SEC, strapped for funds, can't police financial markets

SEC, strapped for funds, can't police financial markets
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The most recent Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) budget request (for fiscal 2019) is $1.6 billion. Is this a big number for our nation’s primary overseer of markets and investor protection? Look at these comparisons.

The technology and communications budgets of just three Wall Street firms — Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup — are $16 billion, or 10 times the budget of the SEC.

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Spending at large hedge funds, like Bridgewater Associates ($160 billion in assets under management), mutual fund complexes, like Vanguard ($5.1 trillion under management), or the discount brokers like Schwab and TD Ameritrade, are magnitudes higher than the SEC budget. The SEC is unable to spend even at its 2016-2017 levels, while markets and players have grown by leaps and bounds.

   

Dramatic as the discrepancy in these numbers is, it doesn’t even tell the whole story. The mandates facing the SEC are growing and therefore further straining the resources available.

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank) added to the SEC’s existing budgetary burdens by mandating new responsibilities for the oversight of advisers to private equity funds, creation of a new Bureau of Credit Ratings, oversight of security-based swaps, creation of a whistleblower program and registration of municipal securities advisers. 

The budget request is a large document, comprising 153 pages. And it’s well organized too, with analyses for budget by personnel, by objective and by workload. While there are workload analyses for all key programs, i.e., enforcement, corporate finance, Office of the General Counsel and so forth, it is the anticipated workload for Compliance and Inspections that is instructive.

While conducting more than 2,100 investment adviser examinations is admirable, in our view, the anticipated increases since 2017 should be materially higher.

The pace of change and growth in the securities business is undeniable. Yet, investment advisor examinations are slated for a 2-percent increase and broker-dealer exams are actually scheduled to shrink. More importantly, the rest of the SEC’s remit is monumental.

Below, we paraphrase how the SEC describes its own mandate:

“The SEC’s broad mission covers a lot of ground. 

[It] ..oversees approximately $75 trillion in securities trading annually...the activities of over 26,000 registered market participants, [and] interacts with the investing public on a daily basis through a number of activities ranging from our investor education programs to alerts on SEC.gov.

[The SEC]...provides critical market services through our information technology (IT) systems...processing more than 50 million pages of disclosure documents (annually) through the Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval (EDGAR) system.

[It]...oversees 21 national securities exchanges, 10 credit rating agencies, and seven active registered clearing agencies, the PCAOB, FINRA, Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB), the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC), and the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB).

...the SEC selectively reviews the disclosures and financials...of over 8,000 reporting companies, including 4,100 exchange listed and 78 of the top 100 public companies in the world...” 

Self-funding for the agency via charging registration fees and use of a portion of the enforcement fines collected is a wonderful solution for keeping pace with markets and technology. It was proposed, but ultimately stricken from Dodd-Frank.

Significant challenges in the overall U.S. budget process have reduced further the attention paid to the SEC and the willingness of Congress to fund it adequately.

What worries us greatly is that the lack of adequate resources has and will continue to impact the SEC’s ability to appropriately police the growing complexity of financial markets. Let’s not forget what this lack has wrought in real financial costs.

The Great Recession was brought about in large measure by a securities industry that had become far more sophisticated than its regulator. Securities products and activities far outpaced the SEC’s ability to monitor, detect and modulate risky exposures and concentrations that cost our system dearly.

The costs to savers and our society were in the trillions. We need to invest in our primary regulator, not starve it. At $1.6 billion for SEC operations, its looking dangerously undernourished.

Kurt N. Schacht, JD, CFA, is managing director of the advocacy division of CFA Institute, a global association of investment professionals.