The creation of the SEC was met by suspicion from both the left and the right, and Kennedy's appointment was even more controversial. But taking the New Deal for what its designers intended it to be--an effort to reform capitalism in order to save it--Joseph Kennedy's SEC was arguably the best agency of the first New Deal.
The National Recovery Administration, a monumental effort to spur recovery through cooperation, started with much fanfare and disappointed everyone. Some in the Roosevelt administration were even relieved when the Schechter decision terminated it. The Tennessee Valley Authority accomplished much but was riven by conflict between planners and free marketeers. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration was early captured by reformers who were at odds with their own constituency and overwhelmed by the agriculture crisis. The Public Works Administration provided some badly needed jobs but did little to spur recovery.
The Securities and Exchange Commission, in contrast, did precisely what it was meant to do. It worked quietly and effectively to create better conditions for American business and more equitable markets for American investors. Joseph Kennedy took an idea--that the best way to create reform was to demand disclosure--and made it work. He convinced business and finance that having a referee in the capital markets was a good idea. Within a few short years, few could imagine doing business without the reassuring imprimatur of the SEC.
Businessmen appreciated that Kennedy was not to be diverted by theory or ideology and wanted only to make things work. That Kennedy's aspirations were concrete is evident in that when asked what he thought the SEC's greatest accomplishments were during his tenure, he pointed to the creation of Form 10 and Schedule A-2.
Kennedy was ideally suited for taking something highly theoretical and making it work, a fact that was widely recognized upon his departure. Columnist Frank Kent put his finger on it when he wrote that "Mr. Kennedy, fond as he was of Mr. Roosevelt personally, did not belong to the New Deal crowd, did not pretend to be one of them, did not believe in the New Deal hokum, did believe in what he was doing, was capable of doing it well." (Wall Street Journal, September 25, 1935)
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