Wall Street Says It’s Classier Than “Wolf of Wall Street.” Really?

The depiction of stock brokers in that “Wolf of Wall Street” movie has the securities industry on the defensive. In my column today for Investopedia.com, I talk about how a faction that considers itself the “real” Wall Street is anxious to get the word out that it has no similarity to the thugs who appear in the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio.

Ask a pal at a Wall Street firm about the box-office hit The Wolf of Wall Street, and brace for one of those sour faces that suggests there’s a bad smell in the room. Those sex-obsessed, drug-taking thugs who ripped off investors in Martin Scorsese’s all-time, biggest-grossing film have nothing in common with the refined investment professionals who do business on real Wall Street, they will tell you.

But that’s not entirely true. The Wall Streeters who wear expensive suits and do business in Manhattan may not be tossing midgets around the trading room, as the perhaps less genteel Long Island brokers in the movie did. They aren’t above hurting investors, though.

“If people understood the similarities between Belfort and Wall Street, there would be a riot in this country,” says Dennis Kelleher, CEO of the investor advocacy group Better Markets Inc. Kelleher explains, for example, that Belfort’s operation dealt in barely-regulated penny stocks that came with either skimpy information or documents that twisted or obfuscated the facts. On conventional Wall Street, says Kelleher, firms bask in the convenience of the opaque, too, trading the kinds of over-the-counter derivatives that helped crash the economy in 2008.

Here’s a link to the story.

One in Five Senior Citizens Fall for Financial Scams

As many times as I’ve run across stories about financial ripoffs of the elderly, I still can’t help but be shocked at the cruelty it takes to fleece people who are so fragile. In my article yesterday for TheStreet.com, I wrote about how much worse the problem has become, and how it will only get worse from here.

While elder financial abuse is in some respects nothing new in the annals of fraud, the aging of the baby boom generation and Americans’ increasing longevity are coming together in a perfect storm that could cause the problem to skyrocket. A 2010 survey by the Metropolitan Life Foundation estimated that victims of elder financial abuse lost at least $2.9 billion in 2010, up 12% from 2008.

I begin with a story about 73-year-old Charles S. Bacino, who lay dying in a hospital bed in 2012 when the man he called his “financial affairs manager” came by to visit and persuaded him to invest $82,000 in a cocoa and banana plantation in Ecuador. Mr. Bacino, who was hooked up to a morphine drip to soothe the pain of his pancreatic cancer, gave his keys to the man so that he could fetch his checkbook. Less than a month later, Mr. Bacino was dead and the whereabouts of his money was a mystery.

You can read the full article here.

Sabew Commentary Award

Today, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers said that I won the “Best in Business” award for commentary in the news agency category for columns I wrote in 2013 for Bloomberg View.

Here’s a list of all the winners, including writers worth following on a regular basis, such as Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica and Michael Smallberg of The Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

If you’re looking for smart and talented financial journalists worth adding to your regular reading list, take a few minutes to go through the roster of Sabew winners.

Notes from the judges on my submission:

NEWS AGENCIES COMMENTARY

Winner: Susan Antilla, Bloomberg View, for her columns.

Terrific topics. Tough, engaging, enlightening, head-snapping. Well-reasoned arguments. Writes with authority and insight in a simple, declarative style that doesnt wander. No navel-gazing. Sophisticated humor used lightly in a way that advances the argument. Not humor for humors sake.

Here are links to the stories the judges considered:

Do Deutsche Bank’s ‘Prettier’ Women Get the Best?

JP Morgan’s Teflon CEO Glides Past Reputation Hits

Hate Follows When the Police Try to Do Their Job

Top Stock Picks of 2013 Lose Out to Honey Boo-Boo

The Agency that Helps Consumers, Irritates Republicans

When a Federal agency reins in sleazy debt collectors and slipshod mortgage servicers, that’s more than enough to get politicians enraged — at the agency, not the bad guys.

