FINRA looks at Wall Street’s Corporate Culture – It should look at its own.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has announced that as part of its 2016 member firm audits it will look into what it calls the firm’s culture of compliance and supervision. The idea is laudable until you put it into context.

Registered representatives (stockbrokers) are routinely incentivized to open more accounts, bring in more money and make more trades. Many successful stockbrokers gain their clients’ trust by presenting themselves as financial advisers when they are not. They are salespeople not analysts or advisers.

That is the culture of the industry. It is demonstrable without an audit.

As someone who has brought arbitration claims against hundreds of stockbrokers, I can tell you that the miscreants among registered representatives are a small minority. Most stockbrokers do not get out of bed thinking “who can I screw today”. More frequently problems arise from advice they are not qualified to give or even more often from financial products that should not be sold in the first place.

The most conflicted advice that is routinely given by FINRA Broker/Dealer firms is for customers to stay in the market no matter what. If the market crashes, which it periodically does, registered representatives routinely tell customers that they did not see it coming and then “don’t worry, the market always comes back.”

Ask yourself: if your stockbroker did not see the market crash coming, how do they know that the market will come back?

My own adviser (an independent Registered Investment Advisor) has been bearish since last summer. After a long bull market he called the collapse of oil prices a “shot across the bow” for the markets and started selling positions and accumulating cash. He has raised more cash of late because he uses stop losses. He believes that protecting a client’s portfolio is part of his job. If your adviser thinks differently or does not use stop losses, send me an e-mail and I will gladly refer you to mine. (I receive no fee for any referral).

A FINRA audit is often performed by an inexperienced auditor (not a CPA) who is thinking about spending a few years at FINRA and then getting a more lucrative job in the industry. Rarely, if ever, do FINRA auditors ask the hard questions.

Trillions of dollars worth of transactions are placed by FINRA firms every year that are perfectly legitimate and need little scrutiny. FINRA would do better to spend time and energy reviewing those transactions that yield the most problems.

Hundreds of FINRA firms and thousands of registered representatives specialize in selling private placements to non-institutional customers. Private placements pay higher commissions than most other financial products and are therefore always a concern for potential abuse. Private placement losses are a multi-hundred billion dollar problem that affects many seniors and retirees, many of whom should never have been offered these investments in the first place.

FINRA has explicit rules about how firms should perform due diligence on private offerings. Failure to conduct a due diligence investigation on private offerings has been a leading cause of investor losses and the reason that a significant number of FINRA firms went out of business when the market corrected in 2008.

Private placements are sold with shiny marketing brochures that are supposed to be reviewed by compliance departments but frequently are not. Do FINRA auditors routinely review the marketing materials for private placements at the firms that they audit to see if they are appropriately reviewed and not misleading? They do not.

FINRA would do well to examine its own culture.

It has never been my practice to file complaints with FINRA’s enforcement branch, in part because they are consistently ineffectual. Some time back, I did file a complaint on behalf of an 80 year old client who had been sold a particularly ugly private placement for a building in the mid-West.

The sponsor, who was also the master tenant responsible to make payments to the investors claimed to be a college graduate who had previously owned a seat on one of commodity exchanges. He also claimed to have been a successful real estate developer.

In fact, the sponsor had never graduated from college, never owned a seat on any commodity exchange and his only prior development had filed for bankruptcy protection leaving many sub-contractors unpaid. I submit that no competent due diligence officer who actually investigated this offering would have approved it. That did not stop dozens of FINRA firms from selling this and other private placements offered by the same sponsor.

The investors ultimately lost the building to foreclosure because the roof leaked badly and needed expensive repairs. The due diligence officer at the FINRA firms that sold this private placement had never seen an inspection report on the building and it is doubtful that a building inspection was performed before it was syndicated to investors. The sales brochure that every investor received described this as a great building and a great investment.

The FINRA enforcement officer that looked into the complaint had never performed a due diligence investigation himself nor was he trained in any way as to what a reasonable due diligence investigation might entail. I know this because I spoke with him more than once. He pronounced the due diligence investigation on this offering to have been fine and on his recommendation FINRA took no action against the member firm.

I took the claim to arbitration and the panel rescinded the transaction giving the customer all of his money back with interest. It certainly helped that the registered representative who had sold the offering to the customer testified that he would not have made the sale if he had known that the firms’ due diligence had been so minimal. If the arbitrators and the registered representative could see that the due diligence was inadequate, why could FINRA’s own enforcement staff not see the obvious?

In another case involving a complex, highly leveraged derivative I asked the branch office manager who had approved the trade to explain the investment to the arbitration panel. After he had embarrassed himself with a clearly incorrect explanation the claim settled. I doubt that many FINRA auditors could have adequately understood this particular financial product well enough to ask questions about it.

Regulatory compliance in the financial services industry is not rocket science. Every supervisor should be able to spot a bad trade if it hits their desk. Compliance does take time and can be expensive.

If the firm has one compliance officer for thousands of salespeople or one due diligence officer reviewing dozens of offerings every month FINRA does not need to delve into the corporate culture. It is a safe bet that adequate compliance is not happening.

I know that more than a few regulators and compliance professionals read my blog. I would appreciate your thoughts and comments.

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