Articles Posted in Securities Fraud

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);

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.

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.

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

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 very high profile private share litigation, Theranos, a privately held health-technology and medical-laboratory-services company worth $9 billion as of 2014, has been sued this Monday by one of its largest and trusted financial backers, San Francisco hedge fund Partner Fund Management, LP (PFM).  It will be a widely watched, difficult case.

In its lawsuit in the Delaware Court of Chancery, PFM has accused Theranos Inc. and its founder Elizabeth Holmes of deceiving their fund to attract a $100 million in investment. PFM has sent a letter to investors accusing Theranos of “a series of lies, material misstatements, and omissions” and also “engaged in securities fraud and other violations by fraudulently inducing PFM to invest and maintain its investment in the company.” Furthermore, PFM makes the claim that Theranos intentionally lied about having developed “proprietary technologies” that would work and also lied about being in the process of receiving regulatory clearance and approval.

The Theranos case highlights the risks of even institutional investors like hedge funds investing in private companies. It is very difficult for investors to do proper due diligence on private companies. If things go poorly as they have here, a securities fraud case in Delaware court is challenging. There are strenuous pleading requirements and dispositive motion practice. Major investors are actually better off in arbitration where there are no pleading requirements and very limited dispositive motion practice. However, Theranos isn’t looking down a clear path to victory because the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating the allegations that Theranos misled investors. The SEC has subpoenaed PFM in the case and PFM will likely be more than willing to cooperate with authorities.

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.

Reuters reports that Morgan Stanley’s annual 10-K, filed March 2, 2015, indicates that the New York Attorney General intends to file a lawsuit related to 30 subprime securitizations sponsored by the company. This follows lawsuits and similar allegations by attorneys general in California, Virginia and Illinois. The New York Attorney General indicated that the lawsuit would allege that Morgan Stanley misrepresented or omitted material information related to the due diligence, underwriting and valuation of loans and properties. In the 10-K, Morgan Stanley stated that it does not agree with the allegations.

Morgan Stanley also reached a $2.6 billion agreement in principle last month with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California to resolve claims related to what it called “residential mortgage matters.”

It remains to be seen whether investors will reap any of the benefits of these government actions seeking to mend the damage done by the subprime mortgage crisis and the proliferation of mortgage-backed securities (MBS), residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS), and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).

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