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Predicated on fear of a global slowdown and the uncertainty around coronavirus, the stock has experienced extreme volatility as it heads into bear territory. While it may be expected for even the bluest of blue-chip stocks to experience volatility,  investors should pay particular attention to their entire investment portfolios as it is in violate market climates that broker misconduct may reveal itself, especially as it relates to your investment objectives and suitability.

When the market suddenly drops, investment portfolios will reflect not only the fluctuations, but also the risks inherent inparticular strategies and investments. All securities carry risk, but some investment products have more than others. Risk tolerance refers to the level of uncertainty in investment performance that is acceptable to the investor. An investor’s risk tolerance is reflective of their financial situation, needs, age, objectives, time requirements, and other considerations. Generally, investors can be categorized within varying levels of conservative, moderate, or aggressive. The types of investments in an investor’s portfolio should reflect their risk tolerance. The changes that investors noticed in their portfolio during market shifts could be indicative of where their portfolio falls on this spectrum.

Investors with the lower risk tolerances should have a conservative investment strategy in place that shields their portfolio from significant declines in market downturns. The goal of conservative investors is to prioritize principal protection and liquidity over risky appreciation. A conservative investment portfolio will be mainly comprised of safer, low-risk fixed-income investments, such as bonds and certificates of deposits. While low-risk investments do not generate the highest returns, the chances of losing principal are much lower. Older individuals closer to retirement should have investment profiles that reflect a more conservative investment portfolio. It is a huge red flag for any conservative investors to have noticed a complete decline in their portfolio from the market downturn.

Today, Malecki Law, won a court appeal to allow an international investor to proceed in his securities lawsuit against Lek Securities Corporation and its principals (Samuel Lek and Charles Lek), allowing the case to go forward and be decided by a panel of arbitrators in the dispute resolution forum provided by the Financial Industry Authority (FINRA).  Today’s court order, which was issued by New York’s Appellate Division, First Department, reversed the July 19, 2019 order of the lower court (Supreme Court, New York County), which improperly granted Lek Securities a permanent stay (i.e., a halt) from arbitrating the dispute in FINRA.  The outcome of today’s decision is important because it adds color to the legal definition of who is a “customer” and, thus, who is eligible to bring their claims in FINRA arbitration.

Lek Securities is a U.S. brokerage firm regulated by the enforcement arm of FINRA – the largest independent regulatory body for securities trading and securities firms operating in the United States.  Within the fine print of their new account forms, all investors who open retail brokerage accounts with U.S. brokerage firms waive their rights to court and are, instead, required to arbitrate any disputes in FINRA.  However, FINRA provides a cost-effective arbitration forum that allows retail customers of brokerage securities firms to recover their lost investments much faster, and for far less money, than they would typically be able to in court.  This is due in part to arbitrations generally not being subject to appeal and arbitration having far less onerous discovery requirements, including not allowing depositions, generally speaking.   Arbitration in FINRA is also advantageous to investors because firms that lose in arbitration are incentivized to pay awards to customers within 30 days or otherwise have their brokerage licenses revoked.  While the firm is still operational, and while this case was waiting for the appeal to be decided, the owner of Lek Securities, Samuel Lek, who is also named in the instant lawsuit, was barred from the securities industry by FINRA and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in December of 2019.

In reversing the lower court’s decision, today’s order by the First Department holds that there was a customer relationship established between the investor and Lek Securities under the FINRA rules and in accordance with the law established in Global Mkts. Inc. v. Abbar, 761 F.3d 268 (2d. Cir. 2014) – a seminal case in which Malecki Law’s founder, Jenice Malecki, was instrumental in shaping and arguing before the Second Circuit.  The law in Abbar requires that to be a customer (and to therefore be eligible to arbitrate against a firm in FINRA), the investor must have either had an account or purchased a good or service from the firm.   In its court papers, Lek Securities claimed that the international investor had an account with the firm’s UK operations (LekUK), which is not subject to regulatory oversight in the United States, and that LekUK, in carrying out brokerage services for the investor, transferred the investor’s assets to the subject U.S. affiliate, and that any payment received by the Lek entity in the United States was incidental, and not received directly from the investor, but paid internally by LekUK.

Receiving a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is a serious matter as is the associated document production most SEC subpoenas call for. Not only do most all SEC subpoenas require the production of vast amounts of documents, electronic files and data, the manner in which the SEC strictly requires production (see here for SEC data delivery standards) can be confusing for most, especially those not familiar with electronic discovery. Our securities regulatory attorneys frequently assist clients with examining, gathering and producing responsive documents and data for production in a format accepted by the SEC. Our securities regulatory attorneys utilize state of the art electronic discovery software and tools that reduce both the amount of time required of you and the billable hour.

All the documents and electronic data called for by the subpoena may seem overwhelming, however, ensuring that your production is both completely responsive and delivered in compliance with the SEC data delivery standards is one of the only ways in which you will be able to help the investigation proceed quicker to a final resolution. Often an issue for clients is the seemingly broad wording of SEC subpoenas, our securities regulatory attorneys are practiced in helping clients better understand what items are being sought by the SEC.  Thus, allowing you to limit your time spent searching for documents and data. A responsive and compliant production also limits the amount times that you and/or your attorney will need to spend in working with the SEC.  It is important to turn off any auto-delete functions that you may have in place to preserve your data and documents and DO NOT destroy anything. Not only will the destruction of any documents complicate your matter you may also face an obstruction charge.

It is imperative that you carefully comply in a timely manner with an SEC subpoena. The SEC can enforce a subpoena if you fail to comply with what the subpoena calls for and a failure to comply with court orders could result in contempt charges. Our securities regulatory attorneys are often able to negotiate the scope and timing of productions, including an extension of time for clients document production and testimony (if called for).It is also important that your response to the subpoena includes any legal objections that you may be entitled to. Remember, your response does not end the process.  The SEC may consider your Subpoena response for weeks or months before they decide whether further investigation is necessary.

Last week, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) censured and assessed a fine of $50,000 against a national investment firm, Paulson Investment Company LLC, in connection with its sale and solicitation of private placement offerings to investors, in violation of Rule 506 of Regulation D and Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933.  Among other things, Regulation D (more commonly known as Reg D) provides a legal “safe harbor” for investment firms to sell and market private placements, which are restricted securities (i.e., not traded on a public market and therefore carry more risk), to no more than 35 non-accredited investors, provided the firm has a pre-existing relationship with that investor.  The law is intended to prevent advertising and marketing to non-accredited investors – a legal term for those who do not have the requisite financial means to bear risk or who are unsophisticated and cannot appreciate the risks of purchasing an investment that is typically illiquid and cannot readily be traded on a national exchange.  In violation of Reg D, as well as FINRA Rule 2010 (requiring all member firms to conduct their business with high standards of commercial honor), FINRA found that Paulson solicited 11 individuals and sold six separate private placement offerings, totaling approximately $4.5 million, prior to having a pre-existing and substantive relationship with these investors.

Perhaps this barely registers as a newsworthy event; brokerage firms are censured and fined all the time by regulators, and for much more than $50,000.  Paulson is considered a small to medium-sized firm and it is registered in 53 states and territories.  The firm has been licensed as a member brokerage firm with FINRA since 1971 and has carried its registration as an investment advisory firm with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) since 1983.  However, there are other recent developments at Paulson, particularly at its 40 Wall Street office in New York City, which should give pause to any investor or prospective retiree.

While Paulson derives more than 50% of its revenue from underwriting activities, it also engages in general brokerage activities by buying and selling investments for retail investors.  Among the brokers or registered employees at its Wall Street address, there are currently seven individuals with at least 3 or more public disclosures in the Central Registration Depository (CRD) known as BrokerCheck, a national database that tracks the background and disciplinary history of stockbrokers and other financial professional concerning customer complaints, regulatory or criminal events, and other financial disclosures (such as personal bankruptcy or tax liens).  This is significant, because, according to FINRA, most brokers have a clean history, with approximately 4% having been subject to at least one customer complaint, but only less than 0.41% with 3 or more BrokerCheck complaints.   Paulson’s Wall Street office alone employs seven such individuals with 3 or more disclosures.  But this is only scratching the surface.

Last week, a New York City panel of arbitrators with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) unanimously awarded an investor represented by Malecki Law over $200,000 in damages, plus attorneys’ fees of $67,000 and 5% interest dating back to May 2018.  The panel’s award found the New Jersey-based brokerage firm Network 1 Financial Securities Inc. to be liable in connection with the investor’s allegations of unsuitable investment recommendations, misrepresentations (NY General Business Law § 349), and failure to supervise its broker/financial adviser, Robert Ciaccio, who now has 7 disclosures on his public FINRA BrokerCheck disciplinary record (5 customer complaints and 2 regulatory censures).  The investment at issue was Proshares Ultra Bloomberg Crude Oil 2X (otherwise known by its stock symbol UCO), which Mr. Ciaccio recommended to the investor but failed to disclose the numerous risks associated with this product, which belongs to a group of products known as Non-Traditional Exchange Traded Funds (or Non-Traditional ETFs).

