Case “closed” on accounting problems at RCS Capital, but were problems fixed?

It was only three months ago that RCS Capital Corp. told shareholders in a quarterly report  that it was in the process of remediating “several significant deficiencies” in its internal control over financial reporting. Since then, shareholders have been told that all is well — sort of. But the company has not specifically told shareholders that the deficiencies have been addressed and solved.

RCS is the holding company for a collection of brokerage firms and other financial companies. One of them, J.P. Turner Associates, was purchased by RCS this year, and has a horrific history of customer complaints and regulatory action against executives at the top of the company. Here’s my story about Turner.

Along with its bad judgment in picking acquisition targets, RCS also has the baggage of having employed Brian S. Block as its CFO for most of 2013. Block is the guy who resigned under a cloud on Oct. 29 as CFO of American Realty Capital Properties Corp., which announced that he and another senior financial executive had intentionally covered up an accounting error. Both RCS and American Realty Capital Properties are controlled by real-estate mogul Nicholas Schorsch.

On that news, shares of both RCS and American Realty Capital Properties plunged.

Since then, RCS has said publicly that it hired a law firm and forensic accounting firm to examine the books for the first nine months of 2013. That was a period when Block was signing off on the financials. Michael Weil, CEO of RCS, said in a conference call with analysts on Nov. 13 “We consider the question of RCS Capital’s accounting integrity as closed.” But the forensic probe was limited. For example, it didn’t include an examination of emails.

RCS first flagged its accounting deficiencies in its March 31, 2014 quarterly report. It subsequently mentioned the deficiencies in filings on May 6 and May 29. Among other problems, it noted in the May 29 filing that its auditors had been given “multiple versions” of the company’s books and records.

In other words, seven months before Block resigned in the American Realty Capital Properties scandal, RCS was noting significant problems in its accounting during the period Block was its CFO. The company of course could have brought that up in its analyst call last week, and if it was all fixed, management could have said so.

Instead, RCS carved out a nine-month period, authorized a limited investigation, and declared that the issue was closed. To really close it, though, RCS needs to tell what it did about the deficiencies it mapped out in that May 29 filing, and why investors can be assured that problems like that won’t happen again.

RCS, by the way, declined to comment when I sent a detailed list of questions to its outside PR firm. Here’s the story I wrote about it for TheStreet.

DeMarse: Journalism Schools Over 70% Female, Newsrooms, 60% Male

Seventy percent of journalism school students are women, as are 76 percent of students in Columbia University’s prestigious Master of Arts in Journalism program. So what gives that in real-life newsrooms, 60 percent of the seats are filled by men?

I learned those statistics last night at the annual fundraising gala of The Knight-Bagehot Fellowship, a treasure of business journalism that’s been educating mid-career journalists for one-year stints at Columbia University for 39 years.

The keynote speaker was Elisabeth DeMarse, chairman, president and CEO of TheStreet, Inc. From her talk:

“So Columbia J School is doing its bit — it’s manufacturing a trained, credentialed pipeline of female talent. But we are out of synch. There is a gap in hiring and promotion. There is a gap in giving women and minorities a fair chance.”

And a call to action to younger men more prone to being gender- and color-blind:

“Please be leaders. Please hire and help and lift a hand outside of your image, outside of a narrow idea of clubhouse chemistry. After all, isn’t journalism about fairness and objectivity?”

I am not a neutral commentator on Elisabeth. I’m a journalism fellow at TheStreet Foundation and have known her since I joined Bloomberg News in 1995. (She worked for that guy who became mayor of New York City). So I’m biased. That said, consider the closing of her keynote address, and judge for yourself.

Here’s her closing on gender issues: Continue reading

Unfazed by Finra Charges, Seniors Still Swoon for David Lerner Pitch

Elderly investors are looking for yield. And elderly investors are suckers for a free meal. Put the two together and you’ve got a recipe for packing the grand ballroom of a Marriott hotel with 300 sixty- and seventy-somethings who are prime targets for a brokerage firm looking to peddle illiquid investments.

David Lerner Associates, a Syosset, N.Y.-based brokerage firm whose founder was barred from the securities business for a year in 2012, is still out there pitching seniors to break bread at a local hotel and hear the pitch for its investments.