The two-year-old Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has already collected $3 billion to return to aggrieved consumers, and has done such good follow-up when consumers call to complain that lenders and others who fall under its jurisdiction are actually helping customers right away rather than face the ire of the CFPB.

In my story for TheStreet.com today, I talk about the bizarre reaction to CFPB from Republicans in the House of Representatives.

A gaggle of chest-beating Republicans has been in attack mode against the CFPB since before it even opened its doors, trashing the agency’s architect, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, and passing bills to try to weaken its authority. The latest effort, up for a vote in the House of Representatives in coming weeks: the Consumer Financial Protection and Soundness Improvement Act of 2013, which would reduce the agency’s pay schedule and make it easier to overturn its rules, among other curtailments.

Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, actually makes a good point when he criticizes CFPB for collecting extensive consumer data that is a worry in these times of compromised personal information, but he’s so over-the-top in his condemnations that his constructive criticisms could get lost.

A favorite practice of Hensarling’s is to introduce CFPB Director Richard Cordray at official hearings with taunts about the agency being “accountable to no one,” which is always kind of funny since the CFPB chief is sitting across from his cantankerous questioners precisely because he is being held accountable. Hensarling managed to squeeze references to Cordray as “credit czar” and “national nanny” and “benevolent financial product dictator” in a single sentence at a hearing in September.

You can read my story here.

Do You Really Want to Learn Investing From These Guys?

“Customers first,” I always say, and who knew that the securities industry would actually come around to saying the same? The lobbying group for Wall Street, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, unveiled some new battle cries for 2014 at a meeting in New York in November, “Customers First” and “Helping Main Street Prosper” among them.

I wrote about Sifma’s upcoming efforts to plant seeds of goodwill with the public in my new column for Investopedia.com this week:

The financial industry’s trade group is on a mission, and the public relations tour de force begins this month with the launch of a capital markets literacy effort that SIFMA calls “Invest it Forward.”

Sifma actually has a financial literacy winner in its popular “Stock Market Game” that gives school kids $100,000 in virtual money to trade. Kids who play the game improve their  literacy scores, but the champions can be a tad precocious:

A fifth grader from East Brunswick, N.J., took to the stage at the Marriott to receive her SIFMA award for investment prowess, and said the teamwork approach to investing sometimes cramped her style. “I hated when my team was arguing because we were just wasting time, and time wasted is virtual money lost,” she said. Could somebody spring for a copy of Graham and Dodd’s “Security Analysis” for this child?

You might check to see if your wallet is still in your pocket when you’re listening to Sifma’s pro-investor pitch. You can read the column here.

Black Marks Routinely Expunged from Brokers’ Records

Stock brokers who settle with an aggrieved customer are able to get the go-ahead to delete the customer’s complaint from their records almost every time they ask, according to a study released Oct. 16. I wrote about it in today’s New York Times.

To understand the history of these broker shenanigans, take a look at an earlier story that I wrote for The Times on June 10: A Rise in Requests From Brokers to Wipe the Slate Clean.

It’s a topic I’ve been watching for some time. Eleven years ago, brokers were on an earlier push to make their bad records look good, and I wrote about that for Bloomberg Markets Magazine — How Wall Street Protects Bad Brokers. So when Wall Street’s self-regulators at The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (Finra) tell you this problem emerged in 2009, consider this article from 2002:

McKinsey Clients Shrugged at Scandals, Ignored Greed

McKinsey & Co. is the global fix-it firm of choice, whether you’re a company looking for an outsider to justify laying off thousands of employees or a government looking to get its managerial act together. A new book by Duff McDonald, a contributing editor at Fortune and The New York Observer, provides a good history of the firm but can’t seem to decide whether McKinsey is a valuable advisor or a waste of money.

I reviewed “The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business,” for Bloomberg Muse today. You can read it here.

Schwab Case Could Mean Even Fewer Chances for Investors to Get Into Court

If you’re an investor who’s lost money at the hands of a broker who may have broken securities laws, you are pretty much stuck. In 1987, the Supreme Court said in Shearson v. McMahon that a brokerage firm had the right to force investors to forego court — and instead use industry-run arbitration — in the event of a grievance. Brokers did that by including a so-called “mandatory arbitration” clause in their customer agreements.

