The financial regulator that created a website called BrokerCheck bought some advertising last year to let investors know that a few clicks of a mouse will turn over a record of disputes and violations of anybody who holds a securities license.
The regulator, Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), should have maybe targeted its ads at the hiring managers in the industry, although ignorance here might not fully explain why more than four in 10 brokers who lost their job after some misconduct issue could quickly get another one.
That amazing rehire rate is one of the main findings of a new paper on broker misconduct just put out by Mark Egan of the University of Minnesota and two other finance professors, who sifted through pretty much every available record for the roughly 1.2 million registered representatives who worked in the business between 2005 in 2015.
The researchers weren’t gunning for the industry, at least as described by Egan, who teaches finance at the U’s Carlson School of Management. And he’s no cloistered academic, even putting his own broker record in the research paper, having worked for the investment banking firm Barclays Capital.
The appeal of their project was having full access to pretty much the entire record of misconduct among registered representatives. He said it looked like a particularly rich vein for research, “and I didn’t really know going into the paper what to expect.”
They went looking for incidents that needed to be disclosed on a broker’s form, focusing only on situations that suggested some kind of misconduct had taken place. These included a settled dispute with a customer — the median settlement was $40,000 — and a regulatory finding. They decided not to count other disclosures that sure seem like there could have been misconduct, such as a customer complaint that hasn’t yet been resolved.
The research team found that one out of every 13 registered reps, the people licensed to engage in securities transactions for customers, had at least one of these events on their record.
They didn’t find lots of complaints over mishandled exotic financial products, options and the like. Instead issues seem to usually arise over selling investment products broadly held by Middle American households — insurance, annuities, stocks and mutual funds.
What was interesting is how various industry players reacted when one of these incidents took place. At one end of the range of options for managers is a zero-tolerance policy, where one strike would get somebody called out more or less permanently.
At the other end lies what the authors called “extreme tolerance,” which means any misconduct is simply shrugged off completely.
What the researchers found was something in the middle. There was a penalty to be paid by having one or more of these misconduct events, including being more likely to eventually leave the business. These brokers were also out of work longer than reps with perfect records, and if they did move to a new firm they took a reduction in their compensation.
It’s probably no surprise that firms that already have brokers with misconduct on their records seem to hire even more of them. The authors puzzle a bit over this, as the market should do a better job punishing the bad behavior, with customers avoiding registered reps with a checkered past and the firms that seem to have a lot of them.
Their best explanation is that investment clients remain too unsophisticated to really know the score, either completely unaware this information about past misconduct is easy to find or too inexperienced in finance to know what it means if they see it.
And in one way the labor market for brokers is working, what Egan called a “sorting.” The firms with the best reputations seem to shed the registered reps who have done something wrong, who go to other firms that seem to collect them.
“It looks like there are certain firms that are willing to hire them, and that’s what’s keeping some of this [misconduct] alive,” he said.
They also found counties in Florida and California where about one in five financial advisers have engaged in misconduct in the past. These are counties where the people tend to be older, wealthier and with less formal education.
The authors only suggest that it might be the case that the industry’s predators have gathered around rich hunting grounds.
The industry disputes the study’s findings as misleading, as spelled out in a blog post on the website of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.
The most convincing complaint this post makes is how stretching the definition of misconduct to include all settled complaints goes too far. Just because a customer later complains doesn’t mean anybody at the firm did anything wrong. Investments can lose value, what this blog post called “product failures” like Puerto Rican bonds, and that could trigger a complaint. A financial settlement may be an inexpensive way to resolve these cases.
Choosing Puerto Rican bonds as an example was an unfortunate pick, however, as it brings to mind a recounting of mishandled retirement funds that Bloomberg published a couple of years ago that included the story of retirement plan money that got rolled into an Individual Retirement Account and then invested in tax-exempt Puerto Rican bonds.
Puerto Rico is now in tense negotiations with its creditors. There is also the unanswered question of why a broker would recommend tax-exempt bonds for a tax-deferred retirement account in the first place.
There is a former UBS broker with the same name as the rep described by Bloomberg who shows up this week on BrokerCheck with 17 settlements and more than a dozen more disputes not yet resolved.
Not all of these arose with clients at UBS. So another good question is what they could have been thinking at a firm called Popular Securities, where the broker kept generating unhappy clients after leaving UBS.