Articles Posted in Securities Fraud & Unsuitable Investments

If you want to find trouble on Wall Street, follow the money.  A “troubled broker” is a broker more concerned for his or her commissions than the quality of the investments he or she recommends.  Finding investors for private placements can be very lucrative for a broker, but very risky for a client.  As complaints about a broker mount on his CRD, so does the lifespan of a broker and as their career prospects dwindle, they become more desperate. While not all private placements are bad investments, they must be approached with extreme caution and are not appropriate for all investors.  If you get presented with a private placement, the very prospectus states: you should consult an attorney before signing.  It’s a mandatory disclosure that regulators believe you should get and you should not ignore it.  You should always consult a good New York securities lawyer before you give large amounts of your money to a non-public company in its infancy.  Understanding the investment, the company and doing due diligence is the only way to protect your interests.   If you don’t want to spend time or money to do that, don’t invest.  The “next big thing” your broker might be selling you on may be your “next big problem.”  There’s no free lunch.

These concerns about the multi-billion-dollar private capital markets are sound, based on a Wall Street Journal report finding that firms selling private placements have a much higher proportion of “troubled brokers”. The study compared the percentages of brokers with customer complaints, regulatory investigations and other disclosures at firms selling private placements with industry norms.  Among the worried securities industry members include former FINRA enforcement chief, Robert Bennet who allegedly proclaimed private placements as a “perennial concern for regulators.”. Private placement is the offer and sale of unregistered securities to a limited number of investors for a company’s capital generation. Our securities fraud attorneys always knew that a higher prominence of “troubled brokers” is at firms selling private placements, now our belief has been confirmed.

According to the WSJ study, of the firms selling private placements, half had at least one troubled broker out of every ten brokers.  Conversely, of the included firms that didn’t sell private placements, over 75% had less than that amount. Additionally, the analysis shows that half of the firms expelled by FINRA since 1993 sold private placements, despite comprising a lesser amount of the total industry. The private capital market has continued to rise with a reported $750 billion in sales. Given this, any insights about private placements should be known by investors, securities fraud attorneys, brokers and other affected financial industry members.

Hector May, a former highly regarded member of the community in Rockland and Orange counties, is under investigation by several governmental entities. Reportedly, allegations include that Hector May misappropriated investor funds. In a Lohud/The Journal News article, Jenice Malecki, Esq. discusses how her clients and other investors have lost millions from Hector May in what she believes to exemplify a Ponzi scheme. Given her significant experience representing Ponzi scheme victims, Ms. Malecki finds many parallels with Hector May’s actions.

A Ponzi scheme is a type of investment fraud that relies on a constant money flow of new deposits to produce false “returns” to existing investors. New deposits are never actually invested and instead directly allocated to the schemer’s personal funds. Our clients, along with other investors, lost their retirement assets when Hector May sold unsophisticated investors what appears to be fictitious “tax-free” corporate bonds, an impossible investment.  Hector May continuously increased his personal wealth at the cost of clueless investors losing their hard-earned life-savings. Eventually, Ponzi victims stop receiving promised returns, collapsing the scheme. It is very likely that Hector May was exposed from not being able to return money to a large investor. Ponzi schemes typically endure for as long as new victims continue to “invest” into the produced returns; withdrawals collapse them.

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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.

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  • Salesperson seems to openly live a lavish lifestyle: The most famous Ponzi schemers have been infamous for their extravagant lifestyles. Scott Rothstein, the mastermind in a $1.2million Ponzi scheme said, “We were living like rock stars; private jets, massive amounts of money. There were lots of things that kept fueling that,” in his 2011 deposition testimony (reported in Forbes 2014). Be cautious if you are approached by a broker or advisor who fits the bill. As an extra precautionary measure, check your broker out on FINRA’s BrokerCheck.
  • Their marketing/ sales documents look like they could have come out of a printer in their home! Robert Van Zandt, known as the Bernie Madoff of Bronx, who was criminally prosecuted for running a Ponzi scheme, distributed homespun brochures that said “Learn to Earn 9% On Your Investment.” The quality of their marketing materials could be a good indication of the credibility of the investment.
  • “Guarantees” with high returns: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Look out for buzzwords like “High Return” or “Risk-Free” Investments. But in reality no investment is risk-free. In fact, higher probability of return is usually associated with higher risks, according to the risk-reward tradeoff principle. So if you are offered a guaranteed high return investment with no risks, the chances are that you are dealing with a financial scam.

1207444_courtroom_1Michael J. Breton of Massachusetts was banned from the securities industry by the SEC according to a recent InvestmentNews report.  According to the report, Mr. Breton cost his clients $1.3 million by “cherry-picking” trades – i.e., placing trades through one central account then allocating the profitable trades to himself and the losing trades to clients.  This practice reportedly continued from 2011 to July of this past year.

 

On Wednesday, the SEC filed charges against Mr. Breton and Strategic Capital Management, Mr. Breton’s firm, in federal court in Massachusetts.  Mr. Breton has agreed to plead guilty to criminal securities fraud and forfeit $1.3 million, per the report.  According to InvestmentNews, the US Attorney’s Office has agreed to recommend a maximum sentence of no more than three years.

