Compliance: a bridge but not a goal

Law and Business often play by opposing rules. Law is about justice and playing fairly and business is about winning and gathering unfair advantages. Compliance is the bridge.

I don’t need to explain why this is the case. But I do need to explain how the goals of law and business are achieved, and where we stand currently.

People outside of regulated industries often believe that compliance is a way to defend companies. They also believe that regulators are out to “get” companies. And then they are shocked to find out that a regulator tried to work with a company who had breached a rule. They are appalled that regulators would actually try to help “fix” the problem rather than punish breacher company. Outsiders who feel this way miss the point of compliance.

Because compliance is trying to keep the competitive spirit alive and well in the industry while keeping companies in line, regulators and compliance officers are on the same side in different organizations. Regulators do not want the industry to be punished for an incredible effort to comply with rules and regulations because mistakes happen. Punishment doled out by regulators is more often to deter companies from making that mistake again. They put a heavy price for mistakes. Unlike customers who can simply move their business to another firm if the company does something they don’t like, regulators do not have that power. So, that’s where fines come into play.

Other than that, regulators are trying to keep business going. They are regulating, not preventing.

What we have seen in the past few years is the lack of understanding by the public. Financial institutions complain about the harsh regulatory climate they are in while the public generally seems to believe that all of it is well deserved. In aggregate that might be true. In reality, what we have done is punish the system, not the bad actors. If the system is broken, it should be fixed. Punishing people trying their best in a broken system leads to inefficiencies, it leads to many unforeseen economic costs.

Two quick examples.

Because of the incredible risks taken by some firms, we merged those firms with better firms. We have merged so many firms that thirty three banks have become four. Now we have institutions that we must prop up if they are at risk of falling. We called them Systemically Important Financial Institutions, SIFI, for short. These institutions are so large and forced to reduce so much risk that unless you do not need a loan, you basically don’t qualify for a loan. That’s the result. SIFI’s can’t take the risk of financing startup companies. And we have fewer banks that can. Companies have fewer options for financing. If I recall correctly, there have only been two applications for new banks in the past five years. Ten years ago, we averaged one hundred applications for new banks each year. We thought that new regulations decreased risk to our economy. Instead, we have ingrained a new risk. Yes, we no longer have large financial institutions that will take the economy with it upon collapse, but we have instituted a requirement that you have to be financed by wealthy people in private equity and venture capital in order to start a business. Or you need to have perfect credit and no debt in order to qualify for a loan. Essentially, you already have to be connected with wealthy people and be wealthy yourself in order to start a business. That’s what the regulations seem to be doing.
credit Sintetia

A few years ago, a number of states banned employers from checking the credit histories of applicants. This makes sense for the most part. What does the credit history of an applicant say about the applicant’s ability to do the job? Probably, nothing. But the result was… well, let me have Planet Money explain it for you:

(Robert) SMITH: The theory in passing the laws against credit checks was that it would help black applicants, that it would help young applicants, people who tend to have lower credit scores. But now that employers were asking for more experience, asking for more education, [researchers] found that the laws were hurting the very same people they were meant to help.

(Danny) SHOAG: The switch from checking credit scores to relying on other signals like education and experience actually created relatively worse outcomes for African-Americans.

SMITH: So fewer African-Americans were getting jobs?

SHOAG: Yeah. Employment went down for African-Americans – and for young people.

Compliance can help make sure we are following the rules and regulations, and regulators can supervise that activity and deter bad behavior. But regulations that address whole systems in reaction to a few bad actors tend to have these types of fundamentally unproductive consequences.

As a compliance officer, I am always concerned with this. I know that I am helping firms play the economic game fairly, by the rules we have agreed to follow as a society, but our society often seem to set my goals that shoot it in the foot. I know I am doing good, but by doing good I see what outsiders often don’t see, which is that it is bad and we don’t even know it.

And that is the limitation of compliance. Now, I know that my role is supposed to be compliance. We need people to do compliance. I just wish that we as a society would take observations by people like me and then adjust the rules and regulations so that complying with them would lead to the outcomes we sought in the first place.

Marcus Maltempo is a Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist and a Certified Fraud Examiner with more than a decade of experience helping banks, law firms and clients manage investigations and regulatory responses. 

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