Franklin's Unsettling Settlement

If you follow baseball at all, you might know some of the game's most infamous deals, such as Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees for little more than cash, or Milt Pappas for future Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson, as lamented by Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham. Unfortunately, bad deals occur in the investing world, too.

Yesterday, the Securities and Exchange Commission settled its investigation into Franklin Resources (NYSE: BEN  ) , parent of the Franklin Templeton family of funds, by obtaining $50 million in penalties. But Franklin doesn't have to admit to any wrongdoing, nor will it lower fees for investors, as others such as Bank One (NYSE: ONE  ) , Janus (NYSE: JNS  ) , and Wells Fargo's (NYSE: WFC  ) Strong Capital unit have. Uh, yeah, OK. How is this good?

The SEC found that Franklin, like so many others in the $7.6 trillion fund industry, abetted market timing, a technically legal but highly unethical practice that allows some clients to rapidly trade in and out of funds, effectively stealing from long-term investors who would typically pay big penalties for early redemptions. In its defense, Franklin says that it moved to prevent market timing as early as 1999, and largely did. But the SEC also found several instances when market timing continued through 2001, including one when a private investor may have curried favor by promising to invest $10 million in one of Franklin's hedge funds.

An SEC spokesperson quoted in The Chicago Tribune said that Franklin deserved "serious sanctions." But the $50 million penalty seems anything but serious when compared with the settlements agreed to by firms that have truly humbled themselves. Janus, which has agreed to pay $225 million and make fundamental changes, comes to mind here.

Yeah, Franklin investors will get back $50 million, and that's better than nothing, but it's still only a one-time event. Franklin recognized early that market timing was happening at the firm, and still some corporate officers chose to look the other way. That's why New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has demanded permanent changes in the way funds do business. Franklin faces no such concessions.

That stinks. Indeed, this particularly unsettling settlement is a slap on the wrist Dick Strong would be proud of and is just as wrong as what Franklin did in the first place.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers wants Eliot Spitzer running the SEC. He owns no shares in any of the companies mentioned, and you can view his Fool profile here.


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