On December 3, 2009, SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro spoke at the Consumer Federation of America's 21st Annual Financial Services Conference. Ms. Schapiro noted that as a result of last year's financial turmoil the country is undergoing a "financial services revolution." While the market has improved in recent months, the SEC Chairman reminded the audience that this does not mean that the weaknesses in our financial regulatory system have been resolved. To the contrary, Ms. Schapiro urged that the country must continue efforts to reform the financial regulatory system - both at the Congressional level and at the agency level.
On the legislative front, Ms. Schapiro noted that the regulatory regime needs to focus on identifying and minimizing systematic risk. In this regard, the Chairman identified a number of areas where regulations are being reinforced or need to be reinforced by proposed legislation: 1) the creation of a regime that permits large institutions to fail without taking the system or taxpayers down with them; 2) a need to bring managers of hedge funds and other private funds under the regulatory umbrella; 3) a strong fiduciary standard for all securities professionals; and 4) greater transparency and stability to the over the counter derivatives markets - including real-time data on securities-related OTC derivatives.
Ms. Schapiro also identified that regulatory reform does not exist solely at the Congressional level. She noted that the SEC must put thought and energy into how to protect individuals who are entrusting their money to the capital markets. Ms. Schapiro discussed initiatives underway at the SEC to address issues encountered by individual investors - and she did so by discussing them from the perspective of such an investor.
First, Ms. Schapiro addressed the move to a singular standard for brokers and investment advisors. She noted that when an investor steps into the office of a local securities professional, he does not often look to see whether it says broker-dealer or investment advisor. All he wants is helpful, investor-focused advice. However, currently the duty owed to an investor is different depending on the securities professional's designation. If it is a broker-dealer, the investor is sold a product that is "suitable" for him. If it is an investment adviser, he gets treated under the higher "fiduciary duty" standard.
Ms. Schapiro stated that she is of the belief that all securities professionals should be subject to the same fiduciary duty, same licensing and qualification requirements, and the same oversight regime. Although this may disrupt a number of entrenched interests, Ms. Schapiro noted that the SEC is doing no service to retail investors by continuing with a different regulatory approach for professionals who perform virtually the same or similar services.
Second, Ms. Schapiro addressed the disclosures made by securities professionals with regard to compensation and conflicts. She noted that after an investor sits down with a securities professional, he is not always provided with understandable information about the products that his securities professional is trying to sell him. Ms. Schapiro stated that retail investors should be provided clear, simple, and meaningful disclosure at the time they are making an investment decision.
This should include information about the product being sold, including the compensation being received by the professional and information regarding any conflicts that may be causing the advisor or salesman to steer the investor to a certain investment. Directly related to this is the issue of 12b-1 fees which are automatically deducted from mutual funds to compensate securities professionals for sales and services provided to mutual fund investors. Ms. Schapiro stated that she believes these fees must be rethought not just with respect to their disclosure, but also with respect to whether they continue to be appropriate. This is an area Ms. Schapiro has asked the staff for a recomendation on the 12b-1 fees for SEC consideration in 2010.
Finally, Ms. Schapiro noted that while the SEC has the will to succeed, it is stretching existing resources and will not likely be able to achieve all it seeks to do without additional funding. As an example, Ms. Schapiro noted that the examination staff numbers less than 500, but is tasked with inspecting 11,000 investment advisory firms and 8,000 mutual funds. As a result, she noted that an investor has about a 10% chance of walking into an investment adviser who has been inspected by the SEC in the previous year. For this reason, Ms. Schapiro has been advocating for the SEC to be able to fund its own operations through fees it currently collects. The amount of these fees currently surpasses the amount appropriated by Congress to the SEC each fiscal year.
Ms. Schapiro wrapped up by noting that 2010 will be another year in which the SEC will pursue an ambitious reform agenda in order to restore confidence and provide the protections investors expect and deserve. We at Cosgrove Law, LLC will continue to monitor the steps taken by the SEC in carrying out this agenda. A complete copy of Ms. Schapiro's speech can be found here.