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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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Margin call disputes often arise during times of market turmoil such as now.  Knowing what to do and whom to speak to when a margin call is issued is vitally important to an investor’s financial well-being.  Here is a little primer on what to do.

A margin call often occurs when the value of an investor’s margin account falls below the broker dealer’s required amount. A margin call is the broker dealer’s demand that an investor deposit additional money or securities so that the value of the account is brought up to the minimum value, which is known as the maintenance margin.  Some margin calls are small and an investor simply has to move securities in from another account or write a check to the broker.  However, in other situations, the acts by the broker dealer prior to the margin call being issued may have played a role in the margin call itself.

For example, a conservative investor often should not be holding any securities on margin at a brokerage firm.  If the firm recommended an unsuitable investment strategy that contained a significant amount of margin, and the market turned bad, and the investor sustained losses, said investor may have a potential FINRA arbitration claim against the broker.  In these situations, when a margin call is issued on the account, we highly recommend that the investor call a law firm such as ours who regularly represents investors in disputes with the financial industry.  It is paramount that the investor receives legal advice as soon as possible.  Most broker dealers have very broad powers in how to handle margin calls pursuant to onerous margin agreements.  The brokers sometimes even blow out investors’ portfolios without providing any notice (though they are supposed to exercise good faith in any decision they implement).  Time is usually of the essence.  It is important to have counsel engage with the broker dealer as soon as possible to potentially work out any issues.

Many firms, such as TD Ameritrade, Charles Schwab and Fidelity, whose business model includes or is tailored primarily to investors who want the benefits of a self-directed account also offer to introduce investors who wish independent investment advice to professional investment advisors who are technically “unaffiliated” with the firm.  Such investment advisors are often small SEC Registered Investment Advisors (“RIA”s) who are thinly capitalized and have supervisory systems that are well below FINRA broker dealer standards. The brokerage firms contract with such RIAs to be on their platforms and available to provide advice to customers that the firm introduces them to.   Those contracts are often designed to, among other things, insulate the brokerage firm from liability for investment advice given to the investor. This is so even though the brokerage firms vet such advisors, who become part of a “platform” they market to investors. Investors who are “introduced” by their firm to an RIA who will provide them investment advice may not realize that the firm’s position is that if the advice is inappropriate the RIA and not the firm is legally responsible.  Indeed, the firms structure their contracts with the customer as well as the RIA to give them this protection. Customers can be easily misled by such “introductions” into believing that the firm stands behind the RIA. Although the legal documents, couched in legalese, may so specify, the customer, who often does not read all the legalese in these documents, can be forgiven for believing that the firm that recommended the advisor and investment plan should have some responsibility if that advisor acts improperly. Investors at such firms need to know that they are taking a risk that if their firm recommended RIA gives them unsuitable advice they may be stuck suing a potentially judgment proof RIA in court (rather than the more cost effective FINRA arbitration).

In a move intended to emphasize that FINRA’s ultimate mandate is to protect investors, the SRO’s National Adjudicatory Council last week issued newly-revised Sanction Guidelines including tougher ranges of recommended punishments to be meted out against member firms or brokers who commit fraud or make unsuitable recommendations to customers.

Since 1993, FINRA has maintained and published “Sanction Guidelines” setting forth common securities rule violations and the range of disciplinary actions FINRA can issue for such violations, including monetary fines as well as suspensions, bars from the industry and other sanctions.

Specifically, the revised Guidelines, announced in Regulatory Notice 15-15 available on FINRA’s website at www.finra.org, contain revisions to the Sanctions relating to two specific areas: (i) fraud, misrepresentations or material omissions of fact; and (ii) suitability and the making of unsuitable recommendations to investing customers. According to the Notice, the ramped-up sanctions are meant to reinforce that fraudulent conduct is unacceptable, and that FINRA adjudicators on the Regulatory side should consider strong sanctions for such conduct, including barring or expelling repeat offenders, particularly where aggravating factors outweigh mitigating ones. With regard to unsuitability, the heightened punishments include an increase in the high-end range of suspensions from one year to two, as well as recommending bars, suspensions or expulsions for the most egregious recidivists.

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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