Not even the EEOC was allowed at this sex discrimination hearing

On Feb. 26, eight women who had sued Sterling Jewelers, Inc. were ushered into a private hearing room in midtown Manhattan with their lawyers, lawyers for Sterling, and an arbitrator. The door was shut behind them.

Like an increasing number of disputes between employees and employers, this one would be heard in a forum where the public and the press were forbidden.

I asked to attend the late February hearings on this sex discrimination case that could wind up including 44,000 women in 50 states, but the arbitrator declined my request. More important is that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – the agency in charge of enforcing federal civil rights laws – also asked, and also was declined. 

Joseph Sellers, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that the agency was told it could ask for a transcript, although no guarantee was made that it would receive one.

Sterling, based in Akron, Ohio, is parent of 12 jewelry chains in the U.S., including Jared the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers.

The two sides presented their arguments for and against a motion to certify a class of women who’d worked in sales positions at Sterling since 2003. The women at the hearing, who would act as representatives of the class, say that Sterling discriminated against them in its pay and promotion policies.

The case, which I wrote about Saturday in The New York Times, includes examples of some of the worst sexual harassment allegations I’ve ever heard, and that includes the vulgar behavior I wrote about in my book “Tales From the Boom-Boom Room: The Landmark Legal Battles That Exposed Wall Street’s Shocking Culture of Sexual Harassment.”

Sterling says the allegations are “without merit.” Continue reading

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.

Kim O’Grady becomes “Mr. Kim O’Grady” and Gets the Job

I missed this one when I was off on vacation last week. A management consultant in Perth, Australia — Kim O’Grady — told the story of how perplexed he was back in the late 1990s when he shipped out his impressive resume to employer after employer, but received nothing but rejection letters.

So he studied his CV to see what might be putting people off. “A horrible truth slowly dawned on me,” he wrote. “My name.”

That is, potential employers were probably figuring that  ”Kim O’Grady” was a woman, not a man.

So he says he made a single change — “Kim O’Grady” became “Mr. Kim O’Grady” — and canvassed potential employers all over again. “I got an interview for the very next job I applied for,” he wrote. “And the one after that.”

(I’m awaiting a reply from Mr. O’Grady to understand why he’s revealing a story from the late 1990s all these years later.)

I wish I could say that things have changed in the two decades since Mr. O’Grady’s apparent epiphany. Academics at Yale University asked professors in the biology, chemistry and physics departments at six major universities to evaluate applications from recent graduates looking for jobs as lab managers, slapping the name “John” on half the applications and “Jennifer” on the other half. (There was no difference in the copy other than the first names.) “John” got an average score of 4 out of 7 for competence while “Jennifer” got only a 3.3.

Similarly, a female website developer who was having a tough time drumming up new business changed her name to “James Chartrand” and business picked up nicely. I wrote about that in a blog post on September 24.

There are no doubt neanderthals out there who consciously exclude a woman when they’re evaluating job applications, but the problem is more complicated than that. A New York Times story about the Yale study said that while scientists found bias to be pervasive, it “probably reflected subconscious cultural influences rather than overt or deliberate discrimination.”

Translation: Pay attention when you’re evaluating job applicants. You may not even be aware of what’s motivating you to proceed with some applicants, but to reject others.

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.

Stockbrokers say the darndest things

I was at a local bank this morning, filling out the paperwork for a Certificate of Deposit, when I overheard a stockbroker in the next cubicle trying to answer questions from a worried elderly couple who’d come in with an account statement that had alarmed them.

“As long as you hold the CMO to term, you can’t lose money,” the broker said, referring to their investment in a collateralized mortgage obligation. I couldn’t help but wonder which would happen first — the maturity date of the CMO or the year of the couple’s estimated life expectancy.

I looked up at the bank officer who was doing the paperwork for my CD. “You guys sell CMOs?” I asked. Yes, indeed, she told me, not the least bit taken aback when I asked “Why are you selling risky stuff like that at your bank?”

He’s doing great!” she said of her huckster colleague, and I could hardly argue with that. “I’m sure he is,” I replied, my sarcasm going totally over her head.

I’d begun to scribble notes as the back-and-forth continued between the seniors and the broker. “It’s backed and guaranteed by the U.S. government,” the salesman told his customers. But the husband kept coming back with questions. “But the value’s gone down,” he said.

No sweat, the broker told him. That’s just partial return of your principal, he said. “This valuation number means nothing.” But no, the value’s gone down more than the amount of the principal repayment, the husband countered. “Pay no attention to the losses,” said the broker. “I have no concerns. This is the best buy in the industry.”

Best buy in the industry for the broker, maybe. Even if that investment winds up working out fine for the couple, they clearly didn’t understand what they’d purchased. And if they wind up losing, smart money says that broker will swear he never told those customers that anything about their CMO was “guaranteed.”