Financial industry stakeholders are all locked in a guessing game about the fate of the DOL Fiduciary rule in the new Trump administration. In 2015, the Obama administration and the DOL had introduced the Fiduciary rule that requires financial advisers to always act in the best interest of their clients when handling their retirement savings and removing unnecessary fees. Wall Street had continued to oppose it on the grounds of excessive costs and paperwork. The initial implementation deadline for the rule is set for April 2017.

According to an Investment News report, industry lobbyists are now expecting a quick response from the seemingly “business first” Trump administration to delay this investment advice rule. They expect the Fiduciary rule to be one of the first targets of the new administration. This delay could come in the form of a directive to agency heads to review and delay regulations that are not operational.

There are two courses that are expected: the Trump administration may issue an order to delay the implementation of the fiduciary rule and have another regulation, an “interim rule” in its place. Or they could propose a delay but this would be tricky because for a rule that technically became effective last June, the administration is legally obligated under the Administrative Procedure Act to go through a public notice and comment period.

Retirement SavingsLast year, the Obama administration introduced the Fiduciary rule that requires financial advisers to always act in the best interest of their clients when handling their retirement savings. It was expected to be a big industry shakeup, making financial advice more reliable, compensating advisers with a flat-fee model and reasonable compensations, incentivizing them to really act on their client’s best interest as opposed to their own personal gain. The DOL’s Fiduciary rule was aimed at stopping the $17 billion a year that gets wasted in exorbitant fees.

The banks and Wall Street have continued to oppose this rule on grounds of lengthy paperwork and compliance expenses. Financial firms were anxious that once the rule is in effect, they will not be able to make as much money. Republicans have expressed that repealing this rule is on their agenda. Now with Trump as the President elect, and Republicans holding majority in both Houses, there is a fear that legislative action will be taken to kill the much-needed Fiduciary rule.

Joseph Peiffer of PIABA (Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association) was quoted in the InvestmentNews, “If he (Trump) wins, no one knows what the hell is going to happen.” Now that Trump has won, the fate of the rule hangs in the balance. There are others who think that the rule is here to stay, inspite of the unpredictability.

BondsIn the recent years, we witnessed a sharp decline in Puerto Rican municipal bond prices and related assets, resulting in an upsurge in FINRA claims, arbitrations and awards. This has revealed new insights into the bond market and we anticipate a wave of FINRA Arbitration cases linked to bonds and fixed income asset classes.

After the recession in 2008, there has been a massive movement away from equities towards the seemingly less-risky and volatile asset class of bonds, creating a spike in demand for U.S. treasuries, corporate and municipal bonds. More than $1 trillion has flowed into the U.S. bond market since 2008.

Bonds are sensitive to interest rates and it’s pricing inversely proportional to interest rates. Fed has explicitly stated their intent to hike interest rates going forward, therefore, a fall in bond prices can be reasonably anticipated. Rising interest rates will result in losses for bond investors, most immediate effect being paper losses, and the inability to sell those bonds without incurring actual losses for a long time. Majority of the impact will be felt by longer term bond investors with 10 years or more to maturity and by non-treasury bond holders that tend to fall faster as rates rise.

12234_corporate_blurThe investment and securities fraud attorneys at Malecki Law are interested in hearing from investors who have complaints regarding Wells Fargo financial advisor Robert Ross.  According to his BrokerCheck report maintained by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”), Mr. Ross recently moved to Wells Fargo after spending 30 years at Merrill Lynch.

Mr. Ross was recently the subject of a customer complaint alleging unsuitable investment recommendations and excessive trading, per FINRA records.  BrokerCheck indicates that an arbitration related to this customer complaint is presently pending.

Excessive trading, also known as churning, in the industry can be disastrous for a portfolio.  When a broker trades an account excessively, large amounts of commissions and fees may be generated, if the account is commission based (as opposed to fee based).  Churning is a classic example of a broker putting his or her own monetary gain above the best interests of his or her customer.

end-is-nearThe securities fraud attorneys at Malecki Law are interested in hearing from investors who have complaints against stockbroker Richard William Martin.  Mr. Martin was most recently employed and registered from July 2009 to July 2015 with G.F. Investment Services, LLC from an office in Penang, Malaysia, according to his publicly available BrokerCheck, as maintained by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).  According to BrokerCheck records, Mr. Martin was permitted to resign amid allegations concerning FINRA’s Case No. 20150445876 which “appears to be centered around ETF trades.”

According to the FINRA Complaint, Mr. Martin violated FINRA Rules 2310 and 2111 related to suitability of recommendations by “not having a reasonable basis to recommend, for long-term holding, non-traditional exchange traded funds (‘Non-traditional ETFs’).”  The FINRA Complaint details that Mr. Martin believed the world economy was “on the precipice of catastrophe and his customers should invest and hold Non-traditional ETFs to hedge against the impending catastrophe.”

The FINRA Complaint detailed that ETF shares generally represent an interest in a portfolio of securities that tracks an underlying benchmark or index, such as the S&P 500.  Non-traditional ETFs differ in that they are more complex investment products that rely on strategies, such as interest rate swap agreements, futures contract, and other derivative instruments, to attempt to return a multiple and/or inverse of an underlying benchmark.  This would generally make non-traditional ETFs subject to more risk, and therefore may not be suitable for certain investors.