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Stories from the Field: Ritta McLaughlin

Stories from the Field: Ritta McLaughlin
Public Finance: Banking on Investor Education

Q&A with Ritta McLaughlin, Director of Investor Education and Outreach, Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Investor Education Foundation

In this Stories from the Field series, Natalie Cohen, senior fellow, Milken Institute Center for Financial Markets, interviews leaders in the field of public finance to trace their career paths and identify innovative accomplishments from which others can learn. We hope our readers and listeners—whether new to the field or experienced and seeking to advance their public finance careers—will learn more about the area and find inspiration from their innovation.

Ritta McLaughlin has had an interesting career path, starting as a rating agency credit analyst, then as an investment banker with states, major cities, and transportation agencies. She then went to work as associate treasurer for the District of Columbia.

More recently, she has been a passionate advocate for investor education at two key regulatory agencies in finance: first at the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB) and currently at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Investor Education Foundation. A crucial role of regulatory entities in finance is educating investors about markets and how they function, conducting research about financial literacy and capability, and reaching out to underserved communities to develop skills and knowledge in financial markets.

McLaughlin shared that her interest in public finance began with a love of social studies in grade school. Learning the state capitals and state profiles and how we create spaces and places for people to thrive and grow gave her the initial inspiration that led to where she works today.

As a New York City Urban Fellow, McLaughlin saw the workings of local government firsthand. She worked with the City Council Office of the Chair and later for the New York City Independent Budget Office. She also spent time with the New York State Assembly.

In the private sector, at a rating agency, McLaughlin learned to analyze financial statements, budgets, cash flows, legal documents, and feasibility and engineering reports for capital improvement projects. Later, in investment banking, she engaged in a good deal of number crunching for requests for proposals and preparing pitchbooks. This background work is critical for presenting the bank’s capabilities for bringing a municipal bond offering to market, whether for a state, city, school district, or transportation authority.

In response to a question about her work with the District of Columbia, McLaughlin took a step back to share some of the basics of finance. Local governments may need a project but don’t have enough cash on hand to pay for the project outright. Bond financing helps to stretch out the cost of a capital project over time. Municipalities need to consider a range of financing tools that could help them save taxpayer money and create a balanced, diversified debt portfolio. She also stressed the importance of doing a cost-benefit analysis of various financing tools to understand potential risks and opportunities.

With those valuable experiences and skills under her belt, McLaughlin pivoted into industry regulation when she became the chief education officer for the MSRB, a critical player in municipal markets. Congress organized the MSRB to regulate bankers, brokers, and municipal advisors. The MSRB’s chief role is to safeguard investors and promote fair dealing. MSRB created the Electronic Municipal Market Access (EMMA) system. EMMA is a repository for financial disclosures relevant to investors—similar to the Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval (EDGAR) service for equities.

In 2020, McLaughlin took her skills to the FINRA Investor Education Foundation to expand investor education, community outreach, and tools. FINRA is dedicated to protecting investors by ensuring that everyone can participate, securities are suitable for each investor, and investors are provided with the most transparent information. FINRA provides information, registers broker-dealers, administers dispute resolution, and provides surveillance of equity and options trading, among other activities. Like the MSRB, FINRA is also authorized by Congress.

FINRA also undertakes the National Financial Capabilities Study, initially commissioned in 2009 and more recently repeated in 2021. This robust resource of information helps flag potential barriers to access to information about securities—to ensure that the capital markets are working smoothly for everyone. McLaughlin’s role at FINRA also includes directly visiting communities and creating local partnerships that improve financial capability for underserved communities.

McLaughlin has also been active in industry associations. She often recommends to newbies in the field or to those considering a job change to get involved in industry associations. Networking at a conference or industry event can be invaluable for your career. Building relationships with people you can call on later can help you feel anchored in your profession. Volunteering to organize a conference or panel or serving on a committee may allow you to build skills you might not have in your job.

To that end, McLaughlin has served on the board of Women in Public Finance, the DC retirement benefits advisory board, and an association of regional public finance professionals. She recently received recognition from Women in Public Finance with a lifetime achievement award for her contributions throughout her career.

In response to what she might have done differently, McLaughlin commented, “Learn to ask for help and seek council when you need it; don’t wait. Listen to your gut instinct and trust it early in your career.”

She offered additional words of wisdom: “Commit to being a lifelong learner. Continue to work on yourself as a person. There’s no such thing as multitasking—rather, there’s focus and action. Develop a practice for your body, your mind, and spirit. This approach will help you make a difference. Follow your intellectual curiosity. Develop your listening skills.”

McLaughlin gave us the following recommendations for further reading:

  • The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

  • Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant

  • The One-Minute Manager Meets the Monkey by Ken Blanchard

  • Caste by Isabel Wilkerson