After Boom-Boom Room, Fresh Tactics to Fight Bias

The headline-grabbing sex-harassment charges against Wall Street firms in the 1990s are a thing of the past, but not necessarily because things are better for women at financial firms.

In my story today for The New York Times, I discuss the progress — and lack of progress — since “The Boom-Boom Room” lawsuit against Smith Barney became synonymous with lurid behavior at brokerage firms.

Fast-forward 17 years, and such landmark cases are not as prevalent. Wall Street’s women are more aware of their rights and are not so timid anymore, says Linda D. Friedman, a partner at Stowell & Friedman. Still, she says her firm does a lot of work these days behind the scenes, assisting women who face discrimination but are reluctant to pursue litigation because of the repercussions it would have on their careers.

 

You may not be reading about these problems in your favorite newspaper or blog, but they’re still part of life for women who work in finance. You can read my story here.

AIG’s Greenberg Thumbs Nose at Taxpayers

The man who made the insurance company AIG into an industry giant has written a book — The AIG Story — and if there’s one thing we learn from Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, it’s that Hank admires Hank.

The book, co-written with George Washington University law professor Lawrence Cunningham, describes Greenberg as “innovative” and “independent” and “pioneering.” I reviewed it for Bloomberg Muse today:

If you’re among the U.S. taxpayers who watched in horror as $182 billion of your money made its way to the collapsing insurance giant American International Group Inc. (AIG) during the financial crisis, it might come as a surprise to learn that your forced munificence didn’t make much of a difference. In his new book, “The AIG Story,” former chief executive Maurice “Hank” Greenberg offers his take on what kept the company alive: “It was saved only by the loyalty and tenacity of its valiant workforce,” he says.

You can read my full review here. But the main thing I came away with when I put  ”The AIG Story” down was what a disappointment it is when powerful people with inside access to world events miss an opportunity to pass on insights to the rest of us.

Surely, after a high-flying career befriending heads of state and moving AIG from an insurance runt to a world-wide behemoth, a man of 87 would have constructive insights about the near-collapse of the global economy. And, with a little luck, maybe even a bit of introspection about lessons he’s learned? Instead, we get 328 pages of finger-pointing and self- congratulation.

So there you have it. A wasted opportunity. But do take a look at the list of people willing to praise the book on the back cover, and consider adding them to the list of authors you needn’t follow. Amazon.com publishes the “praise” here.

 

In a Sex Scandal, You Want to be the Guy, not the Gal

In the unlikely event you missed it, our former Central Intelligence Agency chief got a tad too friendly with Paula Broadwell, the author of his biography “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.” The ensuing media storm was, frankly, a gift to reporters who were dreading that the fiscal cliff would be the only news story around once the election was over.

But a gift they could have handled with a little more care.

In my Bloomberg View column this week, I take a look at the differences in both the language used and the questions raised in coverage of the two players in Washington’s latest sex scandal. Petraeus, for example, was referred to as “vulnerable.” Broadwell was referred to as a “slut.”

They both cheated on their spouses. They both were accomplished professionals. But there was a lot that wasn’t equal about the way they were treated in the media. “They threw this poor fellow to the wolves,” said celebrity divorce lawyer Raoul Felder on Daily Beast TV. Meanwhile, The Baltimore Sun called it just another “bimbo eruption.” A West Point grad with two master’s degrees, Broadwell is no bimbo. Let’s hope the coverage is a little better next time a sex scandal rolls around.

Best investment advice: Vet brokers yourself, because regulators aren’t doing it for you

Just because a stock broker has a license to do business doesn’t mean they’ve received a meaningful stamp of approval from regulators. Next time some financial person is pitching you for business, go back and read the stunning coverage of Mark C. Hotton, a guy who allegedly was fleecing investors for years as regulators sat back and ignored a stream of red flags.

Hotton is the fellow who fooled the Broadway producers of “Rebecca: The Musical” into thinking he’d raised millions of dollars in financing for them. The producers of Rebecca only lost $60,000 doing business with Hotton. Others haven’t been so lucky.

Hotton is in jail today, and it’s a joke when you consider that, after years of alleged stealing of millions from investors, he finally got caught because he fleeced a few big-shots from show-biz. It’s even more of a joke that U.S. prosecutors took a deep bow for their “lightning speed” sleuthing after catching Hotton 22 years after his first crime — which should have been a reason to keep him out of the brokerage business altogether.

I wrote about Hotton’s capers in a recent Bloomberg column. A week after that story, I wrote a second one, this time for TheStreet.com, about a fresh complaint against (the now-incarcerated) Hotton filed by Finra, which is the Wall-Street-funded regulator that is overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission. There really ought to be a special judicial forum where the public can bring complaints against regulators who are utterly clueless.

