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FINRA Willing to Help With Advisor Exams, but 'Not Pushing It'

WASHINGTON -- FINRA may have abandoned its campaign to assume examination authority over investment advisors, but the industry regulator says it would be glad to help, should the SEC come asking.

"Our business card says investor protection, market integrity. That's what we try to do, and we try to do it by supporting the SEC," Bob Colby, FINRA's chief legal officer, said during a question-and-answer session at the group's annual conference on Friday.

"Our ambit is to oversee broker-dealers," Colby says. "If the SEC sees a role for us to help on a voluntary basis in third-party examinations, we would be interested, but we're not pushing it."

Colby's comments come a day after a member of the House Financial Services Committee took to the stage here at the conference to endorse FINRA taking on oversight of advisors.

Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.), told an audience that he believes that rather than expanding the SEC's resources, a far better path would be for FINRA to begin examining advisors.

The SEC says that it is only able to examine 10% of registered advisors a year.

Hill's office says that the congressman is "exploring the idea" of authoring legislation to grant FINRA authority to examine advisors, but stresses that nothing "definitive" is in the works.

FINRA, though it ultimately answers to the SEC, maintains a distinct set of regulatory requirements familiar to the brokerage sector, but unknown to many RIAs.

For instance, this week, FINRA submitted to the SEC for approval a revised proposal that would require registrants to post a link on their websites to BrokerCheck, an online repository where investors can research information about their brokers such as their disciplinary histories.

FINRA backed off an earlier proposal that would have required registrants to include BrokerCheck links on social media postings, instead limiting the rule to the firm's home page and any page with a professional profile of a registrant that serves retail investors.

Also this week, FINRA put out a call for comments on a proposal to require brokerages to make disclosures about the compensation individual reps receive when they switch firms and try to bring their book of business with them.

These latest initiatives that FINRA is advancing of course would not affect pure-play advisors, but the prospect of the organization assuming examination authority over the sector has raised concerns that RIAs could be forced to comply with a whole new set of burdensome regulations.

Some advisor groups have cautioned that FINRA is a bad match for advisor oversight, and have championed proposals to increase the SEC's own examination resources, either through congressional appropriations or user fees collected from advisors.

The Investment Adviser Association, which has been advocating for legislation to give the commission the authority to collect user fees, warns that FINRA oversight of RIAs "would impose an unnecessary new layer of regulation and bureaucracy on advisers far beyond what is necessary to increase examinations."

After making a concerted effort to expand into the advisor sector in recent years, FINRA says it has backed away from that fight. Colby said the same on Friday, though he noted that there is considerable overlap between the two sectors.

"What we know is broker-dealers best," he says, "but of course a lot of broker-dealers are broker-dealers and investment advisors."

Kenneth Corbin is a Financial Planning contributing writer in Washington and Boston.

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