Antilla Talks to CNBC Squawk Box
About Security at Vanguard Group

CNBC’s SquawkBox invited me in yesterday to discuss my story about The Vanguard Group’s online security. A whistleblower has been speaking with me on the record about a complaint she filed against Vanguard with the Securities and Exchange Commission. You can read the article here.

And here’s the CNBC video:

Is Vanguard Making It Too Easy for Cybercriminals to Access Your Account?

A whistleblower has gone to the Securities and Exchange Commission with complaints about the security of customer accounts and information at The Vanguard Group.

The world’s largest mutual fund company told me that its security is strong. But the whistleblower, who spoke to me on the record about her complaints, disagrees. You can read my latest column for TheStreet here.

Investor Warning: Keep an Eye on J.P. Turner Brokers After Shutdown

The good news: A problem brokerage firm is shutting its doors.

The bad news: A lot of its bad brokers will be finding work elsewhere.

I wrote about the shutdown of Atlanta-based J.P. Turner Associates in my latest column for TheStreet. You can read it here.

Your Stockbroker Loves You — Until It’s Time to Put Your Interests First

If you read the warm-and-fuzzy ads and Web site copy, you’d be convinced that you were  a VIP in your stockbroker’s life. So why would your best-pal broker not want to work under a standard that he or she put your interests first?

The sad answer is in my latest column for TheStreet. You can read it here.

Wall Street Makes It Hard to Dig Up Dirt on Your Broker or Brokerage Firm

The securities industry doesn’t like the idea of reminding investors to check the records of their stock brokers. So when Finra suggested that there be a hyperlink on brokerage firms’ home pages to take customers to its BrokerCheck tool, the industry went on a letter-writing campaign to oppose it.

My personal favorite: The brokerage firm chief compliance officer who told Finra he was worried about “unscrupulous investors.” Yep, you read that right. Here’s my column for TheStreet on Wall Street’s latest anti-investor campaign.

Indicted Lawyers, Peeping Toms, Can Wind Up Judges in Finra Arbitration

Finra arbitration is often a surprise to investors — not least of all because so many Wall Street customers have no idea that they sign away their right to court when they open an account.

But how about the surprise of learning that one of your arbitrators had been indicted? Or that he had said he was a lawyer, but wasn’t?

My June 24 column for TheStreet tells about Finra’s latest surprise arbitrator — the guy who was arrested for being a Peeping Tom. Really. You can read it here.

Antilla 2015 Awards

Earlier this month, the New York press club The Society of the Silurians said I’d won its “Excellence in Journalism” award for my online columns for TheStreet.com.

From the judges: “In these searing columns, Antilla highlights the anti-consumer sentiment that has taken hold of significant portions of the Republican Party as it attempts to distance agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.”

My stories also have been entered into the national competition for The National Federation of Press Women, which said this week that I’d won first place in two of its “at-large” contests, which include 27 states that don’t have direct affiliations with NFPW. One winning entry was for my columns for TheStreet about the fleecing of senior citizens by stock brokers. A second winning entry was in the feature category, for my article in The New York Times about sex discrimination at Sterling Jewelers, the biggest retail jewelry operation in the United States. The winners in the “at large” categories have been entered into NFPW’s national competition.

Study Hard and You’ll Become Financially Literate? Not So Fast

For Financial Literacy Month, I put together a reading list, an “investor help” list and some videos for TheStreet Foundation.

The reading list is here.

The “investor help” list is here.

Here’s an interview I did with Helaine Olen, author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.

And here’s a Q&A with Remar Sutton, volunteer chairperson at FoolProof, a rare financial literacy effort that actually gets results.

Looking To Get Financially Literate? Don’t Expect Business “Educators” to Help

April is Financial Literacy Month, which is supposed to be a time when we marvel at the progress we’ve made in making the public smarter about finance.

Yet after nearly two decades of effort, the studies not only show little progress, but actual backsliding in the public’s financially savvy.

The problem has much to do with who’s in back of most literacy efforts: business. A credit card company isn’t going to warn you not to spend more than you can pay off in a given month, and a brokerage firm isn’t going to send you to Finra’s BrokerCheck to be sure you’re broker isn’t a sleazeball.

I wrote about the problems with literacy efforts in my column for TheStreet. You can read it here.

Like Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas, Ellen Pao Lost Kleiner Perkins Gender Fight But Women Gained

Sometimes, even a loss can be a win.

A San Francisco jury said last month that Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers did not discriminate or retaliate against its former junior partner, Ellen Pao. From my column for TheStreet.com:

The four-week trial had received intense media coverage for its allegations of porn-star talk in business settings and exclusion of women from company events. Rather than invite a woman on a company ski trip, “Why don’t we punt on her and find 2 guys who are awesome?” a Kleiner partner suggested in an email.

Pao lost. But women didn’t. The case brought huge attention to workplace issues that rarely get aired. Most employers require employees to agree to give up their right to sue before they even show up for the first day of work. So-called “mandatory arbitration” agreements keep gender discrimination complaints out of the public eye, and leave violators of our discrimination laws unaccountable.

You can read my column here.

Wall Street Waging War Against Making Brokers Accountable to Investors

Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White told members of the House Financial Services Committee yesterday that there would be “many challenges” in changing the rules so that stock brokers and investment advisers are similarly regulated.

That’s an understatement. Wall Street has been on a tear for years fighting efforts to demand more of stock brokers. From my column yesterday for TheStreet:

As things stand today, brokers need only sell “suitable” investments that match a client’s investment profile. But they needn’t act as fiduciaries who are duty-bound to put clients’ interests ahead of their own, as investment advisers are expected to do.

