Articles Posted in securities Industry

The short answer is no.

When a customer opens an investment account with a brokerage firm, he or she is typically given the option to choose between a discretionary or non-discretionary account.  A discretionary account gives the assigned broker or financial advisor the latitude, or discretion, to buy or sell securities in the account without the customer’s prior authorization.  In non-discretionary accounts, a broker does not have that discretion and must obtain the customer’s permission prior to each transaction.

For reasons that may seem obvious, discretionary accounts are somewhat of a rarity in the brokerage world, in part because they require much more supervisory oversight than non-discretionary accounts.  Discretionary accounts are naturally prone to a higher risk for abuse or mismanagement of funds, as there is less customer input and oversight of the trading.  Thus it should be no surprise that the securities laws for discretionary accounts are especially geared towards investor protection.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, there has been a recent trend at big brokerages of shifting the power from the headquarters to brokers and branch managers. Apparently big brokerages like Bank Of America, UBS Group, and Merrill Lynch are “unleashing” their brokers and moving power closer to the brokers and their managers, both to keep brokers from leaving their firms and to increase revenues.

These modifications come in the wake of declining revenues and broker exoduses several big brokerages have experienced after the financial crisis. They have also witnessed that brokers who dislike or disagree with their managers and find them unhelpful tend to leave the brokerages more easily. The big brokerages have had to deal with rising regulatory costs and competing with an increasing number of independent advisers. According to research conducted by consulting groups, the registered investment adviser model is more successful as it is a smaller and more tightly integrated groups. Taking a cue from that, the zillion dollar brokerages are making changes aimed at empowering, training and giving their brokers more control over day to day decisions over clients, growth, and resource allocation. Merrill Lynch has plans to restructure the brokerage leadership, emphasize more on productivity and training, and reduce the number of divisions. UBS also made similar changes last year.

There are plans underway to also automate investment advisory and make use of robos to cater to a younger clientele so that the brokers can be freed up to deal with high net worth clients. All in all, this gradual shift is geared towards taking things back to how they were before the financial crisis hit, when the field agents and managers had more autonomy to structure their branches, price and sell services, be less accountable to corporate headquarters, hold more power and sway.

There is an interesting point in this week’s Wall Street Journal titled “Brokerage Files Don’t Give The Full Pictures,” which talks about the how brokerage firms and individual brokers are held to different standards, when it comes to their BrokerCheck records. BrokerCheck, the online search tool from FINRA for brokers and brokerages, reports arbitration decisions that are not in a securities firm’s favor but not the negotiated legal settlements, whereas every settlement in a broker’s record is clearly delineated. So why does this gap exist in reporting and how does it continue to happen?

FINRA is not a government body, but it is overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Within 30 days of reaching a settlement, brokerage firms are obligated to report agreements to FINRA, if the amount meets a certain threshold. However, BrokerCheck records pull information from an SEC document named “Form BD” that doesn’t ask brokerage firms about negotiated settlements. The agreement that gets reported to FINRA in the event of a settlement is not currently a part of SEC approved list of documents. This loophole in communication and reporting allows brokerage firms to maintain clean BrokerCheck records, without disclosing settlements to investors. As far as brokers are concerned, the BrokerCheck information comes from a different FINRA form that does require brokerages to disclose if they paid settlements on behalf of any employees over $15,000. It should be noted that many or most settlement payouts for brokers are actually paid for by brokerage firms and these firms are listed as co-defendants or only defendants in the FINRA arbitration proceedings.

Many individuals in the securities industry feel that data about brokerage firms should be more transparent so that they can be ranked based on this information. There are others who are “shocked” by this gaping hole in the BrokerCheck that does not paint the “full picture”, as per the WSJ story. Those in favor of the current scenario, argue that brokerage firms settle for many reasons without admitting to wrongdoing, so reporting settlements would create an unfair perception about the brokerage firm in an investors’ mind.