Articles Tagged with UBS Puerto Rico Bond Funds

shutterstock_157106939-300x300The law offices of Gana LLP continue to report on investor related losses and potential legal remedies due to recommendations to invest in Puerto Rico bonds and bond funds.   The island has been meeting with creditors before a U.S. bankruptcy judge in the largest public finance restructuring case.  The sides have been in mediation settlement talks to concerning the outcome of the island’s $70 billion debt.  However, according to news reports, the process could take years.  In fact, it has taken more than two years of debate with Puerto Rico’s government, creditors, and federal lawmakers just to get to this point.

According to some source Puerto Rico bond investors recovery ranges could be as low as 10 to 20 cents on the dollar when the island emerges.  Why so little?  How much can $70 to $100 billion be worth when there are only 1.4 million workers in Puerto Rico and a 45% poverty rate?  In fact, workers are leaving the island in record numbers that will soon be made worse by Hurricane Maria.  84,000 people moved from Puerto Rico to the United States in 2014 resulting in 1.8% of the island leaving.

Mostly retail investors will be the victims of the Puerto Rico debt debacle.  While news focus on hedge funds that have bought Puerto Rico bonds, only about 25 percent of Puerto Rican debt is held by hedge funds.  Compare that to the estimated 500,000 individual bondholders and hundreds of thousands more investors who purchased Puerto Rico mutual funds.

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shutterstock_26269225This is the second regulatory action that our firm has tracked concerning brokerage firms recommending concentrated positions in Puerto Rico bond funds without having appropriate supervisory system and procedures designed to identify and review concentrated securities purchases in Puerto Rico closed-end funds.

As we reported, The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) sanctioned Popular Securities, Inc. (Popular Securities) alleging between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2013, Popular failed to establish and enforce a supervisory system and procedures designed to identify and review concentrated securities purchases in Puerto Rico municipal bonds and Puerto Rico closed-end funds. Now in a similar action, FINRA alleged that between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2013, Oriental Financial Services Corp. (Oriental) failed to establish, maintain, and enforce, supervisory systems and procedures to identify and review concentrated securities purchases in Puerto Rico municipal bonds and Puerto Rico closed-end bond funds.

Oriental has been a F]NRA member since 1993 and is a subsidiary of OFG Bancorp. Oriental operates out of headquarters in San Juan, Puerto Rico and engages in a general securities business that focuses on Puerto Rico municipal securities and open and closed-end mutual funds. Oriental has 50 brokers located in 12 branch offices.

Puerto Rico Bond Funds were sold as providing Puerto Rico residents with various tax benefits including exemption from US. estate and gift taxes. In addition, the Puerto Rico Bond Funds offered a triple tax benefit to investors. However, in December 2012, Puerto Rico general obligation and related bonds ratings were downgraded. Then, six months later in June 2013, the Puerto Rico Power Authority (PREPA) revenue bonds ratings were also downgraded.

FINRA found that Oriental customers purchased concentrated positions of in Puerto Rican municipal bonds and bond fund securities. FINRA alleged that between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2013, Oriental solicited concentrated investments in Puerto Rico related securities. In May 2012, FINRA alleged that Oriental warned its brokers that a credit rating downgrade could negatively impact the securities. Nonetheless, FINRA found that the brokers at Oriental continued to solicit concentrated purchases in Puerto Rico related securities even after the downgrade risk warning. Thereafter, in December 2012 two credit rating agency’s downgraded Puerto Rican related debt.

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shutterstock_92699377As our firm has written about on numerous occasions, our firm is currently representing investors who purchased the UBS Puerto Rico closed-end-bond funds and other Puerto Rico municipal debt. The allegations our firm has brought on behalf of clients focuses on UBS’ sales tactics and recommendations to its customers to invest in 23 proprietary closed-end funds. The UBS Puerto Rico bond funds contained substantial risks that allegedly were downplayed by the firm’s advisors in order to generate sales. The funds’ risks included excessive amount of leverage, conflicts of interests, and omission of material information concerning the risky nature of certain of the funds’ holdings.