How To Get Women on Corporate Boards: Friendly Persuasion Didn’t Work, But Quotas Would

If you really want to get a bunch of business types going, mention the q-word.

That would be quotas. The only strategy that’s made much of a difference in the long fight to get women on corporate boards of directors.

There are well-intentioned efforts from New York to London to cajole and embarrass company boards into recruiting women. Helena Morrissey, the CEO of London’s Newton Investment Management, founded the “30 Percent Club” with the goal of filling 30 percent of UK board seats with women by 2015. Joe Keefe, president of Pax World, the socially responsible investors, spearheaded a push in June to send letters to the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 — there were 41 of them — who had no women on their boards.

Four months later, Keefe’s received 14 responses.

You hear a lot of talk about how we just need to get women into the pipeline and the problem will fix itself. Consider a few statistics on that. The number of women earning undergraduate business degrees reached 108,285 in 1985, up tenfold from 1971. By 2002, women surpassed men for the first time with 139,874 business degrees earned.

Yes, I know. Women may have the pedigrees, but they are just so busy abandoning their careers and having babies — what’s a corporation to do? Take some time to read the work done by the New York-based research group Catalyst Inc., which started tracking 4,100 full-time MBA graduates in 2007 to see how similarly situated male and female MBAs would do in the real world. Men started out making $4,600 more than women in their first post-graduation jobs. Even when Catalyst focused only on men and women who aspired to be senior officers, or when they looked only at men and women who had no children, they found men advancing faster and earning more.

In other words, there’s more to the problem than inferior education or time-outs for maternity leaves. Some of us call it gender discrimination.

Viviane Reding, the European Union Justice Commission, is calling for mandatory quotas of women on corporate boards. My guess is she’s right that it’s time to conclude that cajoling and pleas for self-regulation are a waste of time. I write about the flap over quotas in my column for Quartz.com today. Read article.

Let me know your thoughts on this issue. You can email me at susan.antilla15@gmail.com or send me a note @antillaview.

‘Dumb Money’ Is Staring Most of Us in the Face

Americans are pretty much illiterate when it comes to finance. They don’t know how to read a stock trade confirmation and have problems figuring out how much commission they’re paying their brokers on a mutual fund sale.

For years, professionals on Wall Street have sneered at the public as “the dumb money.” Well, they may not be geniuses on Wall Street, either. But they’re right that retail investors could use some serious coaching.

A recent report by the Securities and Exchange Commission mapped out in 182 painful pages how little the public understands about finance (which suits some people on Wall Street just fine, by the way). I talk about the grim details in my latest Bloomberg View column:

 ”Consider the profile of the 4,800 investors surveyed for the report, which concluded that they “lack basic financial literacy.” More than half had full-time jobs, 11 percent had part-time jobs, 70 percent had at least a two-year college degree and 63 percent had annual income of more than $50,000. We’re not talking about Mitt Romney’s indolent moochers here. The dumb money could be your neighbor. Or you.”

The results have inspired calls for financial literacy programs starting even in elementary school, but let’s get real. From the looks of things, school administrators don’t even have the resources for plain-vanilla literacy programs, let alone special classes in personal investing.

An alternative to new programs: At least get the public smarter about avoiding fraud. I have some ideas about that that you can read here.

USA Today Founder Has Good Advice for Investors, Misses A Couple Things

Every so often, the editorial page of USA Today asks me to weigh in with a brief comment on a column written by the newspaper’s founder, Al Neuharth. Today, Neuharth writes on the important topic of saving money for college or retirement, and keeping that money in the stock market.

Neuharth says “the stock market continues to be our surest, steadiest investment” despite its ups and downs. Maybe that’s true, which doesn’t say much for the other investments he doesn’t mention — mortgage-backed securities, bonds, real estate, and, before we know it, crowd funding.

But here’s the problem: Investors don’t think the financial markets are fair. They’re not only sick and tired of the motion sickness they get from high-frequency trading glitches that rock the markets. They’re sick of Wall Street lobbyists who have more power than securities regulators; they’re sick of insider trading; and they’re sick of powerful people in finance who can do the wrong thing and suffer minor repercussions. Or no repercussions at all.

My quote in USA Today this morning:
“The public will buy into Al’s good advice once they see that regulators are in charge of Wall Street — not the other way around. Confidence flows in fair markets.” Read article.

What’s the Deal with Women in Journalism?

Reading an op-ed in a major newspaper? Chances are eight in ten it’s written by a man. In fact, 60 percent of newspaper employees are men and almost 70 percent of the commentaries you read on major websites are written by men.

In my latest column for CNN.com, I take a look at what’s happened in journalism since the groundbreaking gender discrimination lawsuit by women at Newsweek 42 years ago.

In her just-published book “The Good Girls Revolt,” