Wall Street is constantly crafting complex and volatile products that somehow end up in the investment accounts on Main Street.  The latest turbulence in the stock markets has already been in part attributed to one of the latest Wall Street machinations:  exchange-traded-products (ETPs) linked to volatile exchanges – specifically, products linked to the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) Volatile Index (VIX).  Today alone, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed more than 1000 points down from yesterday, and due to the volatility that is still ongoing, the devastating fallout is largely unrealized and has left investors scrambling.

Since its inception in 1993, the VIX was one of the earlier attempts to create an index that broadly measured volatility in the market.  One such ETP linked to the VIX is Credit Suisse’s VelocityShares Daily Inverse VIX Short-Term ETN (ticker symbol XIV), which the issuer just announced it will be shutting down after losing most of its value earlier this week.  Products that may be at similar risk include Proshares SVXY, VelocityShares ZIV, iPATH XXV, and REX VolMaxx VMIN.  But the risks associated with these ETPs have been well known to professionals in the securities industry, and investors who were recommended these products should have received a complete and balanced disclosure of these risks at the time of purchase.

In October of 2017, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) ordered Wells Fargo to pay $3.4 million in restitution to investors relating to unsuitable recommendations of volatility-linked ETPs.  FINRA also published a warning to other firms in Regulatory Notice 17-32 regarding sales practice obligations, stating that “many volatility-linked ETPs are highly likely to lose value over time” and “may be unsuitable to retail investors, particularly those who plan to use them as traditional buy-and-hold investments.”  This was not the first warning from the regulator.

When you are placed on administrative leave, it can seem like the world is collapsing around you.  It might be, but how you respond and hiring counsel could change the outcome.  Before making any rash decisions, it is important to understand just what has happened, what is likely to happen next, and what you should do about it.

What is “Administrative Leave”?

Administrative Leave is a form of suspension from the workplace, often pending the outcome of some form of investigation.  In the securities world, this can be the case if there is an investigation into a suspected compliance infraction, a customer complaint, a regulatory or self-regulatory investigation or inquiry, an arrest, charge, indictment, or complaint made against a broker or its firm (a FINRA “Member” firm).  Each firm may have its own policies and procedures for how to determine whether administrative leave is necessary, what specifically constitutes administrative leave, or at what point it is imposed.

Yesterday, a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) arbitration panel in Boca Raton, Florida awarded Malecki Law attorneys $397,823.00 for principal investment losses against Morgan Stanley & Co., LLC.  Malecki Law brought the case on behalf of an elderly and retired couple with conservative investment objectives on claims that Morgan Stanley failed to supervise their accounts and unsuitably over-concentrated their portfolio in risky oil and gas master limited partnerships (MLPs).  In addition to the compensatory damages, the panel also ordered Morgan Stanley to pay the claimants in this case 9% in interest, $15,000.00 in costs, attorneys’ fees, $11,812.50 in forum fees, and a $20,000.00 penalty for the firm’s late production of relevant documents at and just prior to hearing.

Malecki Law regularly brings claims on behalf of investors against unscrupulous conduct by brokers and brokerage firms, and holds them accountable for mismanaging investor retirement accounts.  Elderly investors such as these find themselves especially at risk from poor investment recommendations made by brokers and securities firms because senior citizens are typically out of the workforce and have much less time and ability to recoup their losses than younger investors.  This is pertinent to yesterday’s win because, in setting the damages figure, the arbitration panel rightfully did not deduct investment income (i.e., dividends), which the claimants earned while they had their accounts open with Morgan Stanley.

This is also a notable win for Malecki Law because the case involved the purchase of MLPs, which is a “hot investment” on Wall Street these days.  MLPs offer high yields, but are generally recognized as risky and volatile investments, typically within the oil and energy sector, and are not suitable for most retirement accounts or conservative investors looking to preserve their capital.  In May of last year, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued an investor alert on MLPs to warn investors of the significant risks in these products, including unexpected tax consequences, fluctuations in distributions, and concentration exposure in the energy sector with acute sensitivity to shifts in the prices of oil and gas.

It seems like every day there is a new “hot stock” being pushed by financial pundits and brokerage houses alike.  Seadrill Limited (ticker symbol, SDRL) was once one of these hot stocks, but it has since fallen from grace, with wide reports that it will be declaring chapter 11 bankruptcy by early next week.  SDRL’s stock was known for its generous quarterly dividend, and, to the detriment of retiree investment portfolios, benefited from excessive promotions it received from those within the brokerage and investment industry.

SDRL is an offshore deep-water drilling contractor in the oil and gas sector.  It was founded in 2005 by John Fredriksen, a Norwegian-born billionaire, who was well-known for his triumphs in the oil and shipping industry during the 1980s.  The company grew quickly by way of aggressive management and acquisitions, and its stock price in September of 2013 surged to its high of over $47 per share.  However, SDRL has since spectacularly nosedived, falling by more than 99% in value to its current trading price of $0.23 per share.

As early as February 2012, Mad Money’s Jim Cramer was bullish on SDRL.  But so were big name brokerage firms like Morgan Stanley, which issued a research report in November 2013 that confidently touted SDRL as an overweight value stock.  In a subsequent research report from March 2014, Wells Fargo Securities named Seadrill’s subsidiary, Seadrill Partners, LLC (ticker symbol, SDLP), its “top Marine MLP Pick” and predicted “solid distribution growth” through 2015.  Notably, SDLP’s investment performance took a similar trajectory to its parent SDRL, at one-point trading over $34 per share in August of 2014, but now sitting barely above $3 per share today.

This is Part 2 of an article we posted last week on former NBA-great, Tim Duncan, where we introduced the investing lessons that could be gleaned from Duncan’s relationship with his former financial adviser, Charles A. Banks, who was permanently barred from the securities industry and is now serving a four-year prison term after pleading guilty to wire fraud.

For background on this story, it is a good idea to read Part 1 of this series, where we revealed our first lesson, which was to be wary of the financial adviser who constantly brings you deals.  While this might create the impression that your adviser is knowledgeable and has the inside scoop, it is frequently a sign of an adviser who is exposing you to unnecessary risk and trying to earn commissions or undisclosed fees that will eat away at your principal.

A second lesson from this sad story is to recognize a common fraud tactic, which may seem innocent, but should set off alarm bells and have you looking for a new financial adviser.  This is when an adviser asks a customer to sign a blank form or just a signature page, as Banks did with Duncan.  The adviser will often justify the practice as a time-saver and present it to the customer as a convenience, such as dropping blank forms in the mail with affixed post-it-notes that simply point the investor where to sign.  This request often sounds benign or reasonable to an investor, but it is in fact illegal and happens more often than many people realize.  Though this practice may seem harmless, signing forms in the absence of one’s adviser deprives the investor of an in-person interaction to ask useful questions and to have the adviser explain all the investment risks and hidden fees that may be associated with the investment.

Last month we learned that Tim Duncan’s financial adviser was sentenced by a federal court to four years in prison for defrauding the NBA legend of $7.5 million.  Duncan earned over $220 million during his playing career, so he is by no means financially ruined, but there are some good lessons to learn about investing and placing too much trust in the person who manages your money.

Tim Duncan is an accomplished, 15-time NBA All-Star and future Hall of Famer.  He retired in July 2016 after playing nineteen seasons of professional basketball with the San Antonio Spurs.  In today’s age of free agency and mega-million-dollar commercial endorsements, it is a rarity for a player to play his entire career with a single franchise.  As one of the greatest to ever play the game, Duncan could have sought greener pastures and taken his talents to the highest bidder in any city of his choosing.  Instead, he was noted for having taken yearly pay cuts to stay in San Antonio to allow the Spurs to remain under the league salary cap while paying for talent at other positions.  Duncan was generally known for his loyalty and being the consummate teammate and role model for fans and younger players.  His loyalty on the court perhaps says a lot about how he conducted himself off the court, where he showed similar trust and loyalty to the people in his daily life, including his financial adviser.

Last month, Duncan’s financial adviser, Charles A. Banks, IV, made headlines when a federal court in Texas issued a judgment against Banks, convicting him of wire fraud, and sentencing him to 48 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release.  The court also ordered Banks to pay $7.5 million in restitution.