FINRA, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and other regulators have repeatedly warned firms against selling Non-Traditional ETFs because they are difficult to understand and carry risks that are not easily understood by the typical investor.  Unlike a simple investment like a stock or bond, Non-Traditional ETFs are fee-laden, structured products, built with derivatives and complex mathematical formulas, which, in “simplest” terms, offer leverage and are designed to perform inversely to an outside benchmark index (e.g., the S&P 500, VIX, etc.).  Noting the popularity of these high-risk, high-cost products, FINRA has issued numerous investor alerts and warnings to member brokerage firms about Non-Traditional ETFs, stating:

“While such products may be useful in some sophisticated trading strategies, they are highly complex financial instruments that are typically designed to achieve their stated objectives on a daily basis. Due to the effects of compounding, their performance over longer periods of time can differ significantly from their stated daily objective. Therefore, inverse and leveraged ETFs that are reset daily typically are unsuitable for retail investors who plan to hold them for longer than one trading session, particularly in volatile markets….  In particular, recommendations to customers must be suitable and based on a full understanding of the terms and features of the product recommended; sales materials related to leveraged and inverse ETFs must be fair and accurate; and firms must have adequate supervisory procedures in place to ensure that these obligations are met.”

With the highly-publicized Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, which resulted in an ABC mini-series and the HBO original movie, Wizard of Lies, investors might tend to think that Ponzis are a thing of the past.  But Ponzi schemes are alive and well, and may even be on the rise.  According to a New York Times report from last week, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has prosecuted 50 percent more Ponzi cases in the last 10 years since the Madoff scheme was busted, affecting over 4 million investors in 291 Ponzi cases, ultimately costing investors more than $31 billion in losses.

This week, the SEC filed charges against yet another Ponzi fraudster, James T. Booth, who the SEC alleges to have conducted a multi-year scheme, defrauding approximately 40 investors out of up to $10 million.  The SEC complaint alleges that Mr. Booth fabricated elaborate account statements for his clients, many of whom were seniors and unsophisticated investors who utilized Mr. Booth to manage their retirement savings.  Mr. Booth is 74 years old and resides in Norwalk Connecticut, and he is the founder of Booth Financial Associates, a firm originally created by Booth to sell advisory services and insurance products.

Mr. Booth was also a financial advisor registered with the investment advisory and brokerage firm LPL Financial LLC, a firm that is registered with the SEC and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).  Over time, Mr. Booth would solicit his customers from LPL to wire money away from LPL to invest in opportunities elsewhere, with promises of safer investments or higher returns.

The investment and securities fraud attorneys at Malecki Law are currently investigating UBS’s Yield Enhancement Strategy (“YES”) for the purpose of investor recoveries. Our attorneys are interested in hearing from investors and others who have information and/or have experienced losses due to UBS YES or other complex yield enhancing investments regardless of the brokerage firm.

It appears that the YES strategy may have been sold to UBS clients as a conservative and low-risk investment strategy that would provide them with an increased yield (income) in their portfolio. In fact, in our opinion, the strategy was an esoteric leveraged options strategy that utilized an options strategy known as the Iron Condor, which is inherently risky as it relies on consistent stability in the markets.

USB YES employing the esoteric Iron Condor strategy uses a leveraged options strategy in a client’s portfolio. UBS would use the client’s assets as collateral in a margin account then execute four different options trades, simultaneously selling calls and puts in an attempt to generate income and buying calls and puts in an attempt to hedge risk. This resulted in the creation of a price spread. If the price of the index or security the options were a derivative of stayed within the spread it would produce a premium to the investor. However, the excessive volatility experienced by the markets recently and most notably in the fourth quarter of 2018 blew through these spreads resulting in serious losses to investors.

FINRA-registered brokerage firm, Nomura Securities International, Inc., will pay over $25 million to settle the SEC’s allegations that its supervisory shortcomings permitted traders to defraud customers in transactions involving mortgage-backed securities. In two related enforcement actions, the SEC details how five former Nomura brokers allegedly made misrepresentations to customers while selling non-agency commercial real estate (CMBS) and residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) between 2010 and 2014. As part of the settlement, Nomura will pay $20.7 million to RMBS customers and $4.2 million to CMBS customers as reimbursement for profits obtained from the brokers’ misrepresentations along with a$1.5 million regulatory fine. Our investor fraud lawyers highlight this case as an example of the potential fraud that could occur in markets as opaque as that for mortgage-backed securities.

According to the SEC, Nomura traders allegedly mislead customers about the cost of the securities and the profit the firm would receive from transactions. Notably, the traders reportedly inflated the prices of securities by sometimes even doubling the actual cost. The SEC also alleges that the Nomura brokers would sometimes claim to still be in negotiations with a third party while already having the mortgage-backed securities in their possession. The traders were able to get away with their misrepresentations because the secondary trading market for mortgage-backed securities does not make trade prices public. Therefore, customers can only rely on the words of their financial professionals. The trust should have been safeguarded by proper oversight by the brokerage firm. However, Nomura’s alleged “weak” supervisory procedures enabled otherwise discernible and preventable fraud to go undetected.

