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Muriel Siebert on Financial Reform and Financial Literacy: The Weekend Interview

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When you think of Muriel Siebert, what initially comes to mind is that she is an ardent advocate for women in business, and woman of many firsts: first woman in the Bache & Co. research training program in the early 1960s; first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange (1967); first woman to be Superintendent of Banking of the State of New York (1977).

Muriel Siebert & Co. Inc., “Mickie” Siebert’s discount brokerage firm, was founded in 1967 when she bought her NYSE seat and, according to her Web site, remains the “only woman-owned NYSE brokerage firm with a national presence.” The firm became a discount broker as soon as negotiated commissions on stock trades were allowed, May 1, 1975.

Of all the things Siebert has done, the one she thinks is her real legacy is her financial literacy program, now in New York City high schools. Funded by The Muriel F. Siebert Foundation, Siebert would like to expand the program to schools across the nation.

Siebert sat down for an exclusive interview with Editor in Chief Kate McBride on June 18. The interview took place in Siebert’s New York offices, on the now infamous 17th floor of the tube-shaped “lipstick building,” just down the hall from imprisoned Ponzi swindler Bernie Madoff’s former offices. Siebert pointed out that there were still investigators going through Madoff’s files right there in his old office digs. She said they did not do business together.

WM: You’ve done a lot. What do you consider your most important achievement?

MS: The school program–personal financial literacy. [When I was] Superintendent of Banks in New York State, Tom Clark, the first black Deputy Superintendent of Banks, would bring young people in–17, 18, 19 [years old]–they were ready to go bankrupt.

[Then over the years], products became complicated–unfair with the fees. [The financial literacy program first started] about 10 years ago, slowly; it’s starting to pick up now.

WM: What about financial literacy for the people who never had this in school, or women who are out of school?

MS: [Maybe] when we redo the WFN site. [WFN is the Women's Financial Network, created by Siebert to help women invest and educate themselves about finances and investing.]

WM: You had wanted to talk about financial re-regulation…

MS: We’ve seen what the lack of knowledge has done–we wouldn’t have all these people losing homes if they had known how expensive a home they could afford–regulators should have seen what’s going on, realized the seriousness of the subprime mortgage mess. A couple would [apply for a mortgage] to buy a $150,000 house and the mortgage broker would say they could afford a $250,000 house…now it’s in foreclosure.

Electronic trading…dark pools; some new trading systems–you have to regulate them [but we] need international regulation.

[It] troubles me that regulatory reform is so partisan. We need bi-partisan cooperation–make a list of the important things that need to be addressed–the [financial] system is more important. We could get (hope it doesn’t happen) class warfare in this country. [Like the] vote on healthcare: anyone that’s a decent human being would say we need some kind of coverage for the people who aren’t covered…the votes were partisan–there something wrong about it being on a partisan basis. We should be looking on a global basis.

WM: What about the fiduciary standard for brokers who provide advice to investors?

MS: I think it’s important. I think it’s a good idea…it would be nice if, when it’s all over, [SEC Chairman] Mary Schapiro would do something that would be the standard. There are just too many people that are being taken advantage of.

My father died broke [after a long bout with] cancer. He was a dentist and had a degree in engineering from Western Reserve [now Case Western Reserve, in Cleveland Ohio]. The family moved from a house to a one-bedroom apartment; I dropped out of college, [Western Reserve] but they were decent about it, let me attend courses.

My sister got divorced and moved to New York, I visited her…went on a tour of the New York Stock Exchange. I came back and applied for a job at the UN, but they didn’t hire me because I didn’t speak two languages. I applied to Merrill Lynch (the biggest firm)–they were expanding their research department, but no college degree, no job. I applied to Bache; they asked about a college degree–I said, Yes! I felt like I had gone long enough. I came clean later. They hired me as a $65/week trainee in research–I slept on my sister’s couch.

I got airlines to cover, then radio, TV, motion pictures. Doubled my salary to $130/week in two years–I thought I was living pretty well, but the men were making twice as much–$225-$250/week. I looked for another job through the New York Society of Securities Analysts. They sent my resume with just my initials on it, and I got a job at Shields. [Not long after that,] Madison Fund called me–they had made money on a report I wrote–and said, ‘we owe you an order.’ I wasn’t registered, went to the partner in charge, and told them what Madison said. They pushed me out of the office–’go get the order; we’ll make it up to you at Christmastime.’ They did. I started bringing in institutions…I saw money I didn’t know existed.

WM: How did you get into the Bache training program–what made them take a chance on you?

MS: They did call the partner in Cleveland whose children knew me. And I was mature for my age. The IRS had an office in Cleveland–where they’d do your taxes for free–but there was always a long line. I opened a storefront across the street from them (before Dad died) to do people’s income tax returns. The IRS tested me–said ‘you know the rules’ and can do the taxes. The first day I made $140. My father’s nurse said ‘your father doesn’t have any money, why don’t you give him half?’ I did.

WM: Any advice to young people coming into the business?

MS: Be flexible–it’s changing. We need new regulations–it’s critical. Can’t have the flash trading. Individuals are very important to the capital-raising system of the country–look at Bill Gates–millions of jobs from that one brain. We’ll have other new technical innovations. We need this or we’re going to be working for other people. Financial knowledge is going to become more and more important.

WM: Should we repeal the repeal of Glass-Steagall?

MS: Can’t do that unless we get the globe to do it, need bipartisan, global regulation.

WM: What about new products?

MS: We need [them, but they've] got to be products that don’t destroy [the financial system]. We need transparency. The public puts their retirement money into securities–which we need.

Comments? Please send them to [email protected]. Kate McBride is editor in chief of Wealth Manager and a member of The Committee for the Fiduciary Standard.