Articles Tagged with SEC

shutterstock_103079882As long time readers of our blogs know senior abuse is an ongoing concern in the securities industry. See Massachusetts Fines LPL Financial Over Variable Annuity Sales Practices to Seniors; The NASAA Announces New Initiative to Focus on Senior Investor Abuse; The Problem of Senior Investor Abuse – A Securities Attorney’s Perspective.

Recently, a number of regulatory agencies have begun new initiatives against investment fraud targeted at seniors with the intent to provide resources to seniors and financial advisors. Regulators fear senior abuse in the investment sector will be a growing trend over the next couple of decades if not addressed soon.

According to a National Senior Investor Initiative report cited by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the Social Security Administration estimates that each day for the next 15 years, an average of 10,000 Americans will turn 65. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011, more than 13 percent Americans, more than 41 million people, were 65 or older. By 2040, that number is expected to grow 79 million doubling the number that were alive in 2000.

shutterstock_183525503Recently, FINRA and the SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy issued an alert to warn investors that some low-priced “penny” stocks are being aggressively promoted to engage in investment fraud schemes. In many cases the stocks of dormant shell companies, businesses with nominal business operations, are susceptible to market manipulation. To help prevent these types of fraud, the SEC suspended trading in 255 dormant shell companies in February 2014.

The typical investment scheme concerns pump-and-dump frauds in which a fraudster deliberately buys shares of a very low-priced, thinly traded stock and then spreads false or misleading information to promote and inflate the stock’s price. The fraudster then dumps his shares causing a massive sell off and leaving his victims with worthless shares of stock. Among the more common schemes is a fraudsters who uses a dormant shell company to buy its shares and then claim that the company has developed a “new” product that has caused the price to jump higher or the company will announce new management.

The SEC provided 5 tips to avoid becoming a victim of a penny stock scheme.

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_150746A recent InvestmentNews article explored The Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) attempts to prevent conflicts of interest at registered investment advisers, a breach of their fiduciary duties, by focusing on potential misuse of popular flat-fee wrap accounts. The use of these accounts have given rise to claims of “reverse churning.” As we previously reported, “churning” is excessive trading activity or in a brokerage account. Churning trading activity has no utility for the investor and is conducted solely to generate commissions for the broker. By contrast “reverse churning” is the practice of placing investors in advisory accounts or wrap programs that pay a fixed fee, such as 1-2% annually, but generate little or no activity to justify that fee. Such programs constitute a form of commission and fee “double-dipping” in order to collect additional fees.

The SEC is looking into the practice by which clients pay an annual or quarterly fee for wrap products that manage a portfolio of investments. Investment advisors who place clients in such programs already charge fees based on assets under management (AUM) and the money management charges for wrap products are in addition to the AUM fee. According to InvestmentNews, the assets under these arrangements totaled $3.5 trillion in 2013, a 25% increase from 2012. Included in these numbers include separately managed accounts, mutual fund advisory programs, exchange-traded-fund (ETF) advisory programs, unified managed accounts, and two types of brokerage-based managed accounts.

Reverse churning can occur under these arrangements if there’s too little trading in the accounts in order to justify the high fees. In August, the SEC’s scrutiny of these products came to the forefront with the agency’s victory in a court case that revolved in part around an adviser’s improperly placing his clients into wrap programs. A jury decided in the SEC’s favor against the advisory firm Benjamin Lee Grant that the SEC argued improperly induced clients to follow him when he left the broker-dealer Wedbush Morgan Securities to his advisory firm, Sage Advisory Group.

shutterstock_100492018The SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy issued a Investor Alert to help educate and warn investors about the dangers of affinity fraud. Affinity fraud is a common type of securities fraud that preys upon members of a group or community such as members of certain religions or ethnic communities. Affinity frauds involve either fake investments or extremely risky investments that are conducted outside regular securities channels. The fraudster will typically lie about important details such as the risk of loss, the track record of the investment, or the background of the investment.

