COVID-19 Update: How We Are Serving and Protecting Our Clients.

Wall Street’s fastest growing trend is investing in Special Purpose Acquisitions Companies (“SPACs”).  SPACs are a way for private companies to go public without having to go through the traditional IPO process.  SPACs have been around for decades but have recently gained popularity in companies seeking to go public in this period of high market volatility.  Historically, SPACs were viewed as extremely risky investments.  The recent rise in SPACs does not change the high risks associated with them.  Some brokers and financial advisors ignore these risks and recommend customers invest in SPACs regardless of the customer’s investment profile and appetite for risk.  RIK’s investment fraud lawyers have extensive experience handling these types of cases and recovering losses for customers.

SPACs, also known as blank check companies, are companies created and publicly traded for the sole purpose of buying or merging with a private company in the future, known as the target company.  SPACs disclose criteria about the what kind of target company or companies it seeks.  Despite these disclosures, which are usually very limited and loosely defined, investors of the SPAC have no idea what the eventual acquisition company will be.  In other words, investors are going in blind.

In using SPACs to go public, private companies forego the process of registering an IPO with the SEC, meaning there is less oversight from the SEC.  The SPAC process also permits private companies to go public in a substantially shorter time period than a conventional IPO.  As one might suspect, the due diligence of the SPAC process is not as rigorous as a traditional IPO and no one is looking out for the best interests of investors.  Even worse, SPAC managers are not incentivized to obtain the best possible deal for investors – their job is to get a merger deal, not get the best deal.  Not surprisingly, this can lead to substantial harm to investors.  For example, the SPAC company may be overpaying for the target company – meaning investors are losing on the deal.

Annuities are insurance contracts that make routine payments to customers either immediately or at some point in the future.  This insurance contract allows investors to protect and grow their retirement savings while providing them with guaranteed income.  Some brokers and financial advisors recommend selling or exchanging annuities for “better” investment opportunities.  However, liquidating or exchanging an annuity comes with a high price– commissions, tax implications, and the loss of benefits associated with the original annuity.  For these reasons, liquidating or exchanging an annuity without very clear financial reasons may be  unsuitable for customers.  The securities fraud lawyers at Rich, Intelisano & Katz, LLP (RIK) have recovered millions for investors who suffered from annuity-related losses.

When investors sell or exchange their annuities, it comes with a heavy price.  First, when customers sell their annuity, they are subjected to costly fees and penalties.  For example, the customer may incur surrender charges and high cancellation fees.  Second, customers will lose all benefits associated with the annuity, such as legacy protection which is a death benefit to help provide a legacy for your loved ones.  Third, the customer forfeits expected benefits from the annuity– the customer will no longer have guaranteed income.  Fourth, taxes may become immediately due on the proceeds.  Lastly, there are often high commissions associated with the sale of annuities.

Regardless of the costs and losses associated with selling or exchanging annuities, brokers and financial advisors sometimes recommend such actions to customers in order to generate commissions for themselves.  Essentially, liquidating or exchanging annuities could potentially be a scheme for your broker or advisor to take money out of your savings and put it into their pocket.  What’s worse is that the broker or advisor will use your money from the sale of the annuity to purchase another annuity or other investment products further increasing commissions and fees.  Just like with any scheme to take advantage of customers, this is ill-suited and exceedingly improper.

Yes, many investors have filed claims to recover losses sustained as a result of their investments in NYC REIT, a real estate investment trust that purports to own “a portfolio of high-quality” commercial real estate located within the five boroughs of New York City.  This REIT began as a non-traded REIT, meaning it was not traded on an open exchange, making it is highly illiquid.  Not only was it difficult for investors to get out of their positions, share prices have dropped substantially since its initial private stock offering.  Investors were led to believe returns on the investment would exceed 10% on an annualized basis, but in reality, NYC REIT turned out atrocious for investors.  The securities lawyers at Rich, Intelisano & Katz (RIK) have been highly successful in recovering losses for investors who had positions in non-traded REIT investments.

NYC REIT is not a high-quality investment with annual returns exceeding 10%.  On the contrary, this REIT, like all REITs, is high risk and only suitable for a limited pool of investors – savvy investors who are wealthy and sophisticated with a long-term investment horizon.  First, NYC REIT is a non-traded REIT, which means it is significantly less liquid than REITs that trade on an open exchange.  As such, when investors want to sell their position, they are forced to sell their shares at a heavily discounted price.  Thus, non-traded REITs are rarely a suitable investment for most investors.  Second, NYC REIT owns only 8 mixed-use office and retail condominium buildings (which is miniscule compared to other REITS).  The limited portfolio creates an inherent high risk, such as limited diversification, less exposure to potential tenants, and the lack of ability to spread costs over a larger portfolio.  Unfortunately, NYC REIT severely underperformed and the risk associated with it became realized for many investors.