That means no public filings, no judge, no jury and no members of the public permitted in your private courtroom. Once the McMahon ruling came down, virtually every brokerage firm raced to add a mandatory arbitration agreement.

The only way since then that the investing public could get before a judge and jury has been in egregious cases where multiple investors claim to have been ripped off in the same way — a class action. Those cases, up to now, have been allowed to proceed in public view.

In 2011, though, Charles Schwab & Co. added a provision to its customer agreements saying that its clients couldn’t partake in class actions, either. Finra, a regulatory organization funded by Wall Street, objected to that. I write about what it all means in my story tonight for The New York Times. You can read it here.

Ten women, one man, get laid off. One of the women sues for bias, and (surprise) loses in court

Rochelle Cohen was fired from her job as a portfolio officer at Bank of New York Mellon on September 20, 2010. So were 9 other women. And one man.She sued the bank and went to trial in Federal Court in New York on July 23. After less than a day of deliberating, the jury ruled for the bank. Here’s my story about the case for The New York Times.

Jury Largely Sides With Bank in Madoff-Related Case

A Hartford jury said Wednesday that the Connecticut bank that was custodian for two investors in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was not liable for their losses.

I wrote about the Alice-in-Wonderland-style trial in a story for The New York Times on July 8. The bank’s former president said he didn’t know what due diligence the bank might have done to be sure the customer’s assets existed, and didn’t know how the bank maintained accurate records. The president, who’d been in the banking business for 36 years, had a degree in finance from Georgetown University.

Another doozy in the trial was the bank’s former custodial manager, who said he would get three or four “very thick envelopes” of trade confirmations from Madoff some weeks. He put them in a file drawer and never reviewed the documents. (Except that he occasionally took a peek because he was curious about what Madoff might be buying or selling, but not curious enough to do any checking on behalf of the bank’s customers.)

The Hartford trial began in June as a consolidation of three lawsuits with similar allegations. But two of those cases settled for $7.5 million just before the jury began its deliberations, leaving the jury with only the case of two elderly Florida investors to decide. You can read my story about the verdict today for The Times here. Take a lesson from this: When a financial outfit tells you it is your custodian, don’t make the mistake of assuming that means they have custody of your money.

Custodians don’t always take custody: investors beware

Custodial banks typically earn their fees based on a percentage of the value of the assets they’re holding for you. But do they have any obligation to confirm whether there are any assets there in the first place?

A Hartford jury is deliberating over that and other questions in a case brought by former customers of Bernard Madoff. Westport National Bank was custodian of the investors’ accounts. But, as it turns out, when the bank took over the accounts in 1999, no assets existed, and the bank didn’t bother to check.

The custodial issue is becoming ever-more important as investors increasingly put “alternative” investments such as hedge funds in their retirement accounts. Pricing those investments can be dicey, and you shouldn’t expect that your custodian is doing any analysis to ensure that the prices they show on your statements are realistic.

I attended several days of the trial against Westport National Bank in Federal court in Hartford in June. Here’s a story I wrote about it for The New York Times.

When markets come undone from crisis fraud, regulators investigate something else

The public was pretty peeved about the financial crisis in 2008, and regulators felt the pressure to produce a few scalps in response. So what did the regulators do? They investigated something that had nothing to do with the crisis.

I reviewed Charles Gasparino’s new book “Circle of Friends: The Massive Federal Crackdown on Insider Trading — And Why the Markets Always Work Against the Little Guy” for Bloomberg Muse this week.

Gasparino tells the story of the all-out war on insider trading that began in 2008, and he questions the regulators’ priorities in pursuing inside traders when there were people who’d just about brought down the economy roaming free.

The book has some problems, but Gasparino is right that our regulators are chasing all the wrong people. Here’s the review.

How to be a problematic broker with a good record

Don’t believe everything you read – or don’t read — when you check up on your stockbroker.

