Wall Street Journal Goes in the Tank for FINRA
Posted by Larry Doyle on September 25, 2009 9:18 AM |
When did real journalism move from asking the hard questions and demanding answers to the mere parroting of a party line? Recent polls indicate a lessened confidence in the media in our country. Why? Journalism has largely abdicated its responsibility to be the public conscience. I see evidence of this ‘parroting’ in today’s Wall Street Journal, which reports After 27% Fall, FINRA Plays It Safe.
FINRA, the Wall Street self-regulatory organization, has been under increasing pressure lately with the spotlight focused primarily on its investment portfolio activities. FINRA has provided virtually little to no transparency and, as such, currently faces 3 lawsuits by member firms. There is no doubt in my mind that today’s WSJ article is an attempt by FINRA to display a degree of transparency in order to keep the wolves at bay. Is FINRA fully transparent? Not in my opinion.
Did the WSJ pursue this story or was it conveniently placed to deflect the heavy criticism and charges FINRA faces in the lawsuits? Make no mistake, the WSJ has been largely absent in aggressively covering developments in and around FINRA. The returns generated by FINRA’s investment portfolio and its shift to a conservative strategy have been widely disseminated over the last few months and were highlighted here at Sense on Cents on June 29th when I wrote “FINRA 2008 Annual Report: A Special Type of Hubris”:
I personally believe it is very important for a financial self-regulatory organization, such as FINRA, to be totally transparent in every regard. Why? Very simply, transparency promotes confidence and FINRA’s position as a financial regulator should begin and end with that goal.
Against that backdrop, FINRA should not directly manage any of their own funds. To do so is an open invitation for conflicts of interest. FINRA’s own investment portfolio, managed by an Investment Committee, generated a negative 26% return in 2008. In April 2009, the FINRA portfolio shifted to a lower volatility approach but in 2008 it continued to have exposure to hedge funds, fund of funds, and private equity. As much as I believe this is a very big deal, it pales in comparison to the major issue I, and others, have with FINRA: their involvement with Auction-Rate Securities.
Why do I feel so strongly that the WSJ is serving as a mouthpiece for FINRA rather than truly digging for total transparency? Let’s zero in on how the WSJ addresses this auction-rate securities angle. As we do this, please recall the following:
1. $165 billion ARS remain frozen in investor accounts
2. A federal judge has designated the sales and marketing of ARS to be a fraud
3. FINRA did not post on its own website the failing nature and ultimate total failure of the ARS market until 2008, well after it liquidated its own position.
The WSJ, a proud financial periodical, provides less than cursory coverage to this piece of the FINRA story, in writing:
Finra used an outside consultant, Jeffrey Slocum & Associates of Minneapolis, to help choose money managers. In 2006, Finra hired as chief investment officer Boris A. Wessely, then treasurer at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Ms. Schapiro succeeded Mr. Glauber as the agency’s CEO in mid-2006.
One early step by Mr. Wessely’s team was the mid-2007 sale of about $650 million of auction-rate securities. The sale wasn’t influenced by any sign of weakness in the auction-rate market, which froze in 2008, but instead was a move to diversify Finra’s short-term investments away from such a niche product, people with knowledge of the move say. (LD’s highlight)
People with knowledge of the move say?? That is the best the WSJ can do to pursue what truly happened with FINRA’s sale of ARS? That statement is the equivalent of FINRA or whomever the ‘people with knowledge’ stating, ‘you’ll have to trust us on this.’
I would put forth that the days of blind trust are over and that for the thousands of investors sitting with those $165 billion in frozen ARS the days of verification are upon us.
I reiterate my longstanding call that FINRA must reveal all the details surrounding its ARS liquidation. Those details include the date of liquidation, the proceeds, the dealer or dealers through whom FINRA liquidated the ARS, and most importantly whether FINRA possessed material, non-public information and acted upon it.
I fully appreciate that my writing and questions here are aggressive, but at this point in our country’s history the American public deserves nothing less than full and total transparency from its financial regulators. Regrettably, both FINRA and the WSJ fall woefully short in providing it.
Comments, questions, constructive criticisms always appreciated.