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David Karp, Associated Press
Elizabeth Rose, a specialist with Lehman Brothers MarketMakers, works on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange Monday. Lehman's demise apparently caught few investors off guard.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Investors with accounts at Lehman Brothers Inc. can rest easy — their money held in brokerage accounts appears to be safe.

The Securities Investor Protection Corp., a nonprofit membership agency, said Monday it did not need to step in.

Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., the holding company for the 158-year-old investment bank, filed for Chapter 11 protection Monday in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of New York. The company said it was trying to sell off key business units.

The SIPC, which is responsible for ensuring that investors at brokerage firms do not lose their money through theft or other misconduct, said no investor assets appeared to be missing at the broker-dealer business unit of Lehman Brothers Holdings.

SIPC President Stephen Harbeck said Monday that as a control measure, brokerage firms are required to keep customer cash and securities separate from company accounts. In the case of Lehman Brothers it appears to have been done properly.

"The message is that Lehman customers can access their accounts and that the system works," Harbeck said. "The regulatory system is such that there are no missing customer assets, and that makes our role a standby role."

The SIPC makes a clear distinction that its activities protect only against losses of funds from theft or misconduct associated with a failing brokerage, and it does not protect investors against market risk.

Stocks, bonds and other investments can go up or down and no insurance will protect investors from market changes, said John Gannon, the investor education vice president at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, a non-governmental regulator for all securities firms in the United States.

Staff from FINRA and the SEC were at work Monday at Lehman Brothers to oversee the transfer of customer assets to SIPC-insured brokerages.

FINRA said Lehman Brothers Inc., the brokerage unit of the holding company, is solvent and functioning and is expected to close only after customer accounts have been transferred to another insured brokerage.

Lehman customers with questions about their accounts or the liquidation process may contact FINRA at 301-590-6500 or e-mail the SEC at helpsec.gov.

When events, such as a brokerage filing for bankruptcy, happen, the SIPC is notified by either the stock exchanges, the SEC or FINRA.

The SIPC then takes action to protect investors, which frequently means applying to federal court for appointment of a trustee to liquidate assets. Broker-dealers must maintain enough capital so that customers get their cash and securities back if the firm fails, according to SEC regulations.

SIPC takes control of assets and gets them into the hands of investors. If there's not enough to satisfy customer claims, the SIPC pays what's left out of a reserve account — up to a limit.

In cases where brokerage assets are missing, investors with account balances of less than $500,000 are in luck. They're assured of getting their money back. That includes up to $100,000 in cash claims.