Brokers and Wall Street executives with black marks on their public records are working hard to get those blemishes deleted, a topic I got into in my story for The New York Times last week.

In “A Rise in Requests From Brokers to Wipe the Slate Clean,” I summed up some of the more egregious examples of Wall Street employees persuading arbitrators at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (Finra) to recommend expungement of their peccadilloes.

Kimon P. Daifotis, for example, managed to get arbitrators in eight different cases against him to recommend expungement since last August – a remarkable feat considering that on July 16, the former Charles Schwab executive had agreed in a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission to be barred from the business and to pay $325,000 in penalties and forfeited profits related to his role the Schwab Yield Plus fund, in which investors had lost millions of dollars.

He didn’t admit or deny wrongdoing in that case and will be allowed to reapply for Finra membership in 2015.

Brokers have to take their expungement recommendations to court to be approved once an arbitration panel has recommended deletion, and Pasadena, California broker Debra Reda-Cappos will be doing exactly that on August 15. Investors Howard and Karen Snyder accused Reda-Cappos of breach of fiduciary duty and fraud in a complaint filed with Finra on October 12, 2010, and the two sides told the panel on October 3, 2012 that they had settled.

Neither Reda-Cappos nor her lawyer Kasumi Takahashi responded to my email queries. But in granting a recommendation that the Snyder case be expunged, the arbitrators noted that the claim was “false” and that the couple “did not prove their claim.”

It’s a no-brainer that they would not have proven their claim: There was no hearing to prove or disprove it.  So it’s more than a little weird that the arbitrators would use that as a way to justify cleaning up a broker’s record.

The Snyder case settled for $116,000, according to Reda-Cappos’ Finra records.

Before those arbitrators recommended the expungement, a lawyer for the investors, Leonard Steiner, told the panel that his clients were willing to say under oath that everything in their claim was true, according to the arbitrators’ award. But the panel didn’t ask the Snyders to do that, and gave the go-ahead on the expungement anyway, Steiner says.

Plaintiffs lawyers have been getting steamed that brokers are strong-arming investors to endorse expungements before they’ll settle. There’s a “disturbing trend” of firms routinely asking investors to agree that they won’t oppose expungement, says lawyer Brett Alcata of San Mateo California.

Those arrangements put the plaintiff’s lawyer in a box. They have an obligation to get the best settlement possible for their clients, but cringe at the idea that the next investor who comes along won’t get the full story on the errant broker. Finra shouldn’t allow settlements to include provisions that the customer won’t oppose expungement, says Steiner.

Sometime this summer, Finra will propose new rules that will make it even easier for brokers to expunge their records. Brokers have been irritated by a Finra rule enacted in 2009 that forces them to reveal complaints even when they are not named in a lawsuit. So if John Smith’s firm is sued because of fraud that Smith allegedly committed, the broker now has to list that on his BrokerCheck even if he isn’t a defendant.

Under pressure from the industry, Finra is expected to propose  a new “expedited” process to clean up black marks: The broker would be able to ask a panel for expungement at the end of an arbitration hearing, and the arbitrators would have the power to approve – but not deny – the request. Should that not work, the broker could take another stab at getting an expungement in a separate proceeding.

The proposals were mapped out in a Dec. 6 Finra memo to members of its National Arbitration and Mediation Committee. “We cannot comment on Board deliberations or confidential memos to Finra committees,” Finra spokeswoman Michelle Ong told me in an email.

Amaranth hit death spiral as sycophants, fools cavorted

The Greenwich, Connecticut hedge fund Amaranth Advisors LLC collapsed in September 2006 after losing more than $6 billion in the natural-gas futures market. I reviewed the new book about the debacle, “Hedge Hogs: The Cowboy Traders Behind Wall Street’s Largest Hedge Fund Disaster,” for Bloomberg Muse today. You can read it here.

