Want strong investor protection? Become ‘Regulators Without Borders’

Most people don’t appreciate how complex investment regulation really is, or what a diverse ecosystem of agencies we’ve got overseeing everybody’s money.

For example, few Canadians realize that our country’s constitution prevents provincial securities regulators from governing some investment products sold by banks. There are federal banking regulators responsible for that. And in several parts of the country it’s insurance authorities, not securities or banking watchdogs, who make the rules concerning segregated funds and annuities because those investments are backstopped by insurance policies.

It probably escapes the attention of most folks that mutual fund sales are doubly regulated – by governmental securities commissions and also by a non-governmental self-regulatory organization (SRO). The same goes for sales of stocks, bonds, options and warrants, although a different SRO is involved. Except, however, you can forget all that if those particular investments happen to be purchased through an exempt-market dealer or a discretionary portfolio manager.

What about commodity futures? Who regulates those things? It depends; it’s complicated. Group scholarship plans? Syndicated mortgages? That’s also rather murky.

Fortunately, the average investor doesn’t need to know about this — at least not until he or she encounters a problem and wants to lodge a complaint or seek compensation. Then, that investor must enter the regulatory labyrinth and, basically on their own, they’re expected to navigate this maze and find the right officials who have jurisdiction to deal with their problems, their products and their advisors.

It’s a daunting journey for anyone. Even though just about every bureaucrat encountered along the way will be supportive and sincere, chances are the investor will be told they need to take some or all of their concerns elsewhere.

Worse still, each of these agencies will say early on: “We regulate the conduct of [insert type of market participant], but we can’t get you your money back.” That requires an additional trek, into the disorienting world of lawyers, courts, arbitrators or ombudspeople.

Some complainants simply can’t endure this labyrinth. They end up lost, dismayed and demoralized. As one once put it: “Everyone said they were there to protect investors. But none of them seemed to think their job was to actually help me.”

No investor should ever end up feeling this way. Nothing should hinder them from getting the protection our regulatory system is supposed to provide. In particular, the system’s structure itself should never be the impediment.

Yet to remedy this, regulators must recognize there’s a fundamental disconnect between the system’s architecture and the public’s natural expectations. The average investor doesn’t differentiate between investments the way regulators do, using an arcane taxonomy of securities, banking and insurance products. To most investors they’re all just “investments” — undifferentiated — so the public really can’t understand why there wouldn’t be a single regulatory protector out there to whom they can turn when something goes wrong and they need help.

Our regulatory system must find a way to give them what they expect, at least at the point of initial contact. That means the system’s interface with the public has to be changed. It can’t remain so cumbersome just because the law makes each type of regulator sit in a separate silo.

Now imagine this instead: an integrated help desk staffed by customer service officials linked to all investment regulatory agencies. Channel public access to this help desk via a single portal system – one website, one phone number, one office in each major city. Train those frontline customer service reps to assess which regulator’s jurisdiction is engaged by the complainant’s problem and empower the reps to act as shepherds, guiding each complaint to the appropriate regulator and staying involved until that regulator takes the handoff and begins addressing the investor’s concerns.

Sound familiar? It isn’t radical or new. It’s the intake method used by most successful service-oriented businesses. Many public agencies have adopted it as well.

Applying this model to investment regulation wouldn’t necessitate major renovations. The silos don’t have to be torn down. They just need to be kept behind the counter and out of sight, functioning as before, but no longer burdening complainants with the task of finding the one into which their problem fits.

Nor does this system need to be costly. In fact, it could save money by allowing the use of a single, pooled intake staff. And resource sharing would contribute to standardizing practices and proficiencies among various regulators – something that can only be welcomed.

Canada’s regulatory system is supposed to deliver strong investor protection. But it can’t do that optimally by tailoring delivery to match an awkward, compartmentalized structure. Instead, what’s needed is a streamlined client-focused process aimed at giving the investing public a seamless experience. In effect, the mindset should be ‘Regulators Without Borders’ — and every troubled investor who turns up, no matter what investment they’ve bought or who sold it to them, should get the same immediate response:

“Sure, we can help you with that.”

April 13, 2015