The NYC REIT was disastrous from the beginning.  The initial private stock offering price of the REIT was $25 per share.  By 2018, the price per share plummeted over 50%.  The board then decided to suspend future distributions – hurting investor cash flow.  Then, the board authorized a reverse stock split, an action that consolidates the number of existing shares of stock into fewer, proportionally more valuable shares (generally, a move to boost the company’s image if the stock price has dropped dramatically).  Then, when the REIT went public in August 2020, it was a complete failure.  NYC REIT, now trading on the New York Stock Exchange (“NYSE”) under the symbol “NYC,” dropped in value approximately 40% on the first day.  This abrupt decrease in share price left investors with significant losses.

Over the past several years, there has be an increasing number of registered investment advisors and financial advisors using omnibus accounts.  In short, an omnibus account allows an advisor to trade the same securities on behalf of multiple clients, while typically identifying in advance which trades are intended for which client accounts.  However, in some cases, trades are allocated after they are made.  This creates an increased risk of fraud since some firms’ supervisory failures have allowed advisors to “cherry-pick” which accounts get the winning trades, and which accounts suffer losses.  The securities fraud lawyers at Rich, Intelisano & Katz, LLP (RIK) won multiple claims against broker-dealers for allowing third parties to engage in this misconduct.

An omnibus account is intended to facilitate large purchase blocks of securities for multiple client accounts.  The idea of aggregating or bunching purchases in a single transaction is to obtain more favorable prices, lower brokerage commissions, and create more efficient execution.  After the trades are made, the advisor is supposed to allocate the trades to client accounts in accordance with the previously approved allocations.  The allocations of trades then should be reviewed by compliance and/or risk management periodically to ensure that accounts are not systematically disadvantaged by this policy.

Unfortunately, some advisors use this policy to scam their clients.  Sometimes allocation instructions are submitted after trades are executed, when the adviser has had the opportunity to view the performance of the trade over the course of the day.  By reviewing trade performance first, the advisor knows which trades are profitable and which are unprofitable, then can “cherry-pick” – that is to allocate the profitable trades to favored accounts and allocate losing trades to other disfavored accounts.

Rich, Intelisano & Katz, LLP (RIK) filed a $3 million FINRA arbitration this month on behalf of clients that invested in UBS Financial Services, Inc.’s Yield Enhancement Strategy (YES).  UBS claimed the YES Program had minimal risk, but unbeknownst to its customers, the risks of this options trading strategy significantly outweighed any potential gain.  Unfortunately, investors around the world lost hundreds of millions of dollars investing in YES.

Although UBS and its brokers claimed the YES Program had limited risk of loss, in actuality, this was a high-risk strategy.  UBS implemented the YES Program beginning in 2016 after it recruited a high-profile team of brokers from Credit Suisse with massive up front bonuses.   To entice customers to invest, UBS represented that the YES Program was a low-risk way to generate incremental income of 3% to 6% annually (before the deduction of fees).  UBS further stated that the Program used protective options trading combinations to create a market-neutral strategy, meaning the Program’s performance would have little correlation to the markets, thereby protecting investors from significant losses.  These low-risk and loss protection statements made by UBS contradict the actual risks associated with the Program.

The fact is that the YES Program was a high-risk, complex options strategy that subjected UBS customers to significant market exposure and risk of loss.  This complex options strategy involved hundreds of combinations of puts and calls.  The complexity of the program and the lack of adequate risk controls exposed YES investors to significant risk of loss – loss that was far beyond the alleged risk protection.  Specifically, YES investors were exposed to 15% to 40% of losses depending on their holding period, even though their expected annual income was only 3% to 6%.  In sum, YES was not the low-risk, market neutral, downside protection strategy that UBS had stressed to its customers.

Arbitration at FINRA has long been known as a quicker, more efficient alternative to court litigation of disputes eligible for submission to FINRA’s Dispute Resolution forum.  This continues to be true, to an even greater extent, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many courts at the federal and state levels, both in New York and across the US, have indefinitely suspended the filing of new nonessential cases during this time. Courts have also frozen the commencement of trials and the perfection of appeals in pending cases. And conferences, depositions and other in-person court appearances cannot take place where social distancing and large-group gathering guidelines are in effect. Thus, both new and pending court cases are in large part on hold until further notice, to protect the safety of parties, court personnel and the public.

At FINRA, however, the processing and handling of arbitration cases is primarily done electronically, with very little need for in-person contact until the final hearings on the merits. Even during the current unprecedented situation, parties can still file new cases at FINRA using the Dispute Resolution Portal, and can choose arbitrators and engage in discovery. Because FINRA arbitration does not allow for depositions except in extraordinary circumstances, the discovery process and exchange of documents and information can be done completely remotely and electronically, and without delay.  Parties or potential parties should be reassured that their new or already-pending cases will continue to be administered as they were before the current pandemic.

Cantor Fitzgerald has a practice of awarding its FINRA registered employees compensation in the form of partnership units in an associated entity called Cantor Fitzgerald, L.P. (CFLP), which is not a member of FINRA.  The employees are often employed by or registered with Cantor Fitzgerald & Co. (CF&Co.), the main Cantor FINRA-registered broker dealer.  Many Cantor employees have employment agreements with CF&Co. which provide for payment in CFLP partnership units.  The compensation in the form of CFLP partnership units can only be for the employees’ work as FINRA-registered representatives for CF&Co since the employees don’t work for CFLP.

As Bloomberg reported. Cantor recently announced layoffs.  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-16/cantor-to-cut-hundreds-of-jobs-in-break-from-wall-street-pledge

Many employees who are laid off may own significant amounts of CFLP partnership units.  If an employee believes he or she is not being compensated fairly with respect to the partnership units, what can an employee do?  Our firm has handled this issue with Cantor before.  The answer, if the employee is a FINRA registered representative, is he or she can bring a FINRA arbitration against CF&Co. to recover the value of the partnership units.

We are increasingly hearing from investors who say that their investment representative at their “self directed” broker dealer—such as T.D. Ameritrade—recommended an outside investment advisor who was not formally affiliated with the firm and incurred investment losses as a result.

There could be many reasons why this may happen: the investment representative may have a financial arrangement with the advisor, or a personal relationship, or even just trying to be helpful. However, this is a problem that is obviously foreseeable for such firms, and sometimes lands an unwitting investor with a fraudster.  In fact, such firms discourage their investment representatives from giving any investment advice because that can expose them bring to potential liability if the advisor or advice is unsuitable or fraudulent. Nevertheless, investment representatives sometimes make recommendations of outside unaffiliated advisors to their customers.  The question is can the firm be legally responsible if the recommended advisor’s strategy is not suitable or fraudulent. The general rule is that if an investment representative recommends that a customer use an outside advisor, or even brings such an advisor or her strategy to the attention of the customer, the firm may be liable in FINRA arbitration to the customer if the advisor/strategy is unsuitable or fraudulent and losses are incurred as a result.

Brokerage firms that use the self directed business model try to protect themselves by inserting language in their client agreements that purports to absolve them of such liability. However, FINRA frowns on brokerage firm attempts to insulate themselves contractually for liability resulting from breach by their registered representatives of industry rules, such as the suitability rule. In addition, at least one FINRA panel has awarded damages against T.D. Ameritrade in just such a case. https://www.finra.org/sites/default/files/aao_documents/18-01404.pdf

The market for financial advisors to transition from one firm to another is thriving despite less broker dealers being part of the Broker Protocol, the global economy being at a near standstill, and millions of Americans applying for unemployment on a weekly basis. The wire houses are actively recruiting and Fidelity recently announced its hiring efforts: https://jobs.fidelity.com/ With a volatile stock market causing extreme angst among investors, advisors are in high demand as they calm unsteady nerves and identify investment opportunities for weary clients. Given these realities, it would seem an unlikely time for advisors to make the jump from one firm to another. But many advisors – and the firms who have stepped up their recruiting efforts during the pandemic – feel otherwise.

Attempting to move an entire book of business during unprecedented market volatility can certainly be a risky endeavor, but there are good reasons to consider taking the leap at this particular time. Having experienced counsel will help too.

First, in light of the stock market roller coaster of the past several weeks, investors are more inclined to remain with the advisor upon whom they’ve come to rely, regardless of which firm he or she works.

Mortgage REITs have often been recommended by brokerage firms as safe investments that generate consistent income.  However, during the recent market turmoil the bottom has fallen out for many Mortgage REITs.  For example, AGNC Investment and Annaly Capital are down over 50% in the last month or so, a way larger drop than the general equities markets.  Another Mortgage REIT, AG Mortgage, is down 75%.  Many of these mortgage REITs do not expect to be able to meet upcoming margin calls.

How did these mortgage REITs end up here?  Well, first of all, a REIT is a real estate investment trust which is a security that invests in real estate directly either through properties or in this case, mortgages or mortgage-related bonds.  The mortgage REITs listed above are publicly held and sold on exchanges. There are also what are called non-traded REITs which are often sold through broker-dealers and are not traded publicly.  Mortgage REITs invest and own property mortgages. They also loan money for mortgages to real estate owners, buy existing mortgages and purchase complicated MBS (mortgage-backed securities). Mortgage REITs generate revenue by collecting interest on the mortgage-related products.

As reported widely this week, the Mortgage REITs often fund themselves by pledging bonds in return for cash in the repo markets.  They are highly leveraged which in good times allowed them to pay dividends at higher yields than most bonds.  Brokers often recommend to investors to reach for yield in low yielding time periods and many brokers sold Mortgage REITs to investors without fully disclosing the risks associated with them.  In recent weeks, many Mortgage REITs found that the mortgage bonds they held dropped in value which triggered margin calls which then forced the Mortgage REITs to sell bonds into a falling market.

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