Millions of dollars earmarked for investor education across the country

Back in 2003, major Wall Street firms agreed to pay more than $1 billion to settle claims that their research analysts hyped stocks to curry favor with — and get business from — the companies they covered.

As part of that landmark settlement, $30 million was deposited with the nonprofit Investor Protection Trust to split among the states. The money is available to nonprofit groups, colleges, state agencies and local governments for investor education.

Maryland's share: $489,720.

But Maryland groups have barely tapped it in all this time. Only three proposals here have been submitted and funded. Our balance at the end of April was $449,406.

(The IPT holds $46,260 in another account for Maryland organizations, and the state used $862 of that money to buy display materials for investor conferences.)

That's a lot of money — especially in these days of tight budgets to not put to good use.

Some other states have nearly used up their funds. Agencies and nonprofits elsewhere have used the cash to produce television programs and public service announcements, create online classes, educate high school students about the stock market and train doctors to spot elder financial abuse. Teachers, tribal members and credit union employees also have received investor education so they can share that knowledge with others.

Marylanders could benefit from similar training. Surely there are agencies and organizations here that can come up with worthy projects.

Getting a grant is a two-step process. Applicants first must submit a letter of inquiry to the IPT that includes information about the project and a show of support from the state's securities regulator. Projects are not supposed to duplicate other efforts in the state.

If an idea is deemed deserving, the IPT trustees will invite the applicant to submit a full proposal.

IPT President Don Blandin says trustees look for projects that are sustainable, increase investors' knowledge and affect their behavior.

"We're not a flavor-of-the-month funder — a program here today and then next month do something totally different. These one-shot programs are just that. They are one shot, and people forget about them," Blandin says. "We're trying to get people to be wise and safe investors, to understand the process of investing before they buy a product."

When proposals are rejected, he says, it's usually because they don't deal with investor education and lack support from state regulators.

Two of the three Maryland grants were awarded to the Maryland Council on Economic Education to send hundreds of teachers to financial education summits.

Executive Director Mary Ann Hewitt says it was difficult at first to find a project that fit the IPT criteria. But once the council did, she says, grants were easy to come by.

The third grant went to the state to reprint an investment guide for military service members.

Melanie Senter Lubin, the state securities commissioner, says her office does some investor education on its own, but it hasn't made greater use of the IPT funds because it doesn't have the staff to run new programs.

"Right now, our resources are going into the regulatory and enforcement work," she says. "You can't use the grant money to fund personnel to run the projects."

Lubin says she wishes the grant program were more flexible, too. IPT focuses strictly on investor education, she says, while many people could benefit from programs aimed at financial literacy.

Still, Lubin says, she has been talking with groups about partnering on programs that can be funded with IPT money. (According to Blandin, the IPT has paid the salary of workers at nonprofits that partner with states.)