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.

Remembering the “customer’s man”

Several weeks back I had lunch with a colleague who, like me, had started in the brokerage business in the 1970s. At one point he referred to himself as a “customer’s man”. It was a term used to describe a registered representative that I had not heard in years. It evoked a way of doing business that has largely been lost.

At that time, commissions and costs were fixed across the industry. Today, we see these costs as an impediment to our ability to maximize investment returns. We have lost sight of the value that a good customer’s man brought to the process.

A good customer’s man got to know you.

The brokerage firms encouraged every customer’s man to get to know every one of his customers and to get to know them well. You would meet in person to share lunch, drinks or dinner or to play squash, tennis or golf. Over time and many conversations you would get to know quite a bit about each others’ lives and families. Your customer’s man would become one of your trusted advisers.

A good customer’s man was a good stock picker.

Customers’ men were always on the look-out for the next stock that was about to make a move. They were selling their ability to pick stocks and to buy them for you at the right price.

Your customer’s man would always tell you which stocks he was following and why he was following them. He would call to tell you when the price had dipped and to recommend that you give him an order to buy a few hundred shares for you. You would not hesitate.

A good customer’s man made money for you.

Customer’s men were judged by how much the stocks that they recommended went up. It was a simple metric that everyone understood. Very few built their book of customers by advertising or seminars. The best built their books by word of mouth. They asked existing customers for referrals. Customers who made money following their broker’s recommendations gave the best referrals.

From the 1970s forward if the firms wanted more customers, it meant having more brokers with bigger and bigger books of customer accounts. The big action was moving established producers around from firm to firm. Front-end bonuses for really big producers became really big. Just about every broker wanted to be a bigger producer.

That attitude was good for the firms and they encouraged it. Brokers became almost exclusively focused on bringing in more customers. No longer were they judged for the stocks that they picked or how much money their customers made. Producers were now judged on how many “assets under management” they have.

The actual management and investing of the customers’ funds was increasingly handled elsewhere. Enticing new customers meant selling the investing and management skills of others.

This was logical as so many of the customers’ men had not seen the 1987 crash coming. If they had, logic suggested that they would have pulled their customers out before it happened.

It was time to let the experts manage your investments. Customers were sold many different kinds of managed funds, annuities and other “packaged” financial products. All of these products were expensive from the customers’ standpoint. The firms had built in significant underwriting costs and management fees.

Many of these fund managers drank from the Kool-aid that said that price/earnings ratios of 50 or more were sustainable and likely to go higher. Individual brokers who questioned the wisdom of the high paid fund managers and research analysts were brought into line or shown the door.

When the tech market inevitably crashed, many in the industry argued that “no one had seen it coming.” They said the same when the market crashed again in 2008. It was a phrase that was repeated so often that people started to believe it.

It re-enforced the idea that the average financial adviser can do no better than average. Everyone just started buying the index, certain that no human being who actually works in the markets every day could actually have awareness of what was going on or to help customers profit from it.

The index was much cheaper than a human adviser in any event. Lower costs were more efficient and would increase returns, provided, of course, the market goes up.

A good customer’s man always put the interests of his customers first. It was an era when almost every business adhered to the idea that “the customer was always right.” When is the last time that you heard that phrase or saw it posted in a business or an office?

Today, the industry staunchly opposes any regulation that would require individual brokers to put their customers’ interests first. That should tell you everything that you need to know about the financial services industry today.

The individual registered representative, the back-bone and the public face of the brokerage industry will likely not survive another generation. Their jobs are already foolishly being replaced by computer driven robo-advisers.

The industry will survive and prosper without the customer’s men. It is already oblivious to what it has lost.