Articles Tagged with ETFs

shutterstock_176319713The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) entered into an agreement whereby the regulatory fined LPL Financial LLC (LPL) and fined it $10 million for broad supervisory failures in a number of key areas, including the sales of non-traditional exchange-traded funds (Non-Traditional ETFs), certain variable annuity contracts, non-traded real estate investment trusts (Non-Traded REITs) and other complex products, as well as its failure to monitor and report trades and deliver to customers more than 14 million trade confirmations. As part of the fine FINRA ordered LPL to pay approximately $1.7 million in restitution to customers who purchased non-traditional ETFs.

In a press release Brad Bennett, FINRA Executive Vice President and Chief of Enforcement, stated that “LPL’s supervisory breakdowns resulted from a sustained failure to devote sufficient resources to compliance programs integral to numerous aspects of its business. With today’s action, FINRA reaffirms that there is little room in the industry for lax supervision and that it will not hesitate to order firms to review and correct substandard supervisory systems and controls, and pay restitution to affected customers.”

This action is only one of many regulatory actions that our firm has tracked concerning LPL and its brokers including the following:

shutterstock_66745735As we previously reported, The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) sanctioned brokerage firm World Equity Group, Inc. (World Equity) concerning at least seven different allegations of supervisory failures that occurred between 2009 through 2012. These failures included failures to implement an adequate supervisory system reasonably designed to detect and prevent potential rule violations concerning both internal processes and procedures and in the handling of customer accounts in the areas of suitability of transactions in non-traditional ETFs, private placements, and non-traded REITs.

FINRA alleged that World Equity failed to implement an adequate system to ensure the suitability of Non-Traditional ETFs. As a background, Non-Traditional ETFs are registered unit investment trusts or open-end investment companies whose shares represent an interest in a portfolio of securities that track an underlying benchmark, index, commodity, or other instrument. Shares of ETFs are typically listed on national exchanges and trade at established market prices. Non-Traditional ETFs are different from traditional ETFs in that they return a multiple of the performance of the underlying index or benchmark or the inverse performance.

Non-Traditional ETFs may use swaps, futures contracts, and other derivative instruments in order to create leverage to achieve these objectives. In addition, most Non-Traditional ETFs are designed to achieve their stated objectives in one trading session. Between trading sessions the fund manager generally rebalances the fund’s holdings in order to meet the fund’s objectives. For most Non-Traditional ETFs the rebalancing happens on a daily basis. Further, because the correlation between a Non-Traditional ETF and its linked index or benchmark is inexact there is typically tracking error between a fund and its benchmark becomes compounded over longer periods of time. In addition, the tracking error effect becomes more pronounced during periods of volatility in the underlying index or benchmark. FINRA advised brokerage firms in June 2009 due to the effect of compounding the performance of Non-Traditional ETFs over longer periods of time can differ significantly from the performance of their underlying index or benchmark during the same period of time and because of these risks and the inherent complexity of the products, FINRA advised broker-dealers and their representatives that the products are typically not suitable for retail investors who plan to hold them for more than one trading session.

shutterstock_133100114The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has filed a complaint against broker Allen Green (Green) concerning allegations that Green violated FINRA’s suitability rule by making unsuitable recommendations to a disabled customer, and also by having no reasonable basis to recommend non-traditional exchange traded funds (Non-traditional ETFs) to his customers.

Green has been in the securities industry since 1976 and also has been a registered principal since 2003. From May 2006, until November 2009, Green was associated with Cullum & Burks Securities, Inc. Thereafter, from November 2009 until April 2013, Green was registered with Royal Securities Company (Royal Securities). According to FINRA, Green was the supervising principal for one of Royal Securities’ Michigan branch offices and did business in that branch under the name A Green Financial Group.

FINRA alleged in the complaint that Green believed that the world economy was on the precipice of catastrophe and that certain asset classes would increase in value due to the resulting “world chaos” that would result. As a result of his view, FINRA alleged that Green recommended to virtually all of his customers that they invest almost exclusively in securities with exposure to precious metals, natural resources, commodities, and energy as part of a comprehensive investment strategy.

shutterstock_103476707The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) recently sanctioned brokerage firm Felt & Company (Felt) alleging that between January 2009, and September 2012, Felt failed to establish and supervisory system that was reasonably designed to ensure that sales leveraged or inverse exchange-traded funds (Non-Traditional ETFs) complied with all applicable securities laws.