Many of our clients tell very similar tales about how they were recommended to invest as much as 100% of their portfolios in the UBS Puerto Rico closed-end funds, some through additional margin or bank loans. Now, thanks to an article published by Reuters, Puerto Rico bond fund investors are starting to learn why.

According to the article, a group of brokers came up with a list of 22 reasons why they wanted to stop selling the funds including the facts that the funds suffered from low liquidity, excessive leverage, oversupply and instability, and contained debt underwritten by UBS, a conflict of interests.

However, the audio recordings show that these brokers’ concerns were unacceptable to Miguel Ferrer, the chairman of UBS Financial Services Inc of Puerto Rico, who stated that the brokers should change their mindset or leave the firm. On the tape Ferrer can be heard stating that “You need to focus again on the attractive benefits of our funds and stop this nonsense that there are no products available – because if there are no products, go home, get a new job!”

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shutterstock_175000886The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) recently sanctioned Popular Securities, Inc. (Popular Securities) alleging between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2013, Popular failed to establish and enforce a supervisory system and procedures designed to identify and review concentrated securities purchases in Puerto Rico municipal bonds and Puerto Rico closed-end funds.

Popular has been a FINRA member since 1980, is headquartered in San Juan, Puerto Rico and engages in a general securities business, including customer purchases and sales of Puerto Rico municipal securities and open and closed-end mutual funds. The Firm has approximately 120 registered representatives located in its 9 branch offices.

Puerto Rico Bond Funds were sold as providing Puerto Rico residents with various tax benefits including exemption from US. estate and gift taxes. In addition, the Puerto Rico Bond Funds offered a triple tax benefit to investors. However, in December 2012, Puerto Rico general obligation and related bonds ratings were downgraded. Then, six months later in June 2013, the Puerto Rico Power Authority (PREPA) revenue bonds ratings were also downgraded.

FINRA found that Popular Securities customers purchased concentrated positions of in Puerto Rican municipal bonds and bond fund securities. Between December 2012, when the Puerto Rico general obligation bond rating were downgraded and June 2013, the FINRA alleged that the firm’s customers continued purchasing concentrated positions of these securities. However, according to FINRA Popular Securities’ written supervisory procedures did not outline the steps that the firm should take to review its customers’ securities purchases for concentration apart from a procedure that required quarterly reviews of “elderly” customer accounts for concentration of one product. Accordingly, FINRA found that Popular Securities did not establish or enforce any systems or procedures that required supervisors to review customer accounts for concentrated purchases in a single security or substantially similar securities, or securities of a single geographic region, including the Puerto Rico municipal bonds of bond fund securities. Further, FINRA found that the firm failed to document their reviews of concentration.

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shutterstock_180342155Albert Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” While UBS does not challenge Einstein’s theories in physics it does challenge his thoughts on insanity. According to several news sources, including Financial Advisor Magazine and Reuters, UBS has told its brokers to continue selling its extremely speculative and risky UBS Puerto Rico bond funds to investors even after some investors have lost their entire investment and many others have suffered very substantial losses. Obviously, UBS believes a different result can be achieved with these recommendations. Let’s examine the facts and determine whether UBS has any grounds for such a belief.

Recently, investors have filed more than 500 complaints against UBS concerning the sales of the UBS Puerto Rico bond fund with more cases being filed daily. UBS’ sales tactics and recommendations to its customers to invest in 23 proprietary closed-end funds has come under fire and investors claim that the firm hid the substantial risks of the funds in order to generate sales and lucrative fees. On the surface the funds’ risks include is the excessive amount of leverage the funds employ. UBS leveraged up to 100% of the funds’ investments to raise additional cash, or the borrowing of a dollar for every dollar of capital invested in the funds. U.S. based funds by contrast are not allowed to take on such large leverage risk.

UBS has claimed that these funds have provided excellent returns and tax benefits to investors for decades. These claims appear to be the support for continuing to sell and recommend the bond funds to investors. However, investigations into UBS practices regarding the bond funds reveals that UBS’ decision to continue to sell the funds may come back to haunt the firm.

On October 9, 2014, Puerto Rico’s Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions (OCFI) has settled its claims with UBS Financial Services Incorporated of Puerto Rico and agreed to the payment and restitution of $1,681,556 to certain clients and anther $3,500,000 to the Investor Education and Investigation Fund. The claims brought by Puerto Rico involved claims of overconcentrating client funds in the UBS bond funds as well as claims that six UBS brokers steered clients into wrongful bank loans to be used to invest in additional UBS bond funds. These loans have been alleged to be illegal and were sold through UBS Bank USA of Utah.

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shutterstock_180968000On October 9, 2014, Puerto Rico’s Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions (OCFI) has settled its claims with UBS Financial Services Incorporated of Puerto Rico (UBS Puerto Rico) over UBS’s sale of closed-end mutual funds in Puerto Rico. The OCFI conducted a routine examination from October 15, 2013 through June 27, 2014. The examination of UBS Puerto Rico was conducted to determine if the firm complied with the Puerto Rico Uniform Securities ACT Regulation No. 6078.

The OCFI interviewed a sample of clients and examined whether certain former and current UBS Puerto Rico brokers either (i) recommended that, or (ii) permitted certain clients to, use non-purpose loans through UBS Bank USA to purchase securities in UBS brokerage accounts during the 2011-2013 period in violation of the customers’ loan agreements and UBS Puerto Rico policies.

The OCFI determined that for some clients, such a practice was unsuitable based on the customers’ financial objectives, risk tolerance and needs, and that UBS Puerto Rico brokers may have induced clients through the misrepresentations or omissions of material facts.

As a part of the settlement, UBS Puerto Rico did not admit to liability. However UBS Puerto Rico and the OCFI agreed that UBS Puerto Rico agreed to the payment and restitution of $1,681,556 to certain clients outlined in the settlement and that UBS Puerto Rico would pay $3,500,000 to the Investor Education and Investigation Fund.  Within six months of the settlement agreement, UBS Puerto Rico is also required to conduct a good faith review of customer accounts held with UBS Puerto Rico to determine if additional restitution is necessary.  In addition, UBS Puerto Rico has agreed to place certain brokers under enhanced supervision.

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shutterstock_151894877The law offices of Gana LLP has recently filed securities arbitration case on behalf of an investor against UBS Financial Services, Inc. and UBS Financial Services, Inc. of Puerto Rico (UBS) involving allegations that UBS’ misleading sales tactics and inappropriate recommendations surrounding Puerto Rico bonds in the Claimant’s portfolio. According to the complaint, UBS encouraged a 26 year-old unemployed single mother to invest her life savings in just three Puerto Rico municipal bonds—Puerto Rico Employees Retirement System Bonds (ERS Bond), Puerto Rico Commonwealth Public Buildings Authority Bonds (Commonwealth Bond), and Puerto Rico Industrial, Tourist, Educational, Medical and Environmental Control Facilities Financing Authority (AFICA) Industrial Revenue Refunding Bonds (AFICA Bond). In addition, the complaint alleged that UBS recommended that the Claimant take out significant loans to leverage up her investment in these three bonds that were all hovering just above junk status.

The Claimant is a 26 year-old single mother, dedicates all of her time towards caring for her eighteen-month-old daughter. Unfortunately, the Claimant’s father passed away in October 2010 causing Claimant to receive life insurance proceeds from his passing. The Claimant used some of those proceeds to pay off the debts that she had accrued over the years and sought to use the remaining portion to invest for the future of her and her daughter.

Claimant alleged that UBS completely disregarded the risks inherent to the Puerto Rico municipal bonds and constructed a portfolio comprised solely of these soon-to-be-defunct securities. Claimant’s brokers Ramon M. Almonte (Almonte) and Juan E. Goytia (Goytia), recommended an approximate 130% concentration, through the use of leverage, in municipal debt. Claimant alleged that the bonds were portrayed as safe, secure, fixed-income securities that would preserve her principal while providing tax-free income. Contrary to UBS’ portrayal, the bonds recommended are volatile investments carrying a multitude of risks. According to the complaint UBS’ unsuitable recommendations and inappropriate asset allocation ultimately cost the Claimant most of her money.

