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Alumna is voice of mutual fund industry in Canada

by Sheldon Gordon | May 6, 2014

Joanne De Laurentiis, President and CEO of the Investment Funds Institute of Canada (IFIC)
Joanne De Laurentiis, President and CEO of the Investment Funds Institute of Canada (IFIC)

When Joanne De Laurentiis, BA’75, MA’77 (Political Science), speaks, Canada's provincial securities regulators listen.  They don't always agree, but they listen.  De Laurentiis, after all, is the articulate voice of the mutual funds industry, which manages $900-million of Canadian investors' assets.

Since becoming President and CEO of the Investment Funds Institute of Canada (IFIC) in 2006, De Laurentiis has had a seemingly non-stop  dialogue with the regulators over how investors can be better served by her industry.

The debate has focused on complaints about so-called “hidden” commissions that fund companies charge, especially trailing commissions—where the investor first pays the salesperson an upfront fee when (s)he buys units in the fund and then pays additional or “trailing fees” each year thereafter that (s)he owns the same units.

The securities regulators considered imposing limits on these commissions, but ultimately settled for only requiring greater disclosure.  Under the new rules, the annual client statement must show the dollar amount that the investor pays in trailer fees. The statement must also report the investor's rates of return from the fund over various periods of time.

De Laurentiis denies having “opposed” this increased level of disclosure, but says it was a lobbyist's role “to advise regulators of the industry's capacity to absorb the changes they're proposing. We were primarily pointing out the cost and complexity.”  She is confident that the new disclosure regime will be enough to satisfy fund investors and, therefore, regulators.

“We're moving to a level of specific disclosure for the individual [investor] that's pretty unique in the world,” she says.  “I'll be really surprised if, once we see the impact of that, the debate about banning fees will still exist [in three years].”

Like any effective lobbyist, De Laurentiis tries to shape public opinion about her industry through media outreach.  When criticism of the fund industry appears in the press, she responds swiftly with closely reasoned letters.  She commissions studies by the Conference Board and other independent third-parties to back up her arguments.  “The discussion about the right regulatory framework never ends,” she says.  “We have a responsibility to set the record straight.”

De Laurentiis brings to the role of IFIC advocate a strong background in public policy.  She did a B.A. and an M.A. in political science at Western, where she served as a residence don and participated in student government. 

When a professor who was to teach a first-year Italian course  fell ill, Western hastily enlisted De Laurentiis as a replacement.  (She was born in Italy, immigrated to Canada as a child and spoke Italian at home.) 

Once finished her M.A., De Laurentiis got a job as a researcher for Dr. Robert Elgie, an Ontario MPP who was soon appointed Labour Minister by then-Premier Bill Davis.  “I explained to Dr. Elgie that I wasn't a card-carrying Progressive-Conservative,” she says, “but he liked that I had an academic background.” Elgie made her his chief of staff when he joined the cabinet, and she continued working for him until the party lost power in 1985.

De Laurentiis never considered seeking political office.  “I was more interested in public policy,” she says. “When I found myself unemployed, it appealed to me to work for an advocacy group.  I went into government relations not by design but by circumstance.”  What followed was a lifetime of lobbying for different segments of the financial services industry.

Her first role was with the Canadian Bankers Association, where she helped fend off a movement by MPs to limit the unpopular service charges the banks had recently introduced.

In 1994, she became the first President of the Interac Association, Canada’s national debit card payment network.  She completed the roll-out of the network and “led the charge to convince consumers to use debit cards for their smaller purchases. It was the highlight of my career.”

As President of Mondex Canada from 1998 to 2001, she had a less happy experience: the organization tested a monetized smart card at several locations but eventually abandoned the card as too costly.  “It might have worked if the card could also have carried the credit and debit applications,” says De Laurentiis.  “It was ahead of its time.”

De Laurentiis left the realm of banks and bank-based institutions when she served (2001-05) as President of Credit Union Central of Canada, the lobbying group for Canada’s credit union system outside of Quebec. 

Wherever she uses her advocacy skills, De Laurentiis keeps in mind “that you're playing a pivotal role in creating a constructive dialogue—and ensuring that it stays constructive, regardless of the heated disagreements of the moment. You have to argue your case with integrity: that's why solid, third-party research is important.  And most of all, you've got to keep the interest of the ultimate consumer in mind.”

 

 


This article appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Alumni Gazette
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