The Securities Industry Association ushered in a new chairman at its annual convention in Florida earlier this month. John L. Steffens, executive vice president of Merrill Lynch & Co., said the big challenge for the industry is to enhance public trust and confidence in securities markets. He also issued a call for functional regulation of bank securities activities. Excerpts follow:
The leaders of our new Congress have made it clear that a lot of reforms we in the securities industry have advocated for years now have a very real chance of being enacted.
Opening up individual retirement accounts, reducing and perhaps indexing capital gains taxes, and other savings- and investment- oriented measures are certain to be high on the Congressional agenda. These are critical issues, for our industry and for the nation.
They are also critical for economic growth, national competitiveness, and dealing with the savings crisis. So now we have to be prepared to reinforce our drive to achieve them by mobilizing support at the grass-roots level.
But we've also got to face the hard fact that some people out there don't trust us. They take a very dim view of our industry. So we've got to persuade them that our clients' interest really are paramount to us, and that the services we provide really are essential to the nation.
If we want to be listened to respectfully, we've got to demonstrate convincingly that we deserve that respect. At the same time, we've got to recognize that there's a lot of public unawareness, even ignorance, about the economy and our role in it.
The public knows a lot less than it needs to know about fundamental facts of the American economy. And those who most need to save and invest for their own futures have no idea how important it is to do so.
We have a genuine savings crisis in America. The personal savings rate has decreased steadily over the last 25 years. It's now only half what it was in the late 1960s and 1970s.
This drop in savings and the rise in government spending have made the United States a net consumer of capital. We're building up debts, consuming more than we produce. For a mature economy, that's a recipe for disaster.
Raising the capital for future economic growth, encouraging the saving that ensures each person's future security - that's our business. And trust and confidence (among the public and regulators) are at the root of our capacity to do it.
The industry is determined to ensure the highest standards of compliance with the laws and regulations we live by. By protecting the client, those laws and regulations ultimately benefit our industry.
We are entering what is truly a whole new investment world.
Traditional securities firms already find themselves competing against discounters, banks, and mutual fund companies. In this new environment, it is crucial to bring the regulatory structure in line with the structure of our industry.
With the continuing disintegration of Glass-Steagall and other barriers that traditionally kept commercial banks, investment houses, and others in separate compartments, we've got to make the new playing field level and keep it level.
The Securities Industry Association has longed believed that regulation must be put on a functional basis. Whatever the primary business of the parent company, banking functions should be regulated by bank regulators and securities functions by securities regulators. Only in this way can regulation be both fair and effective.