Working to Achieve the American Dream
Remarks to the Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia
Commissioner Luis Aguilar
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
September 19, 2012
I am very pleased be here among so many friends from the Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia (“HBA-DC”). We gather to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month — a time to recognize the rich contributions of Latinos to American history and culture.
I plan to spend my time with you today to:
- Recognize the growing Latino population and its increasing impact on the leadership of tomorrow;
- Discuss a bit of background about the SEC and how the SEC can do more to improve financial literacy in minority communities; and
- Tell my personal story as an example of the American Dream and the importance of giving back.
Before I continue, let me issue the standard disclaimer that the views I express today are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Securities and Exchange Commission, my fellow Commissioners, or members of the staff.
Hispanic Heritage Month
Latinos are a heterogeneous and growing group. We originate from different parts of the world. Moreover, some Latinos may be recent immigrants, while others may have had ancestors who lived on American soil prior to the founding of the United States. Despite our varied backgrounds, we share a deep appreciation for the freedom, values, and opportunities promised by the United States of America. We also share a strong belief in the “American Dream” and its promise of a better life.
The first official presidential observance of our country’s rich Hispanic heritage was in 1968.1 Back then, Latinos represented only about 4½ % of the total U.S. population.2 Today, the Census Bureau estimates that Americans of Hispanic origin make up 16.7% of the United States.3 The growth of this diverse community is reflected in a growing awareness that Hispanic-Americans must play an important role as our nation faces the challenges of the 21st Century.4
Today’s young Hispanic-Americans are future leaders of our nation. Last week, I met with an inspiring group of Latino college students from the “Latinos on Fast Track” Institute (LOFT). These students are on their way to becoming future teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and community leaders. Moreover, as part of their commitment to LOFT, they have also agreed to return to their communities to serve as leaders and mentors. I was inspired and impressed.
This year, for the first time, the number of 18-to 24-year-old Hispanics enrolled in college exceeded two million, reaching a record 16.5% share of all college enrollments.5 This milestone represents not just population growth, but also increasing high school graduation rates, which this year hit a record 76.3%.6
These achievements represent individual talent, hard-work, and determination. But I also know that, for every young person — Latino or otherwise — who worked hard and achieved success, there are many proud parents, brothers and sisters, teachers and community mentors who offered support, encouragement, and served as positive role models. I know this is true for everyone in this room, just as it is true for me.
I encourage all of you to give back and return the support you received. I know that HBA-DC offers career development and public service opportunities, and I encourage you to participate in these activities. Latinos have contributed, and will continue to contribute in greater numbers, to the success of this Nation, and each of us has a role to play as this unfolds.
The Role of the SEC
For those not familiar with the SEC, let me take a moment to talk about the SEC and my current role as a Commissioner. The SEC is an independent federal agency that oversees our Nation’s capital markets. The powers of the SEC are vested in five people — the Chairman and four Commissioners — who are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
The SEC’s core mission is to protect investors. We do so in part by overseeing the participants in the securities industry, including securities exchanges, broker-dealers, investment advisers, and mutual funds, just to name a few.
SEC regulations are intended to ensure that investors receive the information they need to make informed decisions about public companies and other investments. In addition, the SEC is often in the headlines for its role as a law enforcement agency. SEC enforcement actions against people who engage in insider trading and other kinds of fraud and misconduct are essential to strong capital markets. As I have often said: the rules on the books are not meaningful unless they are backed by a strong enforcement program.
Investors need to have confidence that the market works, and that the market operates in a fair and orderly manner. The market and its participants should operate with accountability, transparency and honesty, and investors should be given the information they need to make informed decisions. Investors need to be confident that the system will work in an honest, fair, and efficient manner when they buy or sell stocks or enter into other investments. The SEC has no stronger mission than the protection of investors.
Along these lines, it is clear that the SEC can do more to help current and future investors in minority communities — which, in turn, would help members of these communities achieve the American Dream. It is a sad fact that minority communities are significantly underserved by the financial industry. A survey last year found that only 46% of African-Americans and 32% of Hispanics said that they had an individual retirement account, 401(k), or other kind of retirement account, and that only 25% of African-Americans and 16% of Hispanics reported owning stocks, bonds or mutual funds. By contrast, almost two-thirds of whites surveyed said they had an IRA or other retirement account, and about half said they owned securities.7
Minority communities also lag behind on that most basic financial asset — a checking or savings account. In 2009, the FDIC found that about one-in-five African-American and Hispanic households had no bank account, an “unbanked” rate about six times that of white and Asian households. And in many cases, even minority households that do have bank accounts still rely heavily on expensive, non-bank financial services, such as check-cashing services, payday loans, and non-bank money orders.8
It is clear that lack of banking access, lower income levels, higher poverty rates, and other social and economic factors have a huge negative impact on savings and investment rates. However, research suggests that even at similar income levels, investment activity by African-American and Hispanic households lags that of whites.9 I believe that part of this disparity reflects a lack of financial education.
