If the curtain were pulled back to reveal what goes on inside the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s new office dedicated to fraud detection on any given day, it would reveal hundreds of live investigations underway for possible violations like insider trading.
The work of the new office has resulted in more than 250 referrals for possible insider trading cases sent to the Securities and Exchange Commission last year, according to Cameron Funkhouser, executive vice president at FINRA’s Office of Fraud Detection and Market Intelligence.
FINRA’s new office is just one example of efforts FINRA is making as it tries to better police the brokerage industry it regulates, a panel of FINRA executives said Wednesday at FINRA’s annual conference in Washington, D.C.
The new office has worked to train FINRA’s examiners to spot ongoing frauds like Ponzi schemes. And since the creation of that whistleblower program was announced in 2009, it instantly began receiving outside tips.
“From the minute [Cameron] put out the e-mail address and 800 phone number, the calls started coming in,” Susan Axelrod, executive vice president of member regulation and sales practice said of the tips that FINRA has received.
FINRA’s program offering firms credit for cooperation has also been successful in uncovering information that would not have otherwise been found, said Brad Bennett, executive vice president of enforcement at FINRA.
The disclosed information can include facts outside of a FINRA investigation or regarding issues affecting the industry at large. Two upcoming cases include cooperation credits of $500,000 and $1 million, Bennett said, following thorough self-reports, internal investigations and quick mediation.
“I am happy to report that cooperation credit is real, it’s tangible,” Bennett said.
FINRA is also beginning to see preliminary results from a new arbitration rule it put in place in January to allow all public panels, FINRA President of Dispute Resolution Linda Fienberg said.
The rule change means that investors can choose between having a traditional arbitration panel consisting of two public arbitrators and one industry arbitrator or a new option, which would include three public arbitrators. The new choice came in response to some public opinion that the traditional arbitration panel structure was unfair.
“We did this because of the perception issue, and not because we felt that the industry arbitrator was biased or did not add something to the process,” Fienberg said.
Since the all public panel option became effective on Feb. 1, 78% of investors have chosen to use it. It is still too early to assess award data on those panels, Fienberg said, but investors have come out on top more often with all public panels, though the numbers are not statistically significant.
And despite some industry speculation that all public panels would require expert witnesses to help understand the cases, that has not turned out to be true. Arbitration panels are using expert witnesses as frequently as they were before, Fienberg said.
All of the changes come as FINRA navigates the post-financial crisis and post- Bernard Madoff world. As FINRA increases its vigilance and communication with other agencies like the SEC, fraudsters should be on notice, Funkhouser said.
“We’re not perfect, but if you are going to trade on inside information on any of these markets, we will likely catch you,” Funkhouser said.