Crooks Get Ideal Conditions for Market Schemes: Susan Antilla

Did somebody say America was having a hard time getting back to work after the financial crisis and ensuing recession? Forget the dopey career counselors who are coaching you to earn a new degree. There’s a job sector poised to enter a new golden age, and it doesn’t even require a high school diploma. So all you aspiring millionaires had better listen up.

“This is a perfect time if you want to be a crook,” says Joseph Borg, the 16-year veteran securities regulator who runs the Alabama Securities Commission. Borg, who has seen his share of creepy wrongdoers, doesn’t mean just any kind of crook, of course. He’s talking about lawbreakers who sweet-talk investors out of their money with everything from misleading products and promises to bogus tax shelters, real estate pools and Ponzi schemes.

Why now? Because everything is going right for you if you’re in the business of cheating investors, that’s why. In fact, I’ll count down 10 good reasons:

10. The nation’s biggest securities regulator, hardly a paragon of effective policing in the first place, is being neutered. Budget constraints at the Securities and Exchange Commission have meant putting plans on hold for a new Office of the Whistleblower, among other stalled SEC projects. If you’re a bad guy at a brokerage firm looking to make a little mischief, you can rest easier about the risk of a colleague ratting you out for fun and profit.

9. If you’re looking for easy marks, demographics are on your side. The over-60 crowd is panicked about the soundness of the Social Security system and afraid of the stock market. The 75-plus crowd, long enamored with certificates of deposit, is freaked out that interest rates are so low. The former credit- card junkies now in their 40s and 50s have lost big on their McMansions and want to make a quick recovery. These groups are desperate for returns, making them targets for fraud.

8. The trend is your friend if you’re hunting for a new idea for a bogus product. Inflation worries are picking up, and if it kicks in enough to hurt, the public will be sitting ducks for schemes supposedly backed by real estate, gold or silver. If you see a rising consumer price index, new investment products with names like “The Inflation Buster” will not be far behind, says Borg, the securities regulator.

7. Another trend favoring swindlers: Rising gasoline prices that may lead to new opportunities to package oil and gas schemes. Once gasoline hits $4 a gallon, investors let down their guards and become more vulnerable to energy-related scams, Borg says.

6. State watchdogs are getting more work just as budgets are under pressure. About 4,000 investment advisers who previously were regulated by the SEC will begin to be policed by the states this year. That may be bad news for the advisers -- 3,000 of whom have never been examined by the SEC -- because state regulators say they’ll make inspections a priority. But some states are reducing oversight in other areas to make time for the new adviser workload. The cagey crook will find out which activities are getting less scrutiny.

5. Deregulation is the “it” thing in Washington, and that’s a plus if you don’t like regulators breathing down your neck.

4. Technology is opening new frontiers for cheats. The May 6 so-called flash crash that took the Dow down almost 1,000 points in a matter of minutes was a head-scratcher for regulators who work with the tech version of Edsels while traders use state-of-the-art systems. The potential for manipulation is huge, says Denise Crawford, securities commissioner of the Texas State Securities Board. “Market regulators are so behind in that whole area that I’m not sure they will ever catch up,” she says.

3. Elizabeth Warren probably won’t be around for long. Republicans hate her and she doesn’t have a permanent appointment to her job as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency. So if your area of expertise is mortgage fraud or bait-and-switch bank products, it might just be a matter of waiting it out until the pro-consumer regulator is shipped back to her gig as a Harvard University professor.

2. Business risk is low. We’re just stumbling back from a financial crisis, and companies that helped fuel the meltdown with aggressive accounting or dicey disclosure got bailed out, not indicted. So what are you worried about?

1. Even if you do get in trouble -- and I’m not saying that’s likely -- there are great lawyers around to get your career back on track. Hire one of the stars who cycled through the SEC before settling in at a law firm. Before you know it, your lawyer will be swapping stories about the old days over drinks with an agency pal, and you’ll be back in the game faster than you can say “regulatory capture.”

Susan Antilla is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Susan Antilla in New York at santilla@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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