Geithner’s Consumer-Protection Agenda

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is on Capitol Hill today, testifying before the House Financial Services Committee. The headline news is how he’s calling for establishment of a single regulator to manage system-wide risk in the financial markets and regulate firms whose failure would be catastrophic for the economy.

But there’s another part of his prepared testimony that’s important: The promise to beef up consumer and investor protections:

The choice of what home mortgage to get or how to save for retirement are some of the most important financial decisions that households make. It is crucial that when households make choices we have clear rules of the road that prevent manipulation and abuse. We must restore integrity to our financial system and strengthen these protections. Consumer and investor protection is a critical component of the President’s regulatory reform plan. We are developing a strong, comprehensive plan for consumer and investor regulation to simplify financial decisions for households and to protect people from unfair and deceptive practices.

It’s not a stretch to see, in hindsight, that a lot of financial products and services that ended up in the market over the past few years were the financial equivalent a loaded pistol in the hands of a two-year-old: People could do a lot of damage to themselves and their loved ones, and they had no understanding of the risks involved. Let’s hope that the administration’s consumer-protection proposals address the problem.

Of course, we could also use better, timelier enforcement of the powers that regulators already have. Here’s a good example of that, plus what happens when people get sold something they don’t understand: Yesterday came the news that the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority hit up Morgan Stanley for $7.2 million in fines and restitution to resolve charges that it failed to prevent two brokers from persuading employees of Xerox and Eastman Kodak to take early retirement based on unrealistic promises of investment returns and unsuitable investment strategies. At least 184 Morgan Stanley customers in Rochester, New York, suffered financial hardships as a result, says FINRA. At least half of those have already settled with Morgan Stanley (the brokers and the brokerage firm, needless to say, neither admit nor deny FINRA’s findings); FINRA has ordered Morgan Stanley, it appears, to pay restitution to 90 more.

Great, but I can’t help noticing that the alleged improprieties at the brokerage finished up in 2003. Um, that’s six years ago. I’m sure that a lot of these early-retirees could have used this money a lot earlier.

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