Webcast tonight on protection for small investors

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If you’re a nervous investor with a shrunken retirement account, a congressionally-created investor protection entity is holding a special webcast for you tonight.

No, it’s not the Securities and Exchange Commission, which failed spectacularly to detect the Bernie Madoff billion-dollar scandal. It’s the little-known Securities Investment Protection Corp. (SIPC), an industry-financed group that provides limited protection for customers of failed Wall Street firms and has been criticized for its role in divvying up the remaining Madoff money to victims.

Described as a “listening post” by SIPC, the 8 p.m. ET webcast here is the first of two public forums to solicit input about the group’s modernization plans. “We are hearing from the securities industry, lawyers, members of Congress, but we also want to be sure to also get the views U.S. investors with no filters and no restrictions,” said SIPC Chairman Orlan Johnson in a message posted to the website.

SIPC launched a modernization initiative in mid-June – one month before Congress approved the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. That law more than doubled SIPC’s government line of credit to $2.5 billion. It also boosted the annual fee brokerages must pay into SIPC’s fund to 0.02 percent of a securities company’s gross revenues, up from an embarrassingly modest $150 each year.

SIPC’s desire to hear from small investors was given a nudge last winter from Rep. Paul Kanjorski, a Pennsylvania Democrat who chairs a House subcommittee on capital markets. Kanjorski, along with some other lawmakers, says SIPC didn’t do enough to help investors bilked by Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and those who lost money in the failure of Lehman Brothers two years ago. Kanjorski is holding a Sept. 23 hearing to decide if Congress needs to order changes at SIPC to better protect investors.

“Unfortunately, SIPC has denied the claims of customers based on statement balances provided to them by their brokers, yet SIPC expects customers to use those very same statements to report unauthorized trading in their accounts,” Kanjorski said in a statement a few weeks ago. “This paradox results in a customer’s statement being meaningless whenever it could harm SIPC, but not when it harms the customer. We need to explore this inconsistency further.”

SIPC organizers are billing tonight’s webcast as an effort “to solicit views about where SIPC should go in its next 30 years” from a geographically diverse group of investors.

Created by Congress in 1970, SIPC is supposed to protect investors when their brokerage firm fails, and cash and securities are missing from customer accounts. SIPC can advance money from its reserve fund to pay up to $500,000 per investor while working with a trustee to recover or liquidate funds.

Other new investor protections in the Dodd-Frank law create an investor advocate who reports directly to the SEC chairman, require the SEC to spend six months studying whether brokers have a fiduciary duty to recommend products in the best interests of the investor, and give the SEC the power to ban or limit mandatory arbitration clauses now included in many brokerage agreements.

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