How banks keep the lid on sex discrimination cases (and thus avoid having to change)

In my Bloomberg View column earlier this week, I wrote about the disconnect between image and reality when it comes to Deutsche Bank’s record on diversity. The Frankfurt-based global bank wins all those warm-and-fuzzy prizes for “Best Company” for working mothers, for example, but is the target of lawsuits brought by women who say are treated with nasty little barbs at work such as “Maybe I should get pregnant so I can work from home.”

Those same women say they endured more than Neanderthal-style comments from the guys: They say lost their jobs when they became mothers, too. Deutsche Bank dodged a bullet big-time when two women who were considering a class-action pregnancy discrimination suit settled with the bank earlier this year. In a court filing, the bank denied one of the pregnancy claims against it, and its spokeswoman Michele Allison declined to comment on the others.

Discrimination against women on Wall Street is a persistent problem that hasn’t been fixed despite an assortment of programs that purport to address it. Deutsche Bank, in fact, takes a deep bow for its programs around the world for women in finance. The bank says that 5,000 women from Deutsche and other firms attended their conferences for women last year alone.

Despite all the woman programs, diversity training and new “heads of diversity” jobs at financial firms, the lawsuits and internal investigations around gender discrimination just keep on coming.

Deutsche Bank is far from the only problematic bank out there — they all are. But  it does have some history that illustrates how hard financial firms work to keep the public from knowing how bad things are for their female employees. In a splashy lawsuit filed more than a decade ago, Virginia Gambale, a partner in Deutsche Bank’s Capital partners unit, said she was passed over for a promotion because of gender discrimination and that the bank’s work environment was hostile to women. She would wind up with a “multi-million dollar settlement,” according to a transcript of a court conference in her case.

Gambale’s lawsuit described a September 1999 business meeting she was required to attend in Cannes, France where approximately 100 men and 5 women had to walk past “a welcoming committee of ‘sex goddesses’ who were wearing revealing clothing that was highly inappropriate for a business meeting.” The complaint said that entertainment at the meeting included “a scantily clad Marilyn Monroe look-alike, who publicly fondled several male executives.”

The most interesting part of her lawsuit, though, were the lengths Deutsche Bank went to to avoid having information about the gender breakdown of salary and promotion at the bank become public. In an August 2, 2004 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the second circuit, Judge Robert D. Sack described some of the history around efforts by the bank to lock up documents.

During discovery, Deutsche Bank had produced compensation planning charts “and four pages of an internal Bank study of diversity at the Bank, which contained information about the gender composition of the Bank’s employees,” Sack wrote. The judge added that the bank had said the settlement was “motivated significantly by its desire to avoid public disclosure at trial of the temporarily sealed documents.”

Sack wrote that Harold Baer, the district judge in the case had “wondered aloud why the public should not know about discrimination at a major banking institution.” Baer told the bank that he’d disclose the contents of the settlement agreement unless Deutsche Bank agreed to hire a third party to do a global gender review and provide the results to the court. No way, said the bank, cooking up a stipulation of dismissal with Gambale to get the case out of Baer’s jurisdiction.

Over the years, I’ve spoken to a number of women who’ve taken settlements after years of emotional and expensive litigation. They get worn out, and often wind up feeling guilty that they didn’t fight to the bitter end in court so that the ugly details of gender differences in pay and promotion would be exposed. Those who can’t sue in court because of mandatory arbitration agreements don’t even get satisfaction when they win: Men who lose a discrimination or harassment case do not have to reveal that in their public “BrokerCheck” records. Is there any wonder the problems go on and on?

What we really need is a system that forces employers to report how many internal complaints they’re getting that allege discrimination, and how much men and women are being paid for doing similar jobs. We’ve got an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, after all, and it’s time that agency’s mandate was expanded to demand those statistics. The way things work now, there are too many ways for banks and brokers to keep evidence of their discrimination under lock and key.

A bit of welcome news in all this: It turns out that six years after Gambale’s 2003 settlement, some of those Deutsche Bank documents were unsealed. They are not available electronically, but I’ve put in a request with a document service to get them. Look for another post when I’ve got them in hand.