regulation

What We Learned at the Big Conference

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I have gone to many conferences over a long period of time. Each has provided some perspective, insight or connection that proved to be quite valuable. Our quest to improve your financial position, being a human endeavor, is always susceptible to improvement. The conferences serve to expose us to ideas, concepts and tools that can help.

LPL Financial’s Focus17 event was perhaps the most consequential ever. The social media and blog presence we started at http://www.228Main.com two years ago has a far greater reach than we realized. We have relationships with top executives at LPL Financial and senior management that we did not know we had. This is turning out to be vitally important to you and to us.

Regulation creates change, and encourages standardization. You know we are contrarian; we dislike conventional wisdom, so we aren’t big on doing what everyone else is doing. As the company sorts out how to get to the future, our voice is in the conversation. Our proposals, the ones that will let us keep serving you as we have been, are being reviewed at the highest levels. If we didn’t have the new media presence, we would still be trying to let the brass know who we are and what we want.

Our communication strategy is to be radically transparent. We share our fundamental beliefs, our strategies, our methods and our views. So when we introduce ourselves to a policy-maker and say “this is what we are about,” the policy-maker says “Oh, I know, I read your blog. What do we need to do?”

Clients, understand, we put this all in place for you, not them. If there were three of me, none of us would have time for ego-stroking with big shots. But the fact is, these good people are going to help us shape the future in a way that might work out for everyone.

The highlight of the program was Bert Jacobs, Chief Executive Optimist of the Life Is Good Company. (You may have seen their T-shirts or coffee cups.) You have to know, the message that ‘life isn’t easy, life isn’t perfect, but life is good” certainly rang my bell. The idea that optimism is a tree trunk from which authenticity and empathy and humor and generosity etc. can branch is very powerful. Bert learned that ‘life is good’ resonated most deeply with people who had big challenges, not those who had easy lives.

I’ll summarize the rest by saying LPL Financial has a great culture carried by incredibly talented people. The firm is paying attention and taking care of business. You and we could not ask for more. Please call or email us with questions or to have a longer conversation.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Regulation and Structure: Changes Ahead?

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The investment world is changing rapidly in the face of evolving regulation and market forces. This article describes how coming changes may affect us—and you.

Clients know we have been affiliated with LPL Financial (LPL) for a very long time, since 1994, in fact. The relationship actually has two parts. LPL is both a registered investment advisor with the Securities and Exchange Commission and a broker/dealer regulated by FINRA.

As an Investment Advisor Representative of LPL’s SEC-registered investment advisor, I offer investment advisory accounts under LPL’s auspices and rules. These arrangements are fee-based, and hold me to a fiduciary standard where your interests must come first. As a registered representative of LPL, I offer securities on a brokerage basis. This is more of a sales-type situation, where my legal obligation is to present recommendations that are ‘suitable’ when made.

In practice, we have always strived to put your interests first, to focus on improving your financial situation, no matter the legal form of our relationship. This has worked well as a business strategy. It frees us from worrying about our needs or goals, since the better off you are, the better off we figure we will be. But the world is changing.

We see two main impacts of evolving regulation.

1. The investment advisory side of the business will become increasingly important, since the fiduciary relationship is more in keeping with the spirit of the regulations.

2. The brokerage side of the business will have fewer choices and more restrictions as investment firms seek to limit the conflicts of interest that come with wide variation in compensation and fees on brokerage products.

As we think about how to best serve your interests and meet your needs, we have reached some tentative conclusions:

A. The increasing emphasis on fiduciary investment advisory accounts fits well with the trends that make sense for us and for you. Our research and portfolio management processes are more effective and more efficient than ever before, and we continue to hone our processes.

B. In order to preserve the ability to continue to offer our traditional research-intensive, contrarian, value-oriented philosophy, we may have to form our own registered investment advisor. We would only take this step if our methods and philosophies become difficult to implement under LPL’s rules.

C. If we do form our own registered investment advisor, we would probably operate as ‘hybrid’ advisors using LPL Financial on the brokerage side, and to hold client assets, provide accounting and statements as they do now on the advisory side. Your assets would not be going anywhere different. The change would be minimal.

The irony is that if we were doing what everybody else is doing, life would be simple and we would not have to think about changing our structure to maintain our practices. In our opinion, we are different—and YOU are different. Generally, you and we are less sensitive to volatility, more focused on the long term, and more confident that things work out over time.

In a sense, the regulations codify conventional wisdom with which we disagree. The short version of this essay: we will do what we need to do to continue to bring you our philosophy and strategies and methods. Clients, if you have any questions or comments about this or any other issue, please email us or call.


