The WSJ Law Blog finds easter eggs for consumers of financial products buried in the proposed financial regulation overhaul:

The [not-yet-created Consumer Fraud Protection Agency] should be directed to gather information and study mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer financial services and products contracts to determine to what extent, and in what contexts, they promote fair adjudication and effective redress. If the CFPA determines that mandatory arbitration fails to achieve these goals, it should be required to establish conditions for fair arbitration, or, if necessary, to ban mandatory arbitration clauses in particular contexts, such as mortgage loans.

Although arbitration may be a reasonable option for many consumers to accept after a dispute arises, mandating a particular venue and up-front method of adjudicating disputes – and eliminating access to courts – may unjustifiably undermine investor interests. We recommend legislation that would give the SEC clear authority to prohibit mandatory arbitration clauses in broker-dealer and investment advisory accounts with retail customers.

Business Insider worries about the unintended consequences:

That seems a clear way of increasing the costs of broker-dealer and investment advisory costs, which may mean that smaller customers find that brokerages are even less likely to deal with them than before. As usual, there seems to be very little thought given to how brokers will react to having the increased risk of litigation imposed upon them.

What’s more, there are serious questions about whether it makes sense to burden the court system with additional litigation that a ban on mandatory arbitration will sure spur. In effect, a part of the costs of disputes between brokers and their customers are being transferred to the taxpayer who will pay the costs for the extra-burden on courts. It’s far from clear why this shift in cost from the parties to the agreement to taxpayers is warranted. We can squint our eyes and see this as something of a bailout of customers who wind up unhappy with their broker.

Last I checked, "wind[ing] up unhappy with [your] broker" wasn’t worth a dime in a court of law, at an arbitration, or anywhere else. The investors aren’t "unhappy" because their broker didn’t get them a cheese wheel for Christmas, they’re "unhappy" because their broker breached their contractual and fiduciary duties and lost a ton of the investor’s money. It takes an awful lot of "squinting" to see a months-or-years-long expensive lawsuit to get back the money that someone else lost as a "bailout."

Most "mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer financial services and products contracts" force the disputes be heard in FINRA’s Dispute Resolution process. As The National Law Journal reported at the end of March,

FINRA — the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority — oversees nearly 5,000 brokerage firms, 173,000 branch offices and 659,000 registered securities representatives. It describes its chief role as protecting investors by maintaining the fairness of the U.S. capital markets. …

"We don’t have official projections for 2009, but if the trend continues, we’re probably looking at a high that will match what we saw in ’03 and ’04," said FINRA spokesman Brendan Intindola.

Arbitration cases filed in 2003 and 2004 — the largest number in 14 years — almost reached the 9,000 mark and were driven by the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the subsequent decline in the equity markets. In 2007, slightly more than 3,000 cases were filed, and in 2008, nearly 5,000.

Lawyers who represent customers and industry members generally believe that FINRA will be able to manage the dramatic increase in its arbitration workload, but they are divided on whether its arbitration panels — charged with industry bias in the past — now provide a level playing field to those using the process.

"The general perception is it is very tilted," said one practitioner who asked for anonymity. "Even if only one-third of the panel is from industry, that’s the person with alleged expertise and who has disproportionate sway on the panels."

Broker/Dealer arbitrations are common, but banning them wouldn’t open the floodgates: financial products consumers file under 10,000 claims filed nationwide. Keep in mind that essentially every dispute you have with your broker/dealer is forced into FINRA arbitration, including no-brainer claims like the return of a promissory note, so these numbers may be inflated to some degree. It’s hard to say what percent of these filings claim substantial losses due to malfeasance.

More importantly, though glossed over by Business Insider, full-fledged civil litigation in open court is not fun for anyone involved. Even within confidential arbitration, just last month FINRA quietly withdrew a proposal that would have permitted more extensive discovery into the financial records of investors bringing claims against their financial advisers, in light of numerous complaints that such a change would subject investors to a "financial colonoscopy." Moving these types of cases into the civil court system would permit defendant banks and investment advisers to dig very deeply into the personal and financial histories of investors bringing suit, far deeper than they would be permitted to do in an arbitration.

For most of the individual claims, I am not too concerned about the arbitration process, as it provides wealthy investors (who make up most of the filings) a simple, relatively convenient and very private way in which to seek redress for their losses, and they will be adequately represented by paid counsel throughout the process. The problems for everyone else, however, are twofold:

  • It’s not clear whether a group of injured inventors may pursue a class action against a broker-dealer, investment bank or investment adviser. FINRA’s Code says it is not applicable to class actions, and an increasing number of courts have held in other contexts that bans of class actions are illegal, but the law here is not as clear as it should be.
  • The selection process for these arbitrators is not transparent. @phila_lawyer is right that FINRA seems to prefer arbitrators familiar with the financial industry; that’s not necessarily evidence of bias, but it’s nonetheless problematic, since it exposes the process to ‘capture’ by the industry and, as noted above, such ‘insiders’ often hold undue sway on panels.

As such, it’s certainly worth a look into the issue, which is all the Obama plan proposes.