The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), Wall Street’s self-reporting system that allows investors to vet stockbrokers and other financial professionals, says that it has a persistent problem with financial firms not reporting infractions properly or in a timely manner.
FINRA, which shares oversight of Wall Street with federal agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), requires financial firms to disclose employee infractions within 30 days. Those records, ranging from serious criminal offenses to minor customer complaints, are then entered into a database known as the Central Registration Depository. Individual investors use the 30-year-old system to check out a stockbroker’s history, including employment, criminal records and client lawsuits. Institutions use the database to investigate job candidates.
FINRA depends on Wall Street, which finances its operations, to update the records. But dozens of new cases show that critical information is missing, out of date or erroneous. And Wall Street has a checkered history of reporting infractions by brokers. When regulators last cracked down on disclosure violations in 2004, the sweep ensnared nearly 30 securities firms. At the time, the National Association of Securities Dealers, FINRA’s predecessor, fined brokerage firms a collective $9.2 million for failing to report customer complaints and criminal convictions properly. That same year, Morgan Stanley was hit with a $2.2 million penalty, the largest ever levied against a firm for disclosure issues, for failing to appropriately report 1,800 incidents of customer complaints and other problems. In 2010, the regulator suspended 56 brokers for failing to report previous infractions, up from 34 in 2006. Annual fines rose to $2 million from $1.6 million over the same period.
In one of the most prominent cases in 2010, FINRA fined Goldman Sachs $650,000 for failing to disclose that a trader, Fabrice P. Tourre, and another employee had received an SEC “Wells” warning that the agency was considering an enforcement action against them. Tourre was the only individual named in the SEC fraud case against Goldman Sachs last year, which accused the investment bank of misleading investors about subprime mortgages. Tourre purportedly was ”principally responsible” for marketing the bonds. Goldman, without admitting or denying any wrongdoing, settled the SEC’s charges in July 2010 for $550 million – one of the largest fines ever paid by a Wall Street firm. The charges against Tourre are pending.
Also in 2010, FINRA fined Citigroup $150,000 for filing inaccurate disclosures regarding about 120 brokers who had been fired or resigned after being accused of theft or fraud. In its disciplinary action, FINRA said that Citigroup ”hindered the investing public’s ability to access pertinent background information.” It fined JPMorgan Chase $150,000 for similar violations in 2009.
FINRA soon will face another test. Policy makers are considering whether to expand its responsibilities, giving the regulator oversight of tens of thousands of investment advisers, on top of the 600,000-plus brokers it already under its purview.