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FINRA 2008 Annual Report: A Special Type of Hubris

Posted by Larry Doyle on June 29th, 2009 3:14 PM |

At first blush, I viewed the text of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s (FINRA’s) 2008 Annual Report as nothing more than standard corporate fare.  With the benefit of a few days to ponder FINRA’s delivery, I am actually amazed, although never surprised, by the gall of this regulatory organization. In fact, I can only describe FINRA as displaying a special type of hubris in addressing the fraud encompassing Auction-Rate Securities.

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. Let’s dive into this part of the report and comment as appropriate.

FINRA sets the table:

Throughout the financial crisis, FINRA has worked closely with other regulators, particularly the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Reserve, to examine firm activities for compliance with FINRA rules and federal securities laws, investigate wrongdoing and, when rules were broken, enforcing those rules.

As well they should. However, Finra obviously did not work too closely with the SEC to detect the fraud ongoing with Bernie Madoff. In fact, Finra’s only reference to the Madoff situation is one sentence highlighting the fact that the current financial regulatory structure does not overlap the efforts overseeing broker-dealers with those of investment advisors.

FINRA continues to make their case in stating:

The instability in the markets, and at a number of financial institutions, heightened investor fears. FINRA helped to allay those fears, and foster confidence, by working to ensure the protection of customer assets at troubled institutions.

How can they make this statement with a straight face knowing that thousands of investors and tens of billions of dollars remain frozen in Auction-Rate Securities? A number of Wall Street institutions continue to collect fees from these securities. Hubris? You think?

FINRA continues:

Vigorous enforcement of rules and regulations is a cornerstone of FINRA’s work to protect investors. In 2008, FINRA focused its efforts in several areas of investor harm—including excessive commissions, unsuitable mutual fund share class recommendations and sales, penny stock sales and auction rate securities recommendations and sales.

The hubris grows.

Let’s move forward. FINRA boldly and specifically addresses the Auction-Rate Securities market.  I would have thought FINRA may have ducked this topic given the fact that they had sold $647 million ARS in 2007. The fact that they have willingly ‘opened this can of worms’ leaves them subject to fair and open questions. FINRA puts forth: (more…)






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