It takes a lot of courage to report illegal or fraudulent misconduct by one’s own employer.  This is because being a whistleblower carries significant risks.  Whistleblowers not only risk their current employment, but possible ongoing retaliation that can harm their industry reputation and ability to find work with employers in the future.  Reporting wrongdoing can also invite significant emotional hardship and threats to one’s personal safety.  So why would anybody want to be a whistleblower?

For most with a moral compass, often doing the right thing is reward enough.  But there are an increasing number of laws, which now provide additional incentives – both in terms of anonymity and financial remuneration.  Depending on where one lives in the United States, there are various state whistleblower laws that could apply.  Federal laws tend to provide the most financial incentive, and in particular, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank), which was signed into law in 2010, as a measure to address the 2008 collapse of the financial services market.

Dodd-Frank was a notable expansion on pre-existing federal whistleblower laws for several reasons.  The earlier Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX), which was a measure in its own right to address the failings that led to the 2001 financial crisis, provides civil protections to employees (including officers or subcontractors) of a publicly traded company against any kind of retaliation by the employer.  While SOX has led to multi-million-dollar financial verdicts for the whistleblower, Dodd-Frank expanded eligibility of who could become a whistleblower, from employees under SOX, to anybody.  Section 78u-6(a)(6) of Dodd-Frank defines a whistleblower as follows:

Financial exploitation of the elderly by a financial advisor can take many shapes and forms, and it is indeed possible to recover one’s financial losses from the broker or financial institution who carried out and supervised the misconduct.  Wrongdoing by a financial professional can be difficult to expose because it often arises out of relationships built on trust, and can go undetected for many years by the affected senior and family members.

Some types of broker misconduct are easier to identify than others.  Cases of outright fraud, for instance, could include the broker forging an elderly customer’s signature, falsely representing the worth or activity in an account, omitting the risks of a particular investment, recommending and selling unnecessary investment products (e.g., certain annuities), or trading excessively in a customer account solely to generate commissions (otherwise known as “churning”).  Regardless of motive or intent, an investor’s financial losses from the misconduct can be no less catastrophic.  If anything, this should point to the incidence rate of financial abuse amongst the elderly to be more prevalent than many people realize.  Indeed, research has shown that American senior citizens lose over $36 billion per year from financial exploitation.  That number is only expected to rise with increasing life expectancy and the expanding demographic of senior citizens within the United States.

Financial elder abuse is also greatly underreported.  According to the National Adult Protective Services Association, only 1 in 44 cases of financial abuse is reported.  The National Center for Elder Abuse points to studies that have identified feelings of shame as being one reason for the underreporting, in part related to the embarrassment of having fallen victim to financial fraud, but also to the embarrassment of having to disclose that one is suffering from age-related memory loss or cognitive decline.  On this latter point, memory impairment of an elderly investor only adds to the underreporting of broker misconduct.

Can I Sue My Brokerage Firm for Filing a False Form U5?

Financial firms that deal in securities do carry legal liability for filing a Form U5 with false information, and financial advisors can indeed sue their former firms for filing an inaccurate Form U5.

Whenever a brokerage firm terminates the employment of a broker or financial advisor, the firm must file a Form U5 – the Uniform Termination Notice for Securities Industry Registration – with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) within thirty days of termination.  The Form U5 is differentiated from the Form U4 – the Uniform Application for Securities Industry Registration or Transfer – which is filed upon a broker’s registration with a firm, whereas the Form U5 is filed upon the broker’s termination. The Form U5 requires a firm to provide accurate answers to various questions, including the reason for a broker’s termination.

The short answer is no.

When a customer opens an investment account with a brokerage firm, he or she is typically given the option to choose between a discretionary or non-discretionary account.  A discretionary account gives the assigned broker or financial advisor the latitude, or discretion, to buy or sell securities in the account without the customer’s prior authorization.  In non-discretionary accounts, a broker does not have that discretion and must obtain the customer’s permission prior to each transaction.

For reasons that may seem obvious, discretionary accounts are somewhat of a rarity in the brokerage world, in part because they require much more supervisory oversight than non-discretionary accounts.  Discretionary accounts are naturally prone to a higher risk for abuse or mismanagement of funds, as there is less customer input and oversight of the trading.  Thus it should be no surprise that the securities laws for discretionary accounts are especially geared towards investor protection.