Many affinity frauds turn out to be Ponzi schemes. In a Ponzi scheme new investors money goes to pay earlier investors to create the illusion that the investment is succeeding all the while the fraudster skims large amounts of the funds for his or her personal use. When the fraudster’s supply of new investor money runs out and current investors seek payment the scheme collapses. Fraudsters use many legitimate investment sounding vehicles and names to mask their schemes. For example, the fraudster may tell investors that they are investing in real estate, options, precious metals, or employing leverage or other sophisticated investment tools to increase returns.

In order to carry out affinity frauds, the fraudster will be a member of the group they are trying to defraud such as a particular denomination or church. However, any close knit community or group such as an ethnic group, immigrant community, or racial minority will work. Fraudsters may also prey upon members with other commonalities such as teachers, union members, or military servicemen. The key to affinity fraud is that the fraudster can target the group and built up a high level of trust and confidence through the affinity connection to convince them to trust the fraudster with their life savings.

A recent statement by BlackRock Inc (BlackRock) Chief Executive Larry Fink concerning leveraged exchange traded funds (Leveraged ETFs) has provoked a chain reaction from the ETF industry. Fink runs BlackRock, the world’s largest ETF provider. Fink’s statement that structural problems with Leveraged ETFs have the potential to “blow up the whole industry one day” have rattled other ETF providers – none more so than those selling bank loan ETFs. Naturally, sponsors of Leveraged ETFs, a $60 billion market, called the remarks an exaggeration.

shutterstock_105766562As a background, leveraged ETFs use a combination of derivatives instruments and debt to multiply returns on an underlining asset, class of securities, or sector index. The leverage employed is designed to generate 2 to 3 times the return of the underlining assets. Leveraged ETFs can also be used to return the inverse or the opposite result of the return of the benchmark. While regular ETFs can be held for long term trading, Leveraged ETFs are generally designed to be used only for short term trading – sometimes as short as a single day’s holding. The Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) has warned that most Leveraged ETFs reset daily and FINRA has stated that Leveraged ETFs are complex products that are typically not suitable for retail investors. In fact, some brokerage firms simply prohibit the solicitation of these investments to its customers, an explicit recognition that a Leveraged ETF recommendation is unsuitable for virtually everyone.

Despite these dangers, bank loan Leveraged ETFs may be an easy sell to investors. Investors in fixed income instruments are compensated based upon the level of two sources of bond risk – duration risk and credit risk. Duration risk takes into account the length of time and is subject to interest rate changes. Credit risk evaluates the credit quality of the issuer. For example, U.S. Treasury’s have virtually no credit risk and investors are compensated based on the length of the bond. At the other end of the safety spectrum are low rated floating-rate debt – what bank loan Leveraged ETFs invest in. These funds are supposed to reset every 90 days in order to get exposure to the credit side but not take on much duration risk.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has sanctioned Moloney Securities Company, Inc. (Moloney Securities) concerning allegations Moloney Securities failed to establish and maintain a supervisory system, including written policies, regarding the sale of leveraged, inverse and inverse leveraged exchange-traded funds (Non-Traditional ETFs) that was reasonably designed to meet the requirements under the securities laws.

shutterstock_172154582ETFs attempt to track a market index, sector industry, interest rate, or country. ETFs can either track the index or apply leverage in order to amplify the returns. For example, a leveraged ETF with 300% leverage attempts to return 3% for every 1% the underlying index returns. Nontraditional ETFs can also be designed to return the inverse or the opposite of the return of the benchmark. In general, Leveraged ETFs are used only for short term trading. The Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) has warned investors that most Non-Traditional ETFs reset daily and are designed to achieve their stated objectives in a single trading session. In addition to the risks of leverage, Non-Traditional ETFs held over the long term can differ drastically from the underlying index or benchmark during the same period. FINRA has also acknowledged that leveraged ETFs are complex products that carry significant risks and ”are typically not suitable for retail investors who plan to hold them for more than one trading session, particularly in volatile markets.”

