Articles Posted in Complex Products

Investors lost millions in UBS’s high-risk Yield Enhancement Strategy (“YES”).  Despite UBS’s claims that this was a low-risk strategy and that losses were protected by hedging put and call options, investors had substantial losses when the S&P dropped in 2018 and 2019.  Even with these losses, UBS brokers continued to push this strategy onto investors.  Because of market volatility in early 2020, losses ensued further, causing investors to lose millions.  RIK’s investment fraud lawyers represent several claimants in multimillion-dollar FINRA arbitrations against UBS on behalf of YES investors.

Investors who suffered losses from the YES strategy began to file claims against UBS as early as February 2019.  Due to the coronavirus, FINRA arbitrations were conducted by videoconference for most of 2020 and 2021 (read more about FINRA Arbitrations During the Covid-19 Pandemic here).  As a result, several YES investors had their arbitration hearings held remotely.  Holding a remote hearing presents a variety of challenges and hurdles for investors.  Three of the most significant difficulties for a claimant to overcome in a remote hearing are gaining credibility with the arbitrators, earning sympathy, and conducting an effective cross examination of respondent witnesses.

Credibility is based on the competence of the witness and determines whether their testimony is worthy of belief.  In many cases, once the panel decides which witnesses are credible and which are not, the question of right and wrong is easily reached.  Panels determine credibility, in part, by observing and examining how witnesses and attorneys react to a lawyer’s questioning.  When a hearing is conducted through a two-dimensional platform, like videoconferencing, the ability to effectively and fully observe witness and attorney reactions is lost.

Although some registered representatives and financial firms downplay the risks involved with options trading, in reality, options trading can be an aggressive strategy that may entail high risks.  Because of the risks associated with option trading, it is generally only suitable for investors with a high net worth, experience, and an appetite for risk.  Brokers, financial advisors, and financial firms sometimes ignore a customer’s tolerance for risk and improperly approve options trading in the customer’s account.  Unfortunately, this can lead to tremendous losses in their accounts.  RIK recently filed several multi-million-dollar cases on behalf of investors to recover for losses relating to improper options trading.

Options are contracts that grant an investor the right, but not obligation, to buy or sell an underlying asset at a set price on or before a specific date.  Options trading has become popular amongst investors in recent years.  To be successful, options trading requires research, discipline, and constant market monitoring.  This type of trading involves high risk and requires special approval from the financial firm.

From the outset, options trading often comes with excessive fees which incentivizes brokers and advisors to recommend options trading to their clients regardless of the clients’ investment objectives and willingness to take on risk.  In doing so, the broker or advisor sometimes downplays the risks associated with an options trading strategy by claiming that the only potential downside is the initial cost of the contract or that the advisor can hedge the position.  Both notions can be misleading.  First, the investor pays a premium for options in addition to paying high commission fees.  This means the investor is at a loss the moment an option is purchased.  Secondly, hedging options is highly dependent on market conditions and is an extremely risky strategy in the current volatile market.

In recent years, options trading has become more popular with investors.  Because of the high risks associated with options trading, FINRA imposes specific rules and guidelines relating to trading options and which accounts can be approved for options trading.  For example, firms are required to have an options principal oversee option trading in accounts.  Moreover, in April 2021, FINRA sent a notice to members reminding them that, “[r]egardless of whether the account is self-directed or options are being recommended, members must perform due diligence on the customer and collect information about the customer to support a determination that options trading is appropriate for the customer.”  See FINRA, Notice to Members 21-15 (2021).

FINRA’s recent investigations and sanctions against financial institutions, brokers, and advisors for options-related violations demonstrate how serious rules relating to options approval and option trading are.  For example, last month FINRA imposed its largest financial penalty ever against Robinhood Financial LLC, in part, for failing to exercise due diligence before approving investors for options trading in self-directed accounts.  Below are other recent examples of options-related sanctions FINRA imposed on firms and individuals:

  • Cambridge Research, Inc. was censured, fined $400,000, and ordered to pay over $3,000,000 in restitutions for improper conduct relating to the firms “risky strategies” that relied on purchasing uncovered options – options where the seller does not hold the underlying stock and is required to have an option margin to show the ability to purchase the stock when needed (FINRA Case No. 2018056443801);

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.

Deutsche Bank has agreed to pay a fine of $55 million to settle charges by the SEC that it filed misstated financial reports during the height of the global financial crisis relating to a multibillion dollar portfolio of derivatives.

The SEC’s multi-year investigation culminated in an Order Instituting a Settled Administrative Proceeding, available on the SEC’s website. According to investigators, the bank overvalued a portfolio of derivatives consisting of Leveraged Super Senior (“LSS”) trades, through which it purchased protection against credit default losses. This leverage created a “gap risk”, which the bank initially took into account in its financial statements, by adjusting down the value of the LSS positions. However, according to the SEC’s Order, when the credit markets started to deteriorate in 2008, Deutsche Bank steadily altered its methodologies for measuring the gap risk. Each change in methodology reduced the value assigned to the gap risk until Deutsche Bank eventually stopped adjusting for gap risk altogether. In other words, the bank slowly tweaked its formula over the months so that the risk didn’t show in its financial reports.

Therefore, “at the height of the financial crisis, Deutsche Bank’s financial statements did not reflect the significant risk in these large, complex illiquid positions”, according to Andrew J. Ceresney, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement.

What are non-traditional exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and non-traded real estate investment trusts (REITs)? Why are independent broker dealers selling these complex products without proper supervision? FINRA wants to know and just slammed LPL Financial for doing such a thing.

This week, FINRA censured and fined LPL $10 million for broad supervisory failures in the sale of complex products such as leveraged ETFs and non-traded REITS. It also ordered LPL to pay an additional $1.7 million in restitution to certain customers who bought non-traditional ETFs.

This is a watershed moment for these and other complex products. First, LPL has over 14,000 brokers nationwide and is by a wide margin the largest independent broker dealer in the U.S. (Lincoln Financial Network with over 8,000 brokers is second). The biggest independent broker-dealer getting hit like this by FINRA is the equivalent of FINRA fining the old Merrill Lynch in wire house terms.

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