One way to bridge this gap is to improve financial literacy for all investors, but especially for Latinos, African-Americans, and other underserved communities. I am a strong supporter of financial education and I believe that the SEC has an important role to play in this area. Clearly the need exists. Just last month, the SEC staff published a study on financial literacy. The study found broad weaknesses in the ability of U.S. retail investors to make basic investment decisions and protect themselves from fraud. In addition, the study found that “certain subgroups, including women, African-Americans, Hispanics, the oldest segment of the elderly population, and those who are poorly educated, have an even greater lack of investment knowledge than the average general population.”10 This is unacceptable. I believe that the SEC can, and should, do more to advance basic investor education, especially for underserved groups, and I ask you to join me in urging the SEC to do more.
Finally, I want to tell you a little bit about myself, so you can understand what underlies my passion to protect investors — particularly those hard working men and women who invest their savings in our capital markets. I was born in Cuba, and at the age of six, my parents sent my brother and me to the United States alone because they feared for our safety. Fidel Castro had seized control of the Cuban government and rumors were rampant that children would be sent to indoctrination camps. Cuban parents, afraid and unsure, were desperate to send their children out of harm’s way. Thousands of children arrived in the United States, as refugees, without their parents or any resources. When I arrived in the U.S., I did not speak a word of English and possessed little more than the clothes on my back. Moreover, I did not see my parents again for several years.
Once I was reunited with my parents, we moved from town to town as my father looked for better job opportunities. In some of these communities, we were among the first Hispanics in the area. We moved to Little Rock a few years after the 1957 desegregation of Central High School by the courageous African-American students known as the “Little Rock Nine.” Through this example, I saw that a legal process could be a catalyst for social change. The civil rights movement showed me the power of the law, and that’s when I began to think about becoming a lawyer. It is also when I began to more fully appreciate the social and economic ramifications of being part of a minority group.
One of those ramifications is that minorities often need to work harder to achieve their goals. America is often called “the land of opportunity” — and it is — but opportunity alone doesn’t get you where you want to be. To get there, you need to be willing to put in the hard work necessary to take advantage of the opportunity. In my case, I was able to pay my way through college and law school by taking on jobs ranging from being a “stock boy” in a yarn store, to loading baggage and cargo into airplanes at the Miami International Airport.
It is a long-way from the hot tarmac of Miami International Airport to where I am today, but I carry that experience with me even now. I know how hard most Americans work to pay the bills, keep a roof over their heads, and — if they are lucky — set aside a little bit every month to save for retirement or their children’s education. That is why I am proud to be serving at the SEC, and working to protect investors as they seek to make their American Dreams a reality.
I have now been a lawyer for over 30 years. I began my career at the SEC, serving as a staff attorney. I then went into private practice, where I focused on securities and corporate law and became a partner at several national law firms. I also moved from private sector to in-house and served as the general counsel and head of compliance of a large global asset manager for almost a decade. During my time there, I also served as the president of a broker-dealer and headed the company's Latin American operations.
In addition to my professional work, I have always felt a strong need to actively give back. In particular, my background and experiences have resulted in a great appreciation for how our Nation has been made stronger by its diversity. As a result, before accepting an appointment as a Commissioner of the SEC, I served on the boards of several organizations that foster diversity, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the Hispanic National Bar Association, the Hispanic National Bar Foundation, the Georgia Hispanic Bar Association, the Girl Scouts local council, and the Latin American Association.
I have brought this commitment to diversity to the SEC and I am very supportive of our efforts to create a more diverse workforce. I am proud to serve as the sponsor of various affinity groups at the SEC, such as the Hispanic Employment Committee, the African American Council, and the Caribbean American Heritage Committee. However, I am acutely aware that there’s much more still to be done for the SEC to represent the diversity in our communities. In that regard, I look forward to working with the SEC’s new Office of Minority and Women Inclusion to promote equal opportunity and diversity in the agency’s work force and contractors, as well as to develop standards for assessing the diversity policies and practices of entities regulated by the SEC, which includes most of Wall Street.11
My experiences have taught me that America truly is a land of opportunity, but the opportunities must be sought out — and taken advantage of — or they will fall by the wayside. When opportunity presents itself, you need to be ready with grit, determination, and hard work. My experiences have also taught me that very few of us — perhaps none of us — can achieve our full potential without support from others. This support may come in many ways: whether it’s the example of a relative, friend, or neighbor who blazed a path that we can follow, or the kindness of a teacher or mentor who helped us along the way. This is why it is important for those who can to offer support and opportunity to others — we all should give back.
