Regulating Big Firm Bad Behavior

In today’s WSJ, we learn of the proposed shift in standards for retail stock brokers — from “Suitability” to “Fiduciary:”

“Buried in President Obama’s proposed regulatory overhaul is a change that could upend Wall Street: Brokers would be held to a higher “fiduciary” standard that would compel them to place their client’s interests ahead of their own.

Currently, brokers are only required to offer investments that are “suitable,” which means they can’t put clients in inappropriate investments, such as a highly risky stock for an 80-year-old grandmother. The move could change the way products are sold and marketed and even how brokers are compensated.”

While this is important, the entire structure of the brokerage industry — incentivized to be long only and fully invested at all times — is what destroyed so many investors in 2008.

As we have noted in the past, this manifests itself in many ways — but most egregiously, in the Penalty Box. It is a very misaligned incentive system, one that penalizes brokers who did the right thing. Back in March ’09, I noted two Merrill Brokers who had put 75% of their asset base is in money market funds early in 2008. This pays essentially nothing to the broker — but preserves the clients capital. When 2009 rolls around, their manager calls them into his office, and says: “Bad news, boys. Your revenues dropped so much last year you are in the Penalty Box. As per your contract, your payout for this year is down to 25-30%.”

That is a horrific misalignment of incentives. And while a fiduciary obligation on retail brokers is an okay idea, if it is going to be remotely effective, IT MUST ALSO BE APPLIED TO THE BROKERAGE FIRMS ALSO.

The Penalty Box is “Exhibit A” as to why.




Big Firm Conflict of Interest: The Penalty Box (March 3rd, 2009)

Big Change in Store for Brokers in Obama’s Oversight Overhaul
WSJ, JUNE 19, 2009

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