It may seem hard to remember now, as we sit here mid-way through 2009, but back in 2002, the scandal of the day was Wall Street analysts issuing buy and sell recommendations based on the opportunity for investment banking business with the company, rather than their true opinion of the stock.
Eliot Spitzer to the rescue.
"This has been about one thing," he said before a flock of television cameras at the New York Stock Exchange. "It has been about ensuring that retail investors get a fair shake."
Ultimately, a settlement was reached with ten of Wall Street’s biggest firms. Regulators would oversee a 5-year, $450 million program, funded by investment banks, to support so-called "independent research" on stocks, plus an additional $85 million for "investor education."
It was all about taking care of the little guy who couldn’t take care of himself. With 20/20 hindsight, it turns out that many investors couldn't have cared less.
The Wall Street Journal reports:
“Since Mr. Spitzer's landmark settlement in 2003, annual reports show that few individual, or "retail," investors took advantage of the offering. During one recent year at Credit Suisse Group, for instance, just 16 retail clients had retrieved reports from the bank's Web site.”
In a recent interview, Mr. Spitzer maintained the settlement achieved its aims. "The system was broken," said Mr. Spitzer, who resigned from office amid a sex scandal in 2008. "Our first task was to reveal to the public that the system was fundamentally flawed, that the research was tainted and the public was being misled."
The second task, he said, was to come up with a better product. "It's better to have what we have than have fraudulent research," he said.
It's not that what the investment banks were doing wasn’t wrong or that they didn’t deserve to be punished for it. I agree government’s role is to make sure the investing public isn’t misled. But it is not to come up with a better mousetrap. Their record at that is pretty dismal.
In a bit of déjà vu, the latest bear market has brought out all manner of people, politicians and otherwise, determined to make sure we take care of the little guy who is so obviously incapable of fending for himself.
A May 18, 2009, editorial in Investment News, which bills itself as “the leading news source for financial advisors”, calls for mandatory enrollment of workers in 401(k) plans and a mandatory minimum contribution to the plan by employees:
He has identified the two most critical changes that are needed. First, all employers should be required to enroll all employees in a 401(k) or similar plan, and all employees should be required to contribute a minimum percentage of their pay to the plan.
This would address the greatest weakness of the U.S. retirement system — the significant number of private-sector workers who aren't participating in any retirement plan.
Just 66% of full-time workers participate in such plans at large and midsize companies, and just 37% at small companies, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute of Washington. Small companies, especially those with very slim profit margins, may need government assistance with the costs of starting and running such plans.
Second, employees must be given an opportunity and encouragement to annuitize a significant part of their retirement plan assets beginning at 50. Annuitization minimizes the damage to retirement income that can be caused by a major bear market as retirement approaches.
Although many other improvements to 401(k)s and similar plans are possible, these two would go a long way toward helping private-sector workers build a comfortable retirement.
The recession and bear market have revealed the weaknesses of the U.S. retirement system.
Perhaps the downturn also will spark the reforms needed to strengthen it.
Oh my aching head! The obvious benefit to Putnam specifically and the investment management industry at large aside, do these people really believe that government should be mandating retirement savings?
Wasn’t that the idea behind Social Security and Medicare? And gosh, look at what an overwhelming success that has been! And whatever happened to personal accountability?
While I'm on the subject, partial credit goes to the Obama administration for pulling back on the pay limits they tried to impose on the companies that received government bailout money.
The government had announced plans to "fix" the pay problems of the banking industry by having conflicting plans, one from the administration and one from Congress, to limit pay in the companies that took TARP money. And it turns out we need a "pay czar" to watch over the whole thing. What's with all the czars? I hear we need a car czar, too. Is this because the drug czar idea worked so well?
As it turns out, the government's plan (plans?) could hurt the very companies we all now "own" by pushing talent out the door to hedge funds, private equity firms and foreign firms. Or, some attorneys and compensation consultants would get rich designing plans to get around the limits anyway.
This is just another example of government trying to legislate the end result rather than addressing the root causes. Passing these laws help get politicians reelected. They help some special interest groups score some short-term revenue increases. But in the end they come years after the market finds a different way to fix the problem, and they leave behind an entrenched bureaucracy whose only job is to perpetuate their own existence long after their usefulness has expired.>
There has to be a better way to fix the retirement system. Here are my ideas (and a few of Jim’s).
1. Let’s get rid of the 401(k) system altogether. It was never intended to be the cornerstone of our retirement anyway. Why is it up to the employer to decide what investment choices you have, what your contribution limits are (based on what type of plan they choose) or whether you even have access to a retirement plan? It’s a bad investment vehicle, it is inefficient and it is limited in access.
Let’s give everyone the exact same plan – an IRA with higher contribution limits that is the same for everyone and has access to the entire range of investment choices. If I have to bear the risk of funding my own retirement, at least give me access to the full range of choices to be able to manage the risk!
2. Let’s address the disease rather than the symptom. If you want people to save, don’t force them – teach them. Let’s take some of the money government wastes each year and use it to fund basic financial education in our schools.
I would love to hear your ideas. What should be done, if anything to address retirement savings in this country? I will temporarily open up comments on the blog just for this special occasion. What say ye?
1. ‘Stock-Research Reform to Die? - WSJ.com’ < http://snurl.com/jt42m > [accessed 10 June 2009].
2. “Let's rebuild retirement's three legs - Investment News,” <http://snurl.com/jt45r> [accessed 10 June 2009].