The federal government appears to be shirking its duty to prevent shady financial advisers from endangering the life savings of millions of Americans—and two very different senators have teamed up to demand answers.
Senators Elizabeth Warren and Tom Cotton sent a letter this week to Richard Ketchum, chairman of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, asking for answers about why widespread malfeasance by financial advisers, including bribery, forgery, and extortion, appears to be going unpunished by the regulators overseeing the industry. “[T]he evidence clearly shows that FINRA’s efforts to date have not been enough to address the incidence of misconduct among financial advisers,” the duo wrote. “Each day that FINRA fails to take stronger action is another day that working families will be exposed to an unacceptably high risk of financial adviser misconduct.”
Warren is a champion of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and Cotton is a hard-charging conservative who may be on Donald Trump’s short list for vice president. Warren hasn’t tweeted anything but attacks on Trump since May 1, but the letter shows that the presidential race hasn’t become a permanent freeze on what’s happening in Washington.
Financial advisers make up 10 percent of the finance and insurance sector, and recent data show an alarming trend of misconduct. A National Bureau of Economic Research paper published in February found that one in 13 financial advisers have have a “misconduct-related disclosure” on their record. This means they either had faced criminal charges for bribery, forgery, extortion, or fraud, or were the subject of of formal proceedings by the Securities and Exchange Commission or a state securities regulator.
It’s FINRA’s job to license financial advisers and protect consumers from being preyed upon. But the NBER paper found that sanctions are either ineffective or nonexistent. Only about half of the advisers with misconduct on their record were fired, and of those who were, 44 percent were reemployed as a financial adviser within a year.
This presents a real problem for Americans seeking financial help—the study showed that one-third of financial advisers with misconduct records are repeat offenders and that these advisers are “five times more likely to engage in misconduct than the average adviser.”
Worse than finding work despite being accused of misconduct, it appears shady financial advisers are sometimes hired because of it. The NBER study showed that advisers accused of misconduct sometimes seem to congregate at certain financial advising firms, and that these firms tend to “cater to unsophisticated customers” like the elderly or poorly educated. At some of these firms, as many as one in five financial advisers have misconduct on their record and a frequently not even fired.
Warren and Cotton, both members of the Senate Banking Committee, pressed FINRA for answers. By June 15, they want to know what specific steps regulators are taking to address “unacceptable levels of adviser misconduct across the entire financial advisory industry,” and specifically how it plans to prevent recidivism and crack down on firms that seem to prefer shady advisers.
“FINRA has a paramount responsibility to protect investors by addressing misconduct by financial advisers,” they wrote. “The risks to investors posed by advisers with a disciplinary history are disturbing.”