Feltl is headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has approximately 114 registered representatives operating out of eight branch offices in Minnesota and Illinois. Felt derives revenue from securities commissions, underwriting, and investment company activity and has been a FINRA member since 1975. This most recent FINRA action is not the first time the regulatory has brought an action concerning issues of how Felt sells securities products to investors. As we previously reported, FINRA sanctioned Feltl and imposed a $1,000,000 fine concerning allegations that the firm, between January 2008, and February 2012. failed to comply with the suitability, disclosure, and record-keeping requirements engaging in a penny stock business.

In the most recent disciplinary action, FINRA alleged that the securities laws requires a firm to have a reasonable basis for believing that a product is suitable for any customer before recommending any purchase of that product. In order to meet this requirement, a firm must understand the terms and features of the product including how they are designed to perform, how they achieve that objective, and the impact that market volatility on the product. In the case of Non-Traditional ETFs the use of leverage and the customer’s intended holding period are significant considerations in recommending these products.

shutterstock_186555158The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) fined firm F-Squared Investments $35 million while admitting wrongdoing to settle charges that it defrauded investors through false performance advertising about its flagship product. As we previously reported, shares of mutual fund provider Virtus Investment Partners Inc. (Virtus Investment) tanked on news that the SEC was close to recommending charges against F-Squared a sub-adviser on the Virtus funds. F-Squared –builds mutual fund portfolios consisting of exchange traded funds (ETFs) for the Virtus mutual funds.

According to the SEC’s order, F-Squared, the largest marketer of index products using ETFs, the firm began receiving signals from a third-party data provider in September 2008 indicating when to buy or sell an investment. The SEC alleged that the signals were based on an algorithm and F-Squared used the signals to create a model portfolio of sector ETFs that could be rebalanced periodically as the signals changed. The new product “AlphaSector” launched the first index shortly thereafter. AlphaSector’s indexes became the firm’s largest revenue source.

The SEC alleged that the marketing of AlphaSector into the largest active ETF strategy in the market was based upon false information concerning F-Squared’s successful seven-year track record. According to the information provided, the marketing materials were supposed to be based on the actual performance of real investments for real clients. But in reality, the SEC found that the algorithm was not in existence during the seven years of the advertised performance success. Instead, the SEC found that F-Squared’s advertising was actually derived through backtesting to historical market data generating a hypothetical performance during a prior period.

shutterstock_188995727Broker Kenneth Popek (Popek) has had four customer complaints filed against him over his career as a financial advisor. That many claims are rare. According to InvestmentNews, only about 12% of financial advisors have any type of disclosure event on their records. These disclosures do not necessarily have to include customer complaints but can include IRS tax liens, judgments, and even criminal matters. In Popek’s case the broker has four customer complaints and one bankruptcy.

Popek was registered with Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. from December 2006 until May 2008. Thereafter, Popek was registered and still is registered with Calton & Associates, Inc.

One of Popek’s complaints went to hearing where a panel awarded the customers $342,956 concerning allegations of suitability, misrepresentations, churning, and breach of fiduciary duty. According to the award the causes of action involved, in part, investments in General Motors, Lehman Brothers, and Washington Mutual stocks that all went bust.

shutterstock_183801500In a rare move of true consumer protection, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) denied applications by fund managers BlackRock Inc. and Precidian Investments to offer nontransparent exchange-traded funds (ETFs) to investors by stating that such products were not in the public’s interest. The SEC stated that the proposals could inflict substantial costs on investors, disrupt orderly trading, and damage market confidence in trading of ETFs.

The fund managers have argued that opening up actively managed ETFs to full transparency would lead to front running, a strategy where other investors trade ahead to gain a benefit. As a result, the funds argue that their trading strategies are rendered obsolete by the market’s knowledge of them. Thus, the solution the industry devised was to deprive the investing public of disclosure of fund holdings.

