Wall Street Regulator Is Also an Investor
Finra's $1.6 billion portfolio has returned 3.4% annually, versus 6% for a half-stock, half-bond portfolio.
By: Dave Michaels
Updated Oct. 5, 2017 4:08 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON: The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority is more than just a Wall Street regulator.
Rare among regulators and little known to many industry participants, Finra is also an investor and one whose subpar returns are compounding its members' financial challenges, say some of the brokerages that pay its fees.
From its inception in 2004 through the end of 2016, Finra's $1.6 billion investment portfolio has brought in $440 million less than what a balanced mix of global stocks and U.S. bonds would have yielded, according to Wall Street Journal calculations. Some brokerages are starting to question how it uses the stockpile.
"It would be prudent for them to take a second look at where that money is going," said Wendy Lanton, chief compliance officer for Lantern Investments Inc. of Melville, N.Y., a firm that employs 44 brokers.
Despite Finra's decision to initially pursue strategies associated with large endowments, such as investing in alternatives such as hedge funds, the portfolio has lagged far behind the market. It has returned 3.4% annually, versus 6% for the half-stock, half-bond portfolio, according to the Journal's analysis of figures disclosed in Finra's annual reports.
The returns have real ramifications for the brokerage industry. In years when Finra's fee revenue exceeds forecasts and investment gains are strong, the regulator can rebate fees paid by firms it regulates. It hasn't done that since 2014.
Instead, since implementing its portfolio Finra has raised some fees it charges its 3,800-member brokerage firms to support its $1 billion budget, partly because its revenue has come under pressure as smaller firms fail or merge. Finra membership is down from 4,600 in 2010.
Finra's actively managed portfolio--unusual for regulators, which normally invest their cash in short-term securities--dates to a windfall that it reaped over several years starting in 2001 after its predecessor, the National Association of Securities Dealers, sold off its interest in the Nasdaq Stock Market.
Finra decided in November 2003 to mimic the investment strategies of university endowments, such as those at Harvard and Yale. It didn't widely publicize the decision, which was opposed by some smaller brokerages that wanted Finra to distribute the Nasdaq payout to member firms. "Finra's investment portfolio is governed by a policy based on best practices of endowment funds," it wrote in its 2007 annual report.
At first, that meant embracing alternative strategies such as investing in hedge funds. In 2006, Finra's board debated whether to reduce its holdings of less liquid investments because the regulator's expenses were increasing faster than revenue, but ultimately didn't make substantive changes, according to an internal report that examined the history of its performance. Finra officials say they spend about 3% of the portfolio each year to pay operating costs.
After losing $576 million in the 2008 downturn, triple its worst-case estimates, Finra piled much of its portfolio into bonds, missing out on much of the subsequent stock-market rally.
"It's pretty drastic underperformance that would typically result in a change of who their consultants or underlying managers are," said Brad Alford, founder of Alpha Capital Management, an Atlanta firm that helps clients identify investment advisers. "They are underperforming a fairly conservative benchmark."
Over the past 10 years, Finra's portfolio netted an average annualized return of 1.9%, according to Journal calculations. That compares with a 5.7% return for endowments with assets over $1 billion, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Finra discloses returns on a calendar year basis, while colleges and universities report performance over a fiscal year that runs from July to June.
Finra officials say they seek greater diversification than a simple basket of stocks and bonds. "We pursued a much more conservative approach than a 50/50 benchmark," said Nancy Condon, a Finra spokeswoman. "Judging risk in hindsight in this manner is meaningless." The portfolio tries to achieve "lower-risk returns that preserve principal."
Finra officials also disputed the Journal's estimated $440 million shortfall because the calculation doesn't use the precise dates of cash flows into and out of the portfolio. That information isn't provided in Finra's annual reports, and the regulator declined to supply it.
Finra tripled the share of its portfolio parked in bonds and cash in 2009, and yanked money from hedge funds and stocks, a decision that hurt its performance as riskier assets rebounded that year. The organization since then has kept about 12% in cash, according to Finra officials, which also hurts returns.
Finra's returns since 2009 have met a custom benchmark that Finra executives use to judge whether their outside money managers beat lower-cost alternatives, Ms. Condon said. But Finra's annual reports don't disclose the benchmark's performance or report how it is calculated.
Since 2009, Finra's portfolio has notched an annualized return of 5.3%, compared with 7.6% for a 50/50 balanced portfolio, according to the Journal's analysis.
Finra further adjusted its asset allocation last year, pulling $35 million from HighVista Strategies LLC, a private fund manager founded by former Harvard University professor Andre Perold that practices endowment-style investing.
The move will reduce fees that Finra pays to HighVista and will boost portfolio liquidity, according to Finra's 2016 annual report. Finra officials say they are pleased with the performance of HighVista, which didn't return calls seeking comment.