It's bad enough that in the post-pension era, many of us now have to manage our own retirement funds. We're left to deal with questions we're hard-pressed to answer: Is the stock market in a bubble? At a frothy top? Is a downward turn imminent or highly unlikely? Are bonds cheap? And how come my grandma's savings account paid 4 percent interest years ago and mine pays 0.04 percent? Many of us, as if we weren't stressed enough by all of that, are playing the same game with our kids' 529 college savings accounts. If we get it right, it's four years at a prestigious school and no worries. Make a bad guess on the markets, though, and community college beckons.
The government should create at least enough regulation and transparency in the markets that we don't have to obsess about phantom menaces we don't understand, like "dark pools," high-speed trading and flash crashes.
In the past week, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairwoman Mary Jo White has started to make some meaningful moves to help. She proposed a broad set of new rules to strengthen oversight, improve disclosure and limit the risk of market meltdowns. Chief among them is improving oversight of high-speed traders who use computers to take lightning-fast advantage of tiny opportunities in the market. These traders are not required to register with the SEC or the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, a private company that acts as a self-regulating organization for the markets. It was high-speed trading that caused the Dow Jones industrial average to drop 700 points in minutes in 2010. White also wants to shed some light on dark pools, unregulated stock exchanges that also operate with little oversight or transparency.
White is on the right path. The financial world is dangerous enough without little-understood phantom markets and cascading computer programs adding to the risk.