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Study: SEC needs bigger budget for growing workload

By David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 12:36 PM

The Securities and Exchange Commission needs more money to meet its expanding responsibilities, but it hasn't made the most of the funds it already has, according to a study of the agency ordered by Congress last year.

The consultant's report, a draft of which was obtained by The Washington Post, mentioned other issues that may be undermining the effectiveness of the agency responsible for policing Wall Street. Those include low morale, few staff members with experience working in financial markets, and a slowdown in reviews of money managers and brokerage firms.

The study, performed by Boston Consulting Group, is due to be submitted to Congress by March 14. It was ordered as part of the government's response to the financial crisis and comes as some Republican lawmakers argue that because of the SEC's past failures and foibles, it doesn't deserve a bigger budget. The agency is seeking increased funding. SEC officials say the request would not affect the federal budget deficit because the money would come from fees paid by industry.

Top SEC officials are scheduled to face questions on the agency's performance and financial needs at three congressional hearings Thursday and another next week.

The SEC needs 375 to 425 additional employees to do its job, the draft of the study said. More than one-third of that requirement is temporary, driven by a need to write new rules implementing the Dodd-Frank law enacted last year to overhaul financial regulation.

However, if the economy and the number of firms the SEC must oversee grow as expected, so will the SEC's employee shortage, the report says. The consulting firm suggests that the SEC shift employees from management to other positions, including support staff.

The study also shows that since it was criticized for failing to see through Bernard Madoff's massive Ponzi scheme, the SEC has lowered its rate of examinations of money managers and brokerage firms to about once every 11 years, compared with once every 7.4 years as of 2008.

Money managers should be reviewed more frequently, the report says. SEC examiners have a heavier workload than examiners at FINRA, an industry self-regulatory group, and at the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, which supervises auditors, the report says. The Dodd-Frank Act, however, will trim the number of investment advisers subject to SEC examination, potentially easing the workload, the report says.

The study offers a mixed assessment of the SEC's technology needs. The agency does not have any automated "market surveillance systems," which are used to track trading, according to the report. For that information, the agency is largely dependent on other organizations, such as stock exchanges and FINRA.

Certain other information technology systems "are adequate for the SEC's needs today," the report says. But the agency did not take full advantage of its current analytic tools in evaluating the so-called flash crash that sent markets temporarily plummeting on May 6, 2010.

The study notes that the SEC has tried to hire more Wall Street traders and other non-lawyers but says the effort should be speeded up. "The staff attorneys who are reviewing rules and setting policies could benefit from a deeper understanding of how the markets and market participants operate," the report says. But it also warns that the SEC may not be able to pay enough to attract new employees with industry expertise.

The report links the low morale of SEC staff to "the challenges of the last three years" - an apparent reference to the financial crisis and its aftermath. It says the agency "has a clear opportunity to improve staff morale and engagement."

The report also identifies several trouble potential trouble spots that call for close SEC oversight.

Stock exchanges that operate as for-profit businesses and double as private regulatory organizations have a serious conflict of interest, the study says. Their incentive to attract trading can be at odds with their duty to regulate trading.

The study also calls for "much deeper and broader" SEC supervision of

FINRA, the self-regulatory group for securities firms that was formerly headed by SEC Chairman Mary L. Schapiro.

"In many of the regulatory areas where FINRA is active, it is increasingly becoming a single point of failure and the sole active regulator."

A third major challenge for the SEC involves the rise of so-called high-frequency trading, in which investment firms use powerful computers to detect razor-thin market inefficiencies and then take advantage of them by trading large volumes of shares in mere milliseconds, the report says.

High-frequency trading-the opposite of traditional buy-and-hold investing-creates new opportunities for market manipulation, the study says. For example, traders can jump ahead of other trades through a practice known as "front-running," and they can turn the speed of their computers to unfair advantage.

The study says high-frequency trading accounts for an estimated 56 percent of stock trading volume in the United States, up from 35 percent in 2005. The SEC will have to develop powerful new methods to track it, the study says.

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