I, through my firm, was a customer of PFG, the latest registered broker dealer to steal from its clients’ accounts – first reports indicate $200 million may have been taken. This pattern is becoming too frequent. Innocent victims have lost money yet again. How did it come to this?
Self-regulation by an oligopoly… I don’t think there is any economist or politician who wanted this outcome, but special interests and lobbying have led to this. This is how the futures industry works today.
Capitalism is broken without fair rule of law and regulation, and today top firms organize and self-regulate with practices that add cost but lack teeth. This discourages competition from smaller companies, but it also gives the largest companies free reign to raid their clients’ accounts and hide their crimes for years. So far it seems there is little or no accountability when they are discovered.
If market participants cannot expect basic protections, then they will leave, prices will fall, volume will shrink, and markets will whither. Companies will have less access to capital and be exposed to more risk, and the economy and workers will suffer. We’re already a long way down this path.
The economic ideal and the allure of free markets is only possible when regulation protects innocent market participants, minimizes fraud and cheating, and does not deter innovation. That means expanded domain of the SIPC, the SEC should have unlimited authority to monitor accounts and communication (opt-in would be fine), and companies should only minimally participate in their own oversight. With this structure, investors would be protected, transparency would reduce fraud, and free markets could flourish with competition and innovation.
Sounds obvious, but don’t hold your breath.
There are a lot of types of corporate corruption, but they all start from an imbalance in power and oversight. There is one tiny change could have a huge impact on this problem: allow shareholders to nominate people for elections of the Board of Directors of public companies. It’s a small, seemingly obvious shareholder right, but it would have a big impact.
Management should not have the exclusive right to nominate their bosses. In fact, because the Board of Directors is supposed to represent the owners’ interest, it seems crazy that owners can not nominate. When the owners of a company are empowered to nominate Board members, management comes back under control, compensation comes back to reality, performance is scrutinized better, and the interests of investors are better served.
In private equity and smaller firms of every kind, this is always how it has worked. Major shareholders often join Boards of private companies and nominate other Board members. How public companies ever achieved the ability to control the Board nominations without rights for shareholders, I’ll never understand.
There are so many other ways that markets are broken and corruption is bringing us down. Is it too much to fix? Are we destined to watch for the rest of our lives as the emerging markets grow right past us and Americans fight amongst ourselves? Is our political and influence machinery too dogmatic or corrupt to embrace new good ideas together?
I’m not confident.