Securities and advisory services offered through LPL Financial, a registered investment advisor, Member FINRA/SIPC.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

We Are All Connected

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Much has been written about the polarization of American society. While noisy disagreement and entirely human behavior has always been part of our fabric, the whole “us” versus “them” theme seems to be a bigger part of our social discourse. It seeps into our politics and economics too, it seems.

Yet everything is connected. What many miss are the interests we share.

If you hope to be collecting Social Security benefits many years into the future, you might have an interest in making sure that each child today grows up to be a healthy and educated and productive citizen. Why? They will pay more Social Security taxes if they do—and better work towards your financial future. You are connected to the next generation.

Some seem to assume that big companies are always out to get them, and favor any new regulation or restraint that might be proposed to limit their activity. Yet if we needed to fly across the country, would we dare do so in an artisanal airplane, built with locally-sourced materials by a local craft person? You are connected to big companies.

Likewise, the largest oil companies in the world routinely spend more than 96% of their revenues helping people get back and forth to work, powering their homes, and providing materials used in everyday life. If you use gasoline or electricity or plastic, you are connected to them.

“Wall Street”—to some, the only villains in the last financial crisis—presents another example. Communities building schools or sewers, employers building facilities or buying machinery, teachers hoping to retire on their pensions, people saving for retirement or living on their capital in retirement: all these depend on services from the securities industry. We are all connected.

Is this an argument for turning a blind eye to bad behavior or hurtful policies or injustice or anything else that cries out for change? No way. We each should challenge the things that deserve to be challenged, and support the things that deserve to be supported. We won’t all agree on which is which.

But perhaps our differences would more often get us to a better place if we each kept in mind that everything—and everyone—is connected.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Scorecard: 1,000 to 2

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The Savings & Loan Crisis of the late 1980’s resulted in over a thousand felony convictions of executives for wrongdoing, after a third of the institutions went broke. The FBI had a thousand agents on it, and the government was determined to find and punish thieves. The New York Times wrote extensively about this.

Thoughtful people all across the ideological spectrum are incensed that there have been only two felony convictions related to the 2007-2009 financial crisis. The recent crisis had a far greater impact on the economy, workers, families and retirees. Yet far less was done to investigate and prosecute the bad guys.

Naturally, many people of all political persuasions are concerned and upset. Corruption, incompetence, or both? No one knows. It clearly violates the social compact on which our society is based.

Now, get ready for another astonishing shock. In lieu of sending criminals to jail, various agencies of government have been soliciting multi-billion dollar settlements from the large banks. But whose money is this? Yours and mine—shareholders. It is as if the government is collecting ransom from thieves which they are paying from our pockets.

If you think we are being melodramatic, consider that the Justice Department recently asked Deutsche Bank for $14 billion to settle allegations of wrongdoing. This figure is more than two-thirds of the bank’s net worth, as measured by the value of its shares in the market. In our system, the presumption was that a company is owned by its shareholders. Now we find out that the government thinks it is entitled to more than half the net worth of this company—instead of doing its job and prosecuting wrongdoers.

In our opinion, the system worked better and more fairly when thieves went to prison and shareholders enjoyed the rights to their property without impairment by arbitrary government action. One of the worst aspects of this situation is how little attention it is getting; this article is intended to help rectify that. Please spread the word by sharing and linking and emailing your representatives.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Paved with Good Intentions

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Picture a stretch of a busy highway. The speed limit is a moderate 65 miles an hour, which most commuters follow comfortably. Occasionally a maniac driver speeds through doing 80 or more, and may or may not be caught. No one particularly minds, until a series of high-profile crashes creates a public outcry about the speeding problem. The department of roads resolves to crack down on speeders and adjusts the speed limit down to 55.

Commuters might grudgingly slow down a bit, but because the road is built for traveling at 65 miles an hour, it doesn’t make sense to drive at 55—so most drivers don’t, and traffic continues to travel at 60 mph or so. The highway patrol, seeing that everyone’s just matching pace with traffic, turns a blind eye to this insignificant “speeding” and continues to work on catching the big offenders. For the most part, the change in speed limit does not have much impact.

However, while the stricter speed limit may seem “harmless”, it actually has a very chilling effect. Suppose one day a trooper wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and decides he doesn’t like the look of a particular driver, so he pulls them over for speeding—an open and shut case, since they’re speeding like everyone else. It is hardly fair or just, however, that one speeder among many should be singled out for punishment based on an arbitrary whim. All that the lower speed limit accomplishes is giving enforcement officers discretion to punish normal driver behavior at will—it does not actually make it any easier to catch or punish the original problem speeders, since it is just as illegal for them to drive at 80 in a 65 zone as it is in a 55 zone.

