Credit: Adam Hunger-Reuters Caption: Elizabeth Warren
Why have Elizabeth Warren just give testimony as the leader of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau when she can pants the bureau and just about every other financial regulator as a member of the Senate's banking committee?

If this was the plan of Congressional Republicans, Wall Street lobbyists and outgoing Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner when they opposed her taking the director's seat at the consumer bureau back in 2011, then well played.

Now a freshman Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, Warren's first hearing boiled down to one question that Americans have been positing since the financial crisis began roughly five years ago: When was the last time anybody took a Wall Street bank to trial instead of reaching a settlement?

The result played out like the least funny version of Abbott and Costello's “Who's On First” routine ever performed:

Warren: The question I really want to ask is about how tough you are, about how much leverage you really have in these settlements. Tell me a little bit about the last few times you've taken the biggest financial institutions on Wall Street all the way to a trial. Anybody?

Thomas Curry, head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency: The institutions I've supervise, national banks and federal thrifts, we've actually had a fair number of consent orders [settlements]. We do not have to bring people to trial to...

Warren: I appreciate that you say you don't have to bring them to trial. My question is, when did you bring them to trial?

Curry: We have not had to do it as a practical matter to achieve our supervisory goals.

“We have not had to do it” is apparently pinch-running for “I don't know” on third base. Warren later attempted the same routine with Elise Walter, head of the Securities and Exchange Commission:

Walter: Among our remedies are penalties, but the penalties we can get are limited. We've asked for additional authority -- my predecessor did -- to raise penalties. When we look at these issues, and we truly believe that we have a very vigorous enforcement program, we look at the distinction between what we can get if we go to trial and could get if we don't.

Warren: I appreciate that. That's what everybody does. The question I'm really asking is can you identify the last time when you took the Wall Street banks to trial?

Walter: I will have to get back to you with the specific information, but we do litigate and we do have settlements that are either rejected by the commission or not put forward for review.

Nobody else offered an answer, which prompted Warren to note that average citizens are targeted by district attorneys and U.S. attorneys for far less just to make examples of them. Though she never said as much, Warren's implication was that financial regulators should perhaps consider doing the same to the institutions they oversee.

“I'm really concerned that 'too big to fail' has become 'too big for trial,'" Warren said.

The reaction to the financial crisis hasn't been short on bluster, as Goldman Sachs (GS) CEO Lloyd Blankfein can attest. It's Warren's ability to put some regulatory weight behind that bluster that should make a banking industry already shaken by scandal and regulatory scrutiny even more nervous.

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