However, the SEC said that daily transparency is necessary to keep the market prices of ETF shares at or close to the net asset value per share of the ETF. But as usual, the industry losses a battle but will eventually win the war. Others funds such as American Funds, T. Rowe Price Group Inc. and Eaton Vance Corp. all have applications pending for similar nontransparent ETFs where the SEC could rule on various alternative proposals. In addition, Precidian’s chief executive, Daniel J. McCabe, told InvestmentNews he believed the SEC’s objections can be worked though and that it will merely take longer to get approval because the funds are not standard.

shutterstock_66745735The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has sanctioned brokerage firm Huntleigh Securities Corporation (Huntleigh) concerning allegations that the firm failed to establish and maintain a supervisory system regarding the sale of leveraged as well as inverse leveraged exchange traded funds (Non-Traditional ETFs) reasonably designed to achieve compliance with applicable securities laws.

Huntleigh is a FINRA member firm since 1977 and has headquarter offices in St. Louis, Missouri. Huntleigh engages in general securities business and employs approximately 53 registered representatives across its five branch offices.

Non-Traditional ETFs contain drastically different risk qualities from traditional ETFs. While traditional ETFs simply seek to mirror an index or benchmark, Non-Traditional ETFs use a combination of derivatives instruments and debt to multiply returns on underlining assets, often attempting to generate 2 to 3 times the return of the underlining asset class. Non-Traditional ETFs can also be used to return the inverse or the opposite result of the return of the benchmark.

shutterstock_177577832It is relatively easy to grasp the concept of excessive trading activity or “churning” in a brokerage account. Churning trading activity has no utility for the investor and is conducted solely to generate commissions for the broker. Churning involves both excessive purchases and sales of securities and the advisors control over the account. But regulators are also looking at another growing trend referred to as “reverse churning.” According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) states that “reverse churning” is the practice of placing investors in advisory accounts that pay a fixed fee, such as 1-2% annually, but generate little or no activity to justify that fee. Regulators are watching for signs of “double-dipping” whereby advisers generate significant commissions in an investor’s brokerage account and then moves the client into an advisory account in order to collect additional fees.

As a background there are many standalone brokerage firms and investment advisor firms where the option does not exist for a client to be switched between types of accounts. However, there are also many dually registered firms which are both broker-dealers and investment advisers. These firms, and their financial advisors have tremendous influence over whether a customer establishes a brokerage or investment advisory account. In the WSJ, the SEC was quoted as saying that “This influence may create a risk that customers are placed in an inappropriate account type that increases revenue to the firm and may not provide a corresponding benefit to the customer.”

However, dumping a client account into an advisory account after the broker ceases trading is only one strategy that should be included in the category of “reverse churning.” There are many other creative ways that brokers can generate excessive commissions for themselves while providing no benefit to their clients. For example, if a broker recommends a tax deferred vehicle, such a as a variable annuity, in an IRA account there is no additional tax benefit for the client. While the recommendation would not result in excessive trading, the broker would earn a huge commission for an investment that cannot take advantage of one of its primary selling points.

shutterstock_174858983The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) sanctioned broker Michael Zukowski (Zukowski) concerning allegations that Zukowski recommended unsuitable transactions in inverse and inverse-leveraged Exchange Traded Funds (Non-Traditional ETFs) in the accounts of his customers.

Zukowski first became registered with FINRA as a securities representative in 1989. Thereafter, from July 2005 to November 2010, he was registered in that same capacity through RBC Capital Markets, LLC (RBC) where he worked in the firm’s Massachusetts office. On December 23, 2010, RBC filed a Termination Notice (Form U5) stating that Zukowski was permitted to resign for “failure to meet Firm expectations.”

On August l8, 2011, RBC filed a an amended disclosure stating that an Administrative Complaint filed by the Massachusetts Securities Division (MSD) stated that: “The Massachusetts Securities Division alleged Michael Zukowski made unsuitable recommendations to brokerage and advisory clients regarding the purchase and sale of leveraged, inverse and inverse-leveraged exchange traded funds.” Thereafter, on November 12, 2012, Zukowski entered into a Consent Order with the MSD concerning the allegations of unsuitable recommendations where Zukowski consented to sanctions including a Cease and Desist and a five year bar to act as a “broker-dealer agent, investment adviser, investment adviser representative and issuer-agent” in the State of Massachusetts. Finally, on November 16, 2012, RBC filed another amended Form U5 and disclosed a written complaint by two customers indicating that the “Clients allege material omissions and unsuitable advice regarding non-traditional ETFs, in period 2/2009 to 12/2009.”

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