Monday, June 22, 2009

Regulatory Regime?

SEC Chairman Mary Shapiro continues to work the media in regard to the harmonization of "regulatory regimes." I do not know about you, but when I hear the word regime I think of places like North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and the Taliban. I am not sure if we need a regulatory regime.

She keeps referring to brokers and investment advisers as being "virtually identical." I believe this is the end game. The powers to be want to meld the broker dealer world with the investment adviser world into a unified regulatory structure.

It is funny when regulators fail in their duty to protect investors they suddenly become the mouthpiece for what is wrong with the regulations. Their patented answer is always "we were under staffed and under funded." If only they had more employees and more money, then that certainly would have solved everything. I beg to differ.

I think the problem lies in training. A trained eye would have been able to look at the account statements produced by Bernard Madoff Investment Securities LLC (FINRA regulated for 28 years) and determine within a few minutes that they were fraudulent. It was obvious to me that a template method was used to produce those statements. A template is a blank statement where the template is put into the printer while someone prints bogus information from a spreadsheet to perfectly fit the columns in the template statement.

Last summer, I met a couple whose broker had done something similar. This broker cut and pasted financial firm logos in an unusual manner in letters and emails. This broker sent out numerous communications from a financial firm that he was not even affiliated with to these clients. All you have to do is go to FINRA broker check and see that this broker was not registered with the company that he was purporting to be a broker with. I was able to spot it in about two minutes. I worked with a federal regulatory person to help put this broker out of business. Luckily, we caught him after he had duped only three investors and I believe a lot of the damage was reversed. Oh by the way, this unscrupulous broker was a FINRA registered representative. Imagine that! That came as no surprise to me, of course.

Make no mistake. I am not here to beat up on the SEC Chairman or the regulators in general. They have a tough job and it is not getting any easier for them. My take on it is that better training (forensics) should be the focus.

Further, if the regulators focus on those brokers or advisers who sell exotic products, then they are likely to find most of their criminals in these areas. For example, highly exaggerated performance claims, 12% promissory notes, 12% CD's, Private Equity, Illiquid Real Estate Limited Partnerships, Structured Products and various Alternative Investments. Most of the problems involving criminals revolve around appealing to greed by promising high returns. Registered investment advisers out there charging a percent of assets under management for investing in widely held, exchange listed investments are not near the problem that those advisers selling exotic investments are to the regulators.

Another idea may be to allow any financial institution accounts opened by a financial adviser to be run through filters at the SEC. These filters would be looking for large personal deposits that are outside the normal deposits of that particular adviser. It seems to me that this could be done similar to the way anti-money laundering is managed. If a highly unusual deposit into a personal or business account is discovered, then the SEC could immediately begin an inquiry. Honest investment advisers would not mind the scrutiny. I know that I would not mind such scrutiny.

The SEC commissioner has said that fully one third of the regulatory actions taken this year have been against registered investment advisers. At first glance, that may sound bad. However, this means that fully TWO THIRDS of the regulatory actions taken were against FINRA brokers! Now you tell me, where is the bigger regulatory headache?

That's what I thought!