I’ll end my remarks where I began. I’m delighted to be here. Organizations like the HBA-DC help support and strengthen our communities, our profession, and our country. Like many Americans, I came to this country with very little and I am grateful to this country for the opportunities it has provided. Those opportunities are there for all of us.
As someone who has fought throughout my career for a level playing field for all Americans, I recognize that equality of opportunity is the true foundation of the American Dream. As President Obama has said, it is the “basic bargain at the heart of America's story: the promise that hard work will pay off; that responsibility will be rewarded; that everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules, from Main Street to Wall Street to Washington, D.C.”12
I received much support from many quarters on my journey from being a child refugee fleeing political tyranny to serving as an SEC Commissioner appointed by two Presidents from different political parties. I encourage you to both seek out and provide similar support — and I know being involved with HBA-DC is a good start.
I wish you good luck in all your future endeavors.
1 Lyndon B. Johnson, Presidential Proclamation 3869, issued pursuant to Pub. L. 90-498. See, National Hispanic Heritage Month, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/law/help/commemorative-observations/hispanic-heritage.php (last visited, Sept. 10, 2012).
2 U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanics in the United States, available at http://www.hacu.net/images/hacu/conf/2010CapForum/RobertoRamirezHispanicsInUS2008.pdf. (Hispanic population in the United States was 9.6 million, or 4.7%, pursuant to the 1970 census.)
3 U.S. Census Bureau News (August 6, 2012), http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/pdf/cb12ff-19_hispanic.pdf. (According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the Hispanic population of the United States as of July 1, 2011, was 52.0 million, making Hispanics the nation’s largest ethnic or race minority. In addition, there are 3.7 million residents of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. http://www.census.gov/popest/data/national/asrh/2011/index.html.)
4 “College-Bound Latino Students at New High,” National Public Radio program broadcast August 22, 2012, transcript available at http://www.npr.org/2012/08/22/159777934/college-bound-latino-students-at-new-high. (James Murtado, College Board: “… we cannot underestimate the essential role that Latinos in the U.S. will play in reaching our national goal of 55 to 60 percent of young Americans 25 to 34 having a college degree. … to keep the U.S. as a leader in an increasingly global economy …”
5 Richard Fry and Mark Hugo Lopez, “Hispanic Student Enrollments Reach New Highs in 2011,” Pew Hispanic Center (August 20, 2012), p.4, available at http://www.pewhispanic.org/files/2012/08/Hispanic-Student-Enrollments-Reach-New-Highs-in-2011_FINAL.pdf.
6 Id., p.5 (represents percentage of Hispanic youths, ages 18-24, with a high school diploma or GED). From 1970 to 2010, high school graduation rates for Hispanic Americans almost doubled (from 32.1% to 62.9%), and four-year college graduation rates more than tripled (from 4.5% to 13.9%). U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012, Table 229 “Educational Attainment by Race and Hispanic Origin: 1970 to 2010,” available at http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0229.pdf.
7 The Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University Race and Recession Survey (February 2011), available at http://www.kff.org/kaiserpolls/upload/8159-T.pdf.
8 FDIC National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households, Executive Summary (December 2009), available at http://www.fdic.gov/householdsurvey/2009/executive_summary.pdf.
9 401(k) Plans in Living Color, The Ariel/Aon Hewitt Study 2012, available at http://www.arielinvestments.com/images/stories/PDF/ariel-aonhewitt-2012.pdf.
10 Study Regarding Financial Literacy Among Investors, As Required by Section 917 of the
Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (August 2012), available at http://www.sec.gov/news/studies/2012/917-financial-literacy-study-part1.pdf.
11 The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act § 342, Pub. L. 111-203, 124 Stat. 1376 (July 21, 2010).
12 President Barack Obama, Address to the Democratic National Convention, Charlotte, N.C. (September 6, 2012), available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/dnc-2012-obamas-speech-to-the-democratic-national-convention-full-transcript/2012/09/06/ed78167c-f87b-11e1-a073-78d05495927c_story.html.