Barron’s D.C. man highlights Big Brother’s latest incarnation

Jim McTague‘s “D.C. Current” column in this week’s issue of Barron’s highlights concerns about the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s latest efforts to monitor activity within the financial sector.

“Why should the government — I will put Finra under the government’s umbrella — conduct a mass-surveillance program monitoring all of your financial transactions, your personal information related to those transactions, the movement of funds in and out of your brokerage accounts? Why is this an essential government service?” asks Ira Hammerman, executive vice president and general counsel at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, Wall Street’s most muscular trade and lobbying association.

Finra is an independent, nonprofit regulatory organization authorized by Congress and overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Finra writes and enforces rules for brokerages and their employees, disciplines industry scofflaws and malefactors, and offers to educate investor sheep.

FINRA HAS A WELL-DESERVED reputation for catching small-fry scoundrels and letting big dogs run wild. It regulated both Bernie Madoff and R. Allen Stanford and never noticed their Ponzi schemes. Chastened, Finra dreamed up the Comprehensive Automated Risk Data System (Cards), which would conduct daily sweeps of brokerage-account information to identify churning, excessive charges, pump-and-dump schemes, and investments not suited to a customer’s risk profile. Finra, reacting to an outcry, amended its “concept” to exclude capturing personal identifiers like customer names and addresses. …

… The Consumer Federation of America likes Cards. “Markets have moved into the 21st century. It’s time for our regulators to move into the 21st century as well,” says Barbara Roper, the CFA’s director of investor protection. She says the industry is worried about potential costs, not customer welfare.

Roper is usually on the side of the angels, but maybe not this time. The American Civil Liberties Union opposes Finra’s idea, arguing its metadata would be vulnerable to unwarranted government inspection, which runs counter to “deeply held American values.” In this contest, Wall Street’s wolves seem to be holding a better hand of cards than Wall Street’s sheep herders.

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