You might think it’s a no-brainer that people doing essentially the same job in the financial industry should be subject to the same rules, but you’d be thinking wrong.

There are two fights going on related to the duties of investment advisers and brokers. There’s the one Ms. White has a say in: Changing the rules so that brokers and advisers both are expected to put their clients’ interest ahead of their own — a so-called “fiduciary duty.” And there’s another related to retirement money. The Department of Labor would like to raise the standards for people giving advice in that arena, too. President Barack Obama publicly supported the idea on Feb. 23.

The unsightly battle that has Wall Street fighting to avoid a more ethical approach to its customers is the latest reminder of the gap between the way the industry portrays itself in its marketing, and the way it actually treats its customers. From my column:

“These guys advertise like doctors and lawyers and litigate like used car salesman,” said Joseph C. Peiffer, president of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, or Piaba, a group of lawyers who represent investors in securities arbitration.

You can read the story here.

Ellen Pao’s Case Against Kleiner Perkins Has Porn Star Talk, High Stakes for Women

Twenty years ago, there was Smith Barney’s Boom-Boom Room. Today, it’s Ellen Pao v Kleiner Perkins, the very high-profile sex discrimination trial that’s been going on for four weeks in San Francisco Superior Court.

Pao was a junior partner at Kleiner from 2005 to 2012, when she was fired. She says the firm discriminated against her, leaving her out of important meetings and passing her over for promotion while men moved ahead. Kleiner says she was a difficult employee who had a “female chip on the shoulder.” I wrote about it in my column today for TheStreet.com:

Among the affronts she has shared with the jury are the story of the female partner on a business trip who opened her hotel room door to see an uninvited Kleiner partner holding a bottle of wine and wearing his bathrobe; the co-ed business flight on a private jet where the conversation turned to porn stars; and the Kleiner meeting where a male partner approached a female partner to ask her to take notes. When the woman declined, he asked Pao to do it.

If Pao loses, it won’t bode well for women with grievances in the future. Women considering a lawsuit could wind up being warned “You know what happened to the woman in San Francisco,” said Linda Friedman, the Chicago lawyer who brought gender suits against brokerage firm Olde Discount Corp. in 1995, Smith Barney in 1996 and Merrill Lynch in 1997. You can read my story here.

 

4 Things Kleiner Perkins Doesn’t Want Jury to Hear in Ellen Pao’s Sex Bias Case

Oral arguments are expected to begin Tuesday in the sex discrimination case against the powerful Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Ellen Pao, who sued Kleiner nearly three years ago, accused the firm of gender discrimination, failure to prevent discrimination and retaliation. I wrote about her case in my column for TheStreet last week.

Pao, who is interim CEO of the micro-blogging site Reddit, says that after she complained of discrimination at Kleiner, she went from being a star among junior partners to an employee viewed as a whiner who had “issues and clashes” with colleagues. She says one coworker badgered her into having an affair, and that a partner at the firm gave her a copy of a book of poetry with sexual imagery.

Kleiner has asked the judge to clear the courtroom when there’s evidence being presented about its proprietary business information and financial performance, among other things. Even if it wins on that motion, there are sure to be plenty of fireworks that remain for public consumption.

When Pao filed her suit in 2012, I noted this about the sad history of women in the workplace a column for Bloomberg View:

Twelve of Kleiner’s 49 partners are women, and in the venture-capital business, that’s considered very, very good. How is it that 20 years after Anita Hill broke the silence about gender discrimination and harassment at work, there are still companies that can take a bow for being gender-equality heroes when 75 percent of their leaders are men?

You can read the Bloomberg column here. The more recent column for the Street is here.

Why Only Big Bankers Can Flout the Rules and Get Away With It

Did you hear the one about the stock promoter, the lawyer, three figurehead CEOs and seven auditing firm partners?

No, it isn’t a “walks into a bar” joke. It’s a case brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission last month against the players in a sham stock offering. The agency went after all the people involved in what it called ”a massive scheme to create public shell companies through false registration statements.”

No big deal, right? The SEC is supposed to be going after bad guys, making them pay fines and lose privileges. But it tends to do a lot better in cases against no-name boiler room types like the ones in the January case than it does with players at powerful banks.

In my column for TheStreet this week, I discussed the contrast in enforcement results between cases against small players and cases against Wall Street’s elite.

In December, for example, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or Finra, brought cases against ten household name firms for flouting the rules that govern research analysts when their firms are pitching for initial public offering business. In its complaints against the firms, Finra described the actions of specific people who broke specific rules. But we never learned their names. Indeed they weren’t charged at all.  You can read my column here.

Even Snowden Would Have His Hands Full Cracking Wall Street’s Arbitration Secrets

Say you hire a broker. You start out thinking he or she is terrific, of course, or you wouldn’t have signed up in the first place.

And then they wind up churning your account. Or putting you into mutual funds only because the funds generate high fees — for the broker, not you. Or persuading you to buy high-risk products that have no place in a portfolio like yours.

So you get around to thinking you’d like to sue. Well, tough luck, Mr. or Ms. Investor — you can’t. The day you opened that account, you signed a document saying you’d be willing to give up your right to court, and that you’d instead use Wall Street’s private arbitration system if your broker fleeced you. Welcome to Finra arbitration.

Public-minded politicians have tried for years to get laws passed to ban so-called “mandatory arbitration,” but all their efforts have failed. Wall Street’s lobby is a powerful one. Recently, though, a coalition of consumer groups wrote to a task force of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (Finra), which runs Wall Street’s arbitration,  pressing for more disclosures about investigations of Wall Street’s private tribunals.

In my most recent column for TheStreet, I talk about the secrecy that surrounds Finra arbitration. You can read the column here.

 

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