The Investor Protection Trust, a nonprofit devoted to investor education, has selected its first president and chief executive.
Don M. Blandin, currently president of the Washington-based American Savings Education Council, will assume the position this week.
Blandin, 56, is a great choice for this job. He has been in the trenches for a long time trying to help regular folk understand the importance of saving and investing. As head of ASEC since 1996, he helped put together the very successful "Choose to Save" campaign (www.choosetosave.org).
But you may be thinking, why is this appointment so important?
I'm hoping Blandin will give a face and higher profile to the Investor Protection Trust. IPT is chartered to educate the public about investing, using money collected in settlements against investment companies that have been accused of wrongdoing.
The primary mission of IPT is to provide objective, noncommercial information to consumers to help them make informed investment decisions. It was founded in 1993 as part of a multi-state settlement with Salomon Brothers, which was accused of securities misconduct in the U.S. Treasury auction market. IPT is directed by five volunteer trustees chosen from the ranks of state securities regulators across the country.
IPT most recently got an influx of major cash that should lead to new and widespread educational efforts for investors.
Remember that $1.4 billion settlement between the nation's top 10 investment firms and the North American Securities Administrators Association, the Securities and Exchange Commission, NASD and the New York Stock Exchange?
The firms were being slapped for actions involving conflicts of interest between their research and investment banking operations.
As part of the settlement, seven firms agreed to pay a total of $80 million for investor education. It was determined that $27.5 million of that money would be paid to state securities regulators over a period of four years for investor education. The IPT oversees that Investor Education Fund.
If there is some good that can come out of the recent investment scandals, it's that money.
But I have to tell you I wondered why regulators didn't just give investors the money instead of funding more financial literacy projects through IPT.
"It's true we could take this amount of money and give it to investors," said Denise Voigt Crawford, the Texas securities commissioner and lead trustee for IPT. "They would get a small return, but what good would that do long term? What we need to do is give people the tools to make money to carry out their financial goals. Through very well-thought-out investor education programs we can do some good for generations to come. And Don can help us do that."
Crawford has a point.
A multimillion-dollar lump-sum settlement sounds good and makes for great headlines, but by the time the money got disbursed to aggrieved investors, they probably wouldn't have enough to pay for the gas it would take to go cash the check. If that is the case, I think it is better to use the money to help prevent investor abuse and educate people.
"Raising the level of financial awareness and responsibility is a challenging task, but we have a terrific opportunity to make a difference through the IPT," Blandin said. "We will be smarter about how we provide investor information. We will collaborate and coordinate our efforts with other organizations that share our mission of raising the level of financial literacy and investor protection."
If I may be so bold, I have some suggestions for Blandin on how IPT could spend some of that $27 million:
* Establish a national call center for investors. People wouldn't be given investment advice but rather could call toll-free and talk to a live person who would be capable of giving them unbiased answers to basic investment questions such as "How can I tell how much I'm being charged for my mutual fund investment?" or "Someone wants to sell me some stock -- what should I do to make sure they are legit?"
* Create a national ad campaign to make investors aware of potential fraud. If Nike and McDonald's can sear slogans about sneakers and hamburgers into our psyche, certainly IPT can come up with a clever jingle to help people stay clear of investment scams.
* Design a one-stop Web site that would refer people to the best sites on the Internet where they can find investing and retirement calculators, explanations of investment terms or the right federal or state agency to take their complaints.
* Hold regular investor-education conferences in every state. How about a free conference each year bringing together all the regulators and community groups to talk about various investment issues? The seminars could include information about the latest investment scams or which parts of a prospectus you absolutely have to read.
The fact is, more than half of all Americans are now investing, and frankly most don't really know what they're doing.
We individual investors need IPT and other organized efforts to help us sort through the confusing and sometimes downright deceitful investment information we get from even the oldest and seemingly most trustworthy firms.
So I do hope Blandin's appointment will lead to some major initiatives to help small investors protect themselves against fraud and abuse. Goodness knows we need it.
Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at www.npr.org. Readers can write to her in care of The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.