When you reflect on the grim news that 73% of financial advisers who get caught breaking the rules are still doing business with the public a year later, you might just cross your fingers and hope that yours is one of the good guys.
But here's a big-time reality check: The distressing results of research by University of Minnesota's Mark Egan and University of Chicago's Gregor Matvos and Amit Seru. The professors pulled together ten years of disciplinary information on 644,000 current and 638,000 former brokers and registered investment advisers and presented them in a March 1 working paper, "The Market For Financial Adviser Misconduct."
The chilling fact that nearly three-quarters of misbehaving brokers still have a job a year after they're cited for misconduct is just one of the trio's worrisome findings.
Here's another: While 7.3% of brokers nationwide have black marks, if you live in certain parts of California, New York or Florida, that rate can spike to 18% and higher. I'm talking about you, upstate New York. And you, Palm Beach and Monterey counties.
If that hasn't made you depressed enough, consider that the study likely understates the problem.
The professors relied on public records kept by Finra, Wall Street's self-regulatory operation. The Finra database, known as BrokerCheck, includes people who are unlikely to generate complaints because they rarely if ever deal with the public -- securities analysts and proprietary traders, for example. It wouldn't be surprising to see a higher percentage of wrongdoers in a study that looked only at retail stockbrokers.
In addition, brokers have had great success over the years persuading Finra arbitrators to approve expungements of complaints from their records, leaving researchers with incomplete data about alleged wrongdoing.
Ray Pellecchia, a Finra spokesman, said in an e-mail that Finra is reviewing the paper and that it had "reached out to the authors to discuss their methodology and conclusions." Finra already has increased its focus on identifying high risk brokers "for targeted, expedited investigations," he said.
Pellecchia said Finra itself has done research on brokers with disciplinary issues, citing a working paper published by its Office of the Chief Economist last August. That study paints an unflattering, but far less damning picture of brokers.
Where Egan, Matvos and Seru found that more than 7% of brokers had at least one problem on their records, Finra's Hammad Qureshi and Jonathan Sokobin concluded that fewer than 1.5% of brokers were associated with what they call "investor harm."
The discrepancy arises from the universe of brokers each team examined.
The finance professors included all 1.2 million current and former brokers in Finra's database. But the Finra team focused only on 181,133 brokers whose customer complaints had led either to awards or to settlement above certain thresholds -- $10,000 for complaints that settled before May 18, 2009 and $25,000 for settlements after that.
Finra further narrowed its focus by eliminating people who became brokers before 2000. Until 1999, broker records were filed on paper, and the Finra economists sought to avoid possible inconsistencies between the legacy data and the new online database.
It was reasonable for Finra to try to get a clean set of data. But the exclusion of brokers who got licenses before 2000 got me wondering whether some of the problem brokers I've written about would have been included. In many cases, the answer is no.
Larry Werbel, a penny-stock peddler who was indicted in January for securities fraud, wire fraud and other charges, wouldn't have made the cut because he became a broker in 1976. Christopher Cervino, another broker indicted in that scheme, got his license in 1996. You can read about them here.
Four out of the five former J.P. Turner & Co. brokers and supervisors that I wrote about in November 2014 would have been excluded. (The troubled firm withdrew its Finra registration last month).
And Mark C. Hotton, a former Oppenheimer & Co. broker who gets his mail these days at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., also would have been left out. He was sentenced last year to 11 years in prison for defrauding investors and companies of more than $9 million.
Last month, Finra sent requests to more than a dozen firms seeking information about how they establish, communicate and implement cultural values. "Firm culture has a profound influence on how a broker-dealer conducts its business, including how it manages conflicts of interest," the request said.