We’re not writing about this to complain about law enforcement officers. Rather, we use this example to illustrate a broader failing of regulatory efforts. When enforcement agencies find themselves frustrated they often resort to casting a wider net, writing new rules that make normal and honest behavior illegal. Often, these rules are made with no malicious intent—they’re still only after the big fish, and they figure any small fry that get picked up along the way can be released with no harm. But by giving themselves their pick of targets, they substitute their own discretion for the rule of law.

This is no way to run a free country. We want regulators to catch the criminals as much as anyone does—more than most, since our reputation suffers when fraudsters are allowed to run free. But passing stricter rules and making everyone into criminals is absolutely not the right answer. The next time you hear someone calling for tighter regulations, listen with a critical ear to what they’re saying: are they proposing to catch bad guys, or will they end up targeting everybody?

Regulation and Common Sense

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There is a tendency in politics for arguments about regulation to boil down to politicians on the left arguing for more regulations and politicians on the right arguing for fewer regulations. Too often what is lost in this debate is the discussion of the quality of regulations, rather than the quantity. Effective regulations are easy to understand, easy to follow, and clearly distinguish between the crooks and honest folk, but many regulations fall short in a variety of ways.

Good regulation provides a clear line as to what is or isn’t allowed. When the line gets fuzzy, it becomes easy for upstanding businesses to fall afoul of regulatory issues unintentionally. It costs a lot of time to figure out the details of a vague regulation. And in the end, it may not become clear where the line is draw until expensive fines get handed down for crossing it. As a result, many companies may choose to err on the side of caution. This turns useful, valuable services into collateral damage of unrelated regulation.

Even when the regulations are written clearly, the costs of complying with them may be high. Increased documentation and oversight may sound like a good idea, but the extra work of supervising and documenting everything doesn’t come for free. Compliance overhead increases costs for businesses and, ultimately, hurts consumers when prices go up to compensate.

These may sound like problems that only big corporations need to worry about, but they have a very real and tangible impact on our everyday lives. I have been privileged in my career to work with many community banks. Sadly, these are a dying breed these days as more and more of them fold under the weight of regulatory burdens. Some are lucky to merge with fine, upstanding regional chains, but some towns have seen the local bank replaced with a megabank. The sad irony is that these regulations were often written to rein in big banks, but wound up driving out many smaller competitors instead.

Some of our politicians talk as though the solution is to do away with regulations altogether and create a Wild West environment for business. We’re not advocating for anything so extreme. But we need to call for simple, elegant rules that can protect the public effectively without undue burden on business. We ask you to join us in promoting common sense policies and leaders.

Broken Windows, the Government, and the Economy

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Frederic Bastiat, a 19th century French thinker, gave us a number of enduring ideas including the “broken window fallacy.” His idea went like this:

When the shopkeeper’s son accidently breaks a window, bystanders assure the shopkeeper that it is a good thing, since the glazier will profit, money will circulate, and everyone will be better off. Bastiat names these things as “what is seen.” What is unseen is that the shopkeeper would actually have spent that same money on a pair of shoes or a book or some other good. The glazier’s gain is the cobbler’s loss, and society is poorer by one pair of shoes—after you consider what is unseen.

So imagine a society in which 98 people are gainfully employed in producing goods and services, and 2 people work in necessary, worthwhile and cost-effective ways to regulate the efforts of the 98. If we concede that some level of regulation is necessary, one might conclude that this society shares the output of 100 people.

Now imagine a combination of circumstances that leads to a program to provide better paychecks to five of the workers. The society elects to hire the five to dig holes and fill them in again for generous wages, thus providing “good jobs” for all. What is seen is that everyone has a paycheck, money keeps moving, and thereby everyone benefits. But what is unseen is that society has permanently lost the output of five workers, so the standard of living on average must decline by 5%. No wealth or advantage is created by the digging of holes, when everything is tallied up.

Worse yet, the five might instead be employed in unnecessary regulation of the other workers. If those five spend their days interacting with other workers, the output of five more workers is lost to their oversight. The standard of living on average then must decline by a total of 10%.

Our purpose in writing is not to argue about regulation in general, or the impact of new rules on community banks and financial advisors, or the proper level of government employment. Rather, we are hoping that people will think about what is unseen, as well as what is seen, in matters of public debate. Those of us looking to elevate our economic understanding would do well to start with the Wikipedia article on Bastiat.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.