I went to one of those dinners at a Marriott hotel in Trumbull, Conn. in June, and wrote about it in my column tonight for TheStreet Foundation. Prominent in the pitch that night was the firm’s non-traded real-estate investment trust, a highly illiquid investment that I sure wouldn’t want my elderly mom to buy.

What’s stunning is that investors trip over themselves to attend Lerner events despite the firm’s history. From my story:

Finra said in a complaint on May 27, 2011 that Lerner and his firm targeted many “unsophisticated and elderly” clients to sell illiquid non-traded real-estate investment trusts that were concentrated in the hotel industry. The firm used misleading marketing techniques to sell the REITs, Finra said. In the months after the complaint, Finra said Lerner sent letters to 50,000 customers in an attempt to “counter negative press.” And even those letters had “exaggerated, false or misleading statements,” according to an amended Finra complaint on Dec. 13, 2011. The $14 million in fines and restitution against the firm was Finra’s largest monetary sanction of 2012, said Michelle Ong, a Finra spokeswoman.

 

You can read the story here.

Can Goldman Sachs’ Women Make the Cut at ‘Extreme Jobs?’

Here’s the latest in the long-running battle between Goldman Sachs and the women who sued the firm in 2010 for gender discrimination:

Both sides in recent weeks have filed dozens of briefs and exhibits, mostly focused on the women’s request earlier this year that the court grant them class status so that they can represent 2,300 current and former associates and vice presidents who allegedly were discriminated against in pay and promotion policies. Among issues that have come up: Whether women at so-called “extreme jobs” like the ones at Goldman simply can’t cut it.

Goldman trotted out Michael A. Campion, a Purdue University management professor, to make the  case. While Campion testified that he did not have the data to draw a conclusion as to whether women make less because of the demands of an extreme job, he said it is “plausible” and that “it’s a consideration that’s not minor.” I talk about Campion’s theory in my column today for TheStreet Foundation.

Why Jordan Belfort’s ‘Sucker List’ Won’t Be Released to ‘Inside Edition’

The list of investors who got fleeced by convicted felon Jordan Belfort, aka “The Wolf of Wall Street,” would be gold in the hands of financial crooks, and that’s why a federal judge in Brooklyn told the producers of “Inside Edition” in June that he wouldn’t hand it over to them.

“It’s pretty well known in the fraud world that the best list to get is the list of people who have already been taken,” Doug Shadel, an expert on fraud schemes and the elderly at AARP, told me in an interview.

In my story for The New York Times DealBook last month, I looked at the ways that financial criminals find and fleece their victims. You can read the story here.

Goldman Sachs Doesn’t Want to Be Known as Misogynist ‘Vampire Squid’

On July 3, Goldman, Sachs & Co. submitted a 74-page memorandum of law and declarations of 27 Goldman Sachs witnesses to Judge James C. Francis of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and to three women who are suing the firm for gender discrimination.

So where are the documents?

The high-profile case of Cristina Chen-Oster et al. v. Goldman, Sachs & Co. et al. has been going on since Chen-Oster and two other former Goldman women sued in 2010. On July 1, the women’s lawyers filed a brief asking the court to certify them as a class. I wrote about the heavily redacted document in this story for TheStreet.

On July 3, Goldman filed its response. But 16 days later, it still is not on the court docket.

As it turns out, Goldman has been at work redacting that document over the past two weeks, and you can’t help but wonder what it is that the firm is so hellbent on keeping from the public. I raised that question in my latest column for TheStreet. You can read it here.

Goldman Sachs Women Say They Make Less Than Men Who Frequent Strip Clubs, Call Them ‘Bimbos’

Four years ago, a former Goldman Sachs & Co. executive and two of her former colleagues sued the firm, alleging sex discrimination and asking to be certified as a class.

Today, the women filed documents that added to an extensive dossier of allegations. Among the filings was a request that a judge in the Federal district court in Manhattan allow H. Christina Chen-Oster and her co-plaintiffs to proceed in their suit as a class representing a class of women who work — or worked — at the bank.