Mortgage-backed securities are fixed-income investments collateralized by a pool of residential or commercial real estate loans. The creation process of these asset-backed securities entails banks selling mortgages to an entity that securitizes the pool for sale to investors. Entities that issue mortgage-backed securities could be a federal government agency, government-sponsored enterprise, or a securities firm. Investing in mortgage-backed securities entitles the investor to the interest payments and principal paid by the original burrower. Investors can expect a coupon rate, known as the yield, equivalent to the borrower’s payments to their mortgage. The amount of risk involved in mortgage-backed securities depends on the issuer. Mortgage-backed securities issued by the Government National Mortgage Association, a U.S government agency guarantee that investors receive timely payments. However, private institution-issued mortgage-backed securities do not have such protections.

The House of Representatives has voted to block funding for the highly contentious four-pronged investment advice reform package deemed “Regulation Best Interest” through an amendment to the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act. Huge fiduciary duty proponent, Rep.  Maxine Waters, D-California proposed this amendment which prevents the SEC from using any funds under the Act to enforce Regulation Best Interest. The amendment could halt the SEC’s recently approved advice package, which includes Regulation Best Interest, Form CRS Relationship Summary and the agency’s interpretations of two concepts under the Investment Advisors Act. Our investor fraud attorneys echo Maxine Waters sentiments that the final rules fail to include the much-needed fiduciary duty and only facilitates further confusion, which is a far cry from strengthening investor protection.

Regulation Best Interest emerges a year the courts repealed Obama Era’s Department of Labor’s fiduciary standard, which required advisors to put their client interests first. Historically, the regulatory landscape distinguished between financial advisors who were obligated to legitimately act as fiduciaries and brokers not held to as stringent of a standard. Investment advisors are required to show an ongoing duty of loyalty and care, in serving their clients best interests at all times under the Investment Advisors Act of 1940. Meanwhile, brokers were only obliged to meet a “suitability standard,” according to FINRA rules, when recommending securities to investors. Under FINRA rule 2111, brokers must have a “reasonable” belief that a potential investment product or strategy is “suitable” for the investor based on the customer’s age, objectives, risk tolerance, and other information.

The most significant rule included in the standards reform package, Regulation Best Interest is intended to strengthen the duty of care owed by brokers above just the suitability standard. The SEC claims that the regulations would disclose conflicts and clarify the duties owed to investors. However, under these rules, broker-dealers are only required to disclose, but not necessarily mitigate any conflicts of interests with investors, unless state law is more strict. With this in mind, brokers are still not required to put their client’s interests entirely before their own genuinely if state law does not provide protection. Essentially, brokers can now advertise themselves as serving their clients’ “best interest” while not putting their clients’ interests first absent state prohibitions. While more disclosures are always beneficial, Regulation Best Interest fails to raise the standard of care enough to help investors not get taken advantage of by unscrupulous financial professionals.

Former Windsor Capital broker, Jovannie Aquino has been barred from working in the industry by the Securities and Exchange Commission after allegedly churning his retail customers’ accounts. The SEC further alleged that Mr. Aquino executed trades in client’s accounts during his time as a registered representative at Windsor Capital between May 2014 and November 2017. While at least seven customers incurred at least $881,000 in losses, Mr. Aquino generated $935,000 in profits, according to the SEC. A recent administrative proceeding order issued by the SEC reveals that Mr. Aquino consented to a final judgment enjoining him from future violations. Our securities attorneys have investigated into the SEC’s findings on Jovannie and many other brokers accused of engaging in fraud involving churning claims.

According to the SEC’s complaint, Mr. Aquino allegedly gained control of these customer accounts through cold-calls using publicly-available databases. Once Mr. Aquino held these seven customer accounts, he reportedly recommended a series of frequent, short term-trades. Even though the customer accounts were non-discretionary, Mr. Aquino allegedly made trades without their explicit permission. Allegedly, Mr. Aquino profited through excessive markups/markdowns, commissions, and other fees from churning these accounts.

Churning is when a broker frequently trades in a customer’s account to profit from the commissions. Although there is no exact formula to demonstrate churning, the securities industry informally considers turnover rates and cost-to-equity ratios to be indicative of this behavior. The average turnover rate, defined as the percentage of securities replaced in a given year was 28.9 for these customer accounts. Such a number is well above the minimum of 6, that usually suggests excessive trading. Additionally, the average annualized cost-to-equity, the break-even ratio for Mr. Aquino’s seven customer accounts was 87%. Based on that metric, the customers’ portfolio values would have to increase by at least 87% on average to see any profits.

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