Last month FINRA issued a 44-page report on conflicts of interest within the financial services industry. The report focuses specifically on the conflict management practices of broker-dealer firms. During my experience representing both investors and FINRA members, or while serving as an expert witness, I have frequently identified a conflict of interest to as genesis of the legal claim. FINRA's report is an outstanding review of both the source of troublesome conflicts and current best practices within the industry.
FINRA's report does not pull any punches. It comes out of the gate with the following observation: “Conflicts of interest can arise in any relationship where a duty of care or trust exists between two or more parties, and as a result, are widespread across the financial service industry...[M]any broker-dealer firms have made progress in improving their conflicts management practices, but...firms should do more to manage and mitigate conflicts of interest in their businesses.” (report link)
The report is broken out in to a review of “three critical areas.” FINRA evaluates and discusses: 1) firm-level frameworks, 2) new financial products, and 3) registered rep. compensation. FINRA defines firm-level frameworks as “the combination of underlying ethics culture, organizational structures, policies, processes, and incentive structures.” I found the report's second section regarding the introduction and promotion of new financial products to be worthy of a “must read” classification for both the compliance and the executive sales side of any firm. The final section of the report lays out what FINRA believes to be six “effective practices” for mitigating conflicts of interest generated by rep. compensation arrangements.
Now that FINRA has spoken in great detail on the matter, firms should be very hesitant about going forward without implementing the practices suggested in the report. While FINRA specifically disavows the report as rule-making, firms will be caught flat-footed if they face an investor claim or regulatory action rooted in the absence of the suggested best practices.