I wrote about the latest round of filings for TheStreet Foundation today. You can read my column here, but here are a few highlights:

There are the strip clubs. The guys who organize departmental golf games and don’t invite the women. The liberal use of the word “bimbo” to describe Goldman women, many of whom graduate from the same Ivy League schools the men do. And, of course, the very discouraging numbers about pay and promotion. But the biggest deal about Chen-Oster’s brief filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York court July 1 seeking class action status is the redactions. Because even when women and their lawyers fight bitter battles to get their hands on important documents that expose discrimination, companies always seem to find a way to keep the public from hearing about the worst stuff.

Brokerage firms put an immeasurable amount of energy into making sure the public never sees the real numbers on women, promotions, and compensation. And they get apoplectic  at the idea that the public might read allegations like that of former Goldman employee Shanna Orlich, who says she went to a holiday party in 2007 where a male managing director had hired women clad in “short black skirts, strapless tops, and Santa hats” to mingle with the Goldman men.

And yet, somehow, what started as a cluster of professional women at Goldman has mushroomed into a very important case.

Still, there’s much we don’t know.  Take a look at the latest filing and scroll through to see the thick black lines that keep you from hearing the whole story.

Finally, the Regulators Are Trying to Protect You. But It’s Nothing But Bad News for Investors

Finra, which is the outfit that Wall Street pays to regulate itself, is pushing hard on a proposal that it thinks will help nail bad guys on Wall Street.

It sounds great on the surface: Give arbitrators permission to refer a rogue to the director of enforcement even as an investor’s hearing is going on. You know, so we can catch people like Bernie Madoff, who was such a trusted name on Wall Street that he was chairman of the Nasdaq Stock Market.

As of now, arbitrators have to wait until a hearing is over before they can tell headquarters that a villain is on the loose. Finra wants to be able to get on the case ASAP.

Nice idea, if only it didn’t have the potential to wreak havoc on the arbitration hearing of the poor slob who’s in the middle of trying to get his or her case resolved. It’s yet another example of the nutty things that can happen when you bar investors from going to court, where you don’t have all the secrecy of arbitration and thus don’t have to jump through hoops to figure out ways to get the word out. Here’s my story published tonight on TheStreet.com.

Anworth Mortgage, Your Greed is Showing

“Do your homework” sounds like reasonable enough advice when you’re leafing through a personal finance magazine or listening to the babble of the talking heads on a financial show. But is it practical?

In my story today for TheStreet Foundation, I write about a publicly traded real-estate investment trust, Anworth Mortgage Asset Corp. Its shareholders will vote at the company’s annual meeting today to determine whether the current board will be ousted in favor of a group proposed by activist investor Arthur Lipson.

I’m not so interested in the pyrotechnics of the fight itself. I’m just wondering if there’s any way that a shareholder without a private investigator’s license could possibly understand the far-flung activities of Anworth management without quitting their day jobs. From my story:

A thorough vetting of the company’s officials would take an investor from Anworth’s standard filings with the Securities & Exchange Commission to a hodge-podge of regulatory documents that occasionally outline mishandling of investor money by stock brokers who worked for a brokerage firm controlled by the CEO.

We really ought to stop giving the public the impression that if they just took the time to read an annual report, or a prospectus, or whatever, that they can take control of their portfolio and stay on top of things.

It’s my first column as founding journalism fellow at TheStreet Foundation, and I’m looking forward to producing more. You can read the column here.

Founding fellow, TheStreet Foundation

TheStreet Inc. announced last week that I will be the founding fellow at its newly formed foundation to support investigative journalism and promote financial literacy. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to continue writing stories that hold financial institutions and regulators accountable when they neglect or abuse the public.

TheStreet Foundation is the brainchild of CEO Elisabeth Demarse, and will be run by Vanessa Soman, General Counsel at TheStreet. TheStreet’s Chief Investment Officer, Stephanie Link, is Chairman of the Board of the foundation.

“We are thrilled to name Susan Antilla as our Founding Fellow and to help her continue her insightful and impactful reporting,” Ms. Soman said in a press release. “Investigative journalism has become a thing of the past in many newsrooms, but The Street Foundation’s efforts will help keep original reporting alive and consumers informed.”

You can read the full press release here.

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.