CRS Reviews Role of “Payment for Order Flow” in Debate over “Zero Commissions”

The Congressional Research Service (“CRS”) reviewed the role that “payment for order flow” (“PFOF”) plays in the “surge in retail investor securities trading at major discount broker-dealers.”

In its report, CRS described PFOF as a controversial rebate subsidizing the “non-existent commissions.” CRS stated that when broker-dealers do not pass the PFOF rebates onto clients, the economic incentives to send retail orders to rebating market-makers create potential conflicts of interest. CRS noted that this argument is why the United Kingdom has “effectively banned” PFOF.

Advocates for PFOF argue that investors benefit from the subsidized low or zero commission rates. Critics argue that PFOF raises conflicts-of-interest concerns over a brokers’ duty of best execution.

LOFCHIE COMMENT

While payment for order flow is a legitimate area for discussion, the more significant issue is why customers don’t use full-service brokers that provide them with some level of guidance. Congress and the SEC should consider whether over-regulation and the threat of enforcement actions are killing the business of full-service brokerage, leaving retail customers essentially on their own.

Unfortunately, asking the question as to whether regulation may be excessive or have unintended consequences is not a current priority. Rather, the tendency in response to any unusual event is to seek to adopt more regulations, as if more rules are always the panacea. Whether or not payment for order flow survives, the more significant reality is that retail investors are now effectively pushed to obtain their investment advice not from a regulated institution, but from a subreddit. See generally GameStop: Regulators Should Focus Less on “Solving the Problem”; More on “Improving the Situation.”