'm a hopeful person."

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