Monday, February 13, 2012

The SEC Historical Society Archive

The SEC Historical Society’s on-line archive is now almost a decade old but remains underutilized by scholars.   Its collection includes important documents covering a time span between the late eighteenth century and the present day.  For example, its earliest document is the Buttonwood Agreement (1792), which might be considered the original founding document of what would become the New York Stock Exchange.  Its most recent document is a 2011 report involving financial accounting standards.  The collection also includes dozens of oral histories from SEC commissioners, division heads, other senior officials, and judges, such as Manny Cohen, Frank Easterbrook, and Roderick Hill.

In additional to primary sources, the site features a number of “galleries” which consist of essays written by historians along with the digitalized primary documents upon which the essays rely.  A gallery that I curated “The Imperial SEC?: Foreign Policy and the Internationalization of Securities Markets” argued that the SEC had a long history of involvement in U.S. foreign affairs and that  its policies regarding foreign capital markets must be understood as part of the Cold War.  Accompanying documents elucidate the tension in the SEC’s contribution to the growth of global capitalism in the 1980s-1990s by both slowly easing restrictions to foreigners’ access to U.S. capital markets while simultaneously seeking to increase its jurisdiction over enforcement actions in foreign markets.  Moreover as the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc fell, the SEC was one of the first U.S. agencies to establish a presence in these emerging capitalist markets.  Once there, the SEC sought to “teach” foreigners about how to regulate markets.  A stunning sense of U.S. exceptionalism appears throughout SEC documents as officials boasted that the United States had the most honest, transparent, and well-regulated markets in the world.  The archive is also particularly rich with documents involving the New Deal and the growth of the administrative state.  In painstaking detail, the collections allows the historian to see the everyday work of an administrative agency including its intra- and inter- agency disputes,  its conflicts and compromises with the judicial, executive, and legislative branches of government, as well as the financial industry and foreign governments.