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According to Bloomberg News Puerto Rico’s general obligation bonds were cut one step to speculative grade, otherwise known as “junk” status, by Standard & Poor’s citing reduced access to liquidity.  The territory has $16.2 billion of debt as of June 30, according to the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico.  Investors nationwide are expected to be effected as about 70 percent of U.S. municipal mutual funds own Puerto Rico securities according to Morningstar Inc.  However, investors in Puerto Rico bond funds that were heavily invested in Puerto Rico debt are expected to be hit the hardest.

As we previously reported, a credit rating agency downgrade followed by a default or restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt seems inevitable.  How did Puerto Rico end up here?  Unfortunately, its the same familiar Wall Street drama that is now perfectly mirroring the mortgage securities crisis experienced only six years ago.  Wall Street firms sell Puerto Rico bonds as safe, tax-free, high-yielding investments and politicians and policy makers take no interest in stopping the underwriting, issuance, and debt selling machine.  Moreover, firms know that by packaging unloved and unwanted municipal bonds and other assets into mutual funds the firms can sell speculative assets to retirees and other investors seeking income as conservative and diversified bond funds.

Firms such UBS, sold proprietary bond funds to customer such as the Puerto Rico Fixed Income Fund and the Puerto Rico Investors Tax-Free Fund series that invested up to 140% of their assets in Puerto Rico debt through the employment of leverage.  While UBS recommends that Puerto Rico residents should, in some cases, invest up to 100%+ of their assets in the Funds, UBS secretly recommends that UBS Puerto Rico, the firm’s island subsidiary, liquidate its own UBS bond fund holdings due to UBS  the overconcentration risk.  Thus, according to complaints filed against the firm, UBS’ recommendation to clients to invest in the funds was a conflict of interests with the firm’s own internal analysis that found the funds to be too risky.

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This question is on the minds of many investors.  Many clients and potential clients have contacted our firm concerned about the effect of a default on their UBS Puerto Rico municipal bond funds that are heavily invested in the island’s debt

The UBS Puerto Rico bond funds, including the Puerto Rico Fixed Income Fund and the Puerto Rico Investors Tax-Free Fund series, invested up to 140% in Puerto Rico debt through the employment of leverage.  The extreme use of leverage has exacerbated recent declines.  As losses continue to increase clients tell us very similar stories about how their brokers recommended that they invest as much as 100% of their portfolios in the UBS Puerto Rico closed-end funds.

Now our clients worry about a potential Puerto Rico default on its municipal debt.  Puerto Rico’s public debt of $53 billion is nearly $15,000 per person.  When you add on the severely under-funded pension and healthcare obligations, the amount of debt approaches $160 billion, or $46,000 per person.

How did we end up here?  The same familiar Wall Street story.  First, Puerto Rican bonds are free from all State, Federal and local taxes, providing a very attractive yield.  Second, the promise of safe high-yielding investments that some are comparing to the promises made to investors who purchased high yielding subprime mortgage CDOs in 2007.  Finally, politicians and policy makers who have no interest in stopping the underwriting, issuance, and debt selling machine.

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UBS Puerto Rico operates 23 proprietary non-exchange-traded closed-end funds (UBS Funds).   UBS is one of the key players in the Puerto Rico municipal debt market and has packaged and sold approximately $10 billion in municipal debt through the UBS Funds.

It has been alleged that UBS marketed the UBS Funds to customers as income producing municipal bond funds that were designed to preserve investor principal.  Over a number of years, UBS allegedly had its advisors over-concentrate thousands of its Puerto Rican clients in the UBS Funds.  However, at the same time that UBS recommended the UBS Funds to clients, UBS allegedly liquidated its own UBS Fund assets due to the firm’s internal analysis that found that the Funds contained excessive risks.

Over the summer of 2013, the market for Puerto Rico’s $70 billion municipal debt began to evaporate. As the value of the UBS Funds has plummeted by 50-60% in value in a matter of months investor complaints filed with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc. (FINRA) have increased.

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