On August 30, 2012, the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) released the Dodd Frank Act’s mandated study (the “Study”) on the financial literacy of retail investors which concludes, as you might have predicted, that retail investors are essentially clueless about investing and financial matters generally. That slapping sound you heard was the high-fiving by stockbrokers everywhere across America. Among the selected findings were that retail investors lack “basic financial literacy” and that such investors have a weak grasp of elementary financial concepts and lack critical knowledge of ways to avoid investment fraud. It should come as no surprise that certain subgroups, such as women, African-Americans, Hispanics, the elderly, and the poorly educated have even less basic financial knowledge than the general population.
Without water boarding you with the details of this 182 page report, the SEC obtained the information necessary to reach these conclusions by conducting focus groups and quizzing investors through an online survey. These methods revealed that investors can’t identify basic financial products, can’t calculate fees, do not understand conflicts of interest, and, if that were not enough, can’t read an account statement. The Study concludes with a strategy and set of goals for increasing financial literacy among this retail class. The goals are to improve investors’ understanding of risk and the fees and cost associated with investing, to add proactive steps for avoiding fraud, and increasing general financial knowledge. These laudable goals are to be achieved, quite magically, by devising education programs that target specific groups that are deemed vulnerable, such as young investors, lump sum payout recipients, investment trustees, members of the military (if you ever want to know how much we value our military personnel, look into periodic payment plans), underserved populations, and older investors.
Certain members of the financial industry have agreed to work together on an “ask and check” campaign that would encourage individuals to check the background of investment professionals before using them, and to encourage investors to verify that a potential investment is legitimate before investing. Financial regulators have agreed that more information should be added to the investor protection section of the SEC’s website and that a general campaign should be embarked upon that will help individuals understand the fees and costs associated with financial products. If you think this solution sounds vaguely like Steve Martin’s sketch on how to become a millionaire (“first, get a million dollars”) then you have correctly identified the scope of the problem.
But why are the findings and conclusions of the Study important now? Well, a couple of reasons come to mind, one of an immediate concern, the other longer term in nature. First, you may have read that the SEC recently released for public comment the rules that will lift the ban on “general solicitations” for otherwise private offerings. These rules, if adopted in their proposed form, would permit private issuers, including private funds, to solicit investors generally through all forms of public media, including newspapers, the internet and mass mailings. Issuers will be required to take reasonable steps to determine that all investors meet sophistications and accreditation standards before accepting an investment, but make no mistake, these rules are the most significant changes to the securities offering process since the Securities Act of 1933 was signed into law. Many state securities regulators are predicting an avalanche of new frauds aimed squarely at those categories of vulnerable investors that the Study identified.
In a world where modern means of communication have forever blurred the lines between information that is privately distributed and that which is in the public domain, it makes little sense to cling to the old concepts of private offerings to “pre-existing, substantial relationships,” and we have actively supported the lifting of the ban. However, with increased rights come increased responsibilities. It will be the responsibility of all of those in the private funds business to remain vigilant against potential frauds and scams, to adopt “best practices” on behalf of ourselves and our clients, and to work more closely with regulators in order to protect not just investors, but the viability of our industry itself. We hope that fund managers and those who serve them will take these obligations seriously with a longer term view.
And yes, the longer term issue. This November, the U.S. will elect or re-elect a President. One of the most significant issues in this campaign will be around entitlement reform. That is, what to do about the long term health of Medicare, Medicaid and, for purposes of this discussion, Social Security. In his second term, Bush II attempted to privatize Social Security to some degree. This proposal generally envisioned allocating a third or a half of a retiree’s account into a “personal plan” over which each retiree would have investment discretion. Or put another way, rather than a guaranteed payout from Social Security after choosing a retirement age, each retiree, most of which have the level of sophistication discussed in the Study, would be responsible for making their own investment decisions. It is fairly easy to figure out who might be in favor of putting millions of unsophisticated, financially illiterate people in charge of the assets that would otherwise be paid out by Social Security on a monthly basis. Whether and how the results of the Study are used in the debate on Social Security reform should be, at a minimum, very interesting to watch.