FINRA found that from January 2011, through December 2012, Moloney Securities allowed its representatives to recommend and sell Non-Traditional ETFs to customers. At this time, FINRA found that Moloney’s written supervisory procedures did not address the sale or supervision of Non-Traditional ETFs. In addition, FINRA alleged that Moloney Securities did not conduct due diligence of Non-Traditional ETFs before allowing financial advisors to recommend them to customers. Despite the unique features and risk factors of Non-Traditional ETFs that FINRA has noted, FIRNA found that Moloney Securities did not provide its brokers or supervisors with any training or specific guidance as to whether and when Non-Traditional ETFs would be appropriate for their customers. FINRA also found that Moloney Securities did not use any reports or other tools to monitor the length of time that customers held open positions in Non-Traditional ETFs or track investment losses occurring due to those positions.

shutterstock_180342155As discussed in Part I, the primary defense to preventing securities fraud is has been to “bar” the person from the industry and to instruct the criminal to stop committing fraud. Despite the evidence that the slap on wrist approach has been ineffective, some lawmakers continue to think barring individuals and educating the public is the best way to stop securities fraud.

Yet, according to Futures Magazine, during the hearing Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) stressed the importance of “consumer education” to prevent future scams. If only we could convince senior citizens to spend their golden years reading CFTC and SEC news releases and memorize the names of hundreds of barred fraudsters each year maybe we can turn the tide in this fight – right. Great game plan. At least Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) understood the disservice the education alone approach would provide the investing public by stating that “The first line of defense is not consumer education,” but rather “putting the crooks in prison.”

The hearing also featured testimony of a former fraudster, Karl Spicer. Spicer was convicted for ripping off investors in a metals scam. Spicer’s testimony also clearly stated that it is government agencies failure to instill fear into fraudsters that has resulted in no progress in investor protection. Without real world consequences, criminals merely go from scam to scam and will unapologetically continue to swindle. Spicer stated that “With all due respect to the civil authorities, the people that I have encountered…don’t really respect the civil authority bans.” In fact, “The gentleman I was with had a CFTC ban, he cooperated; he had a ban and he still went about doing business the very next day.”

shutterstock_186211292If someone broke into your home and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars of your possessions you expect that person to go to jail. But what if the consequence was merely to pay a fine and a court ordered bar from breaking into homes. Would you be alright with that outcome? Could such an approach really stop or even deter criminals? Could you imagine lawmakers arguing with you that the key to preventing more burglaries is to inform homeowners about locking their doors and windows and installing alarms – but not jail. If such an approach sounds silly then why have we accepted this approach to securities fraud.

The primary defense to preventing securities fraud is simply to “bar” the person from the securities industry and to instruct him or her to stop committing fraud. For many recidivist fraudsters, being barred from the industry is merely part of the career plan. Often times being barred from the industry merely frees the fraudster from the shackles of having to conceal their fraud within the confines of industry supervision. After being barred fraudsters are often in a perfect position to continue stealing from investors. Think about it – they have been industry trained, have spent years learning their craft, and have established many contacts and industry connections that they can now utilize for their post-industry frauds.

Yet regulators and lawmakers seemingly fail to grasp the very simple principal that those who commit securities fraud need to go to jail – period. Recently, the Senate presented findings of the Senate Special Committee on Aging concerning investigations gold investment scams targeting Florida seniors. The hearing clearly exposed how securities regulators, in this case the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), has no ability to prevent securities fraud and protect the investing public.

shutterstock_138129767Most people do not realize that there is a big distinction between brokers and investment advisors. Many people think, they both recommend securities. While that is true, that is pretty much where the similarities end.

A broker is regulated by The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) a self-regulatory organization (SRO) as provided for under the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934. On the other hand investment advisors are regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission as provided under the Investment Advisors Act of 1940 (IAA).

A broker is more akin to salesman. A broker’s obligation is to make sure that his or her recommendation is suitable and appropriate for the investor given the investors objectives and other information. However, an investment advisor is more like an appraiser of securities, his or her job is not only to make recommendations that are not only suitable but to continually monitor the investors account to ensure that the investor has a viable financial plan over time. Consequently, a broker is compensated on a transactional basis while an investment advisor is paid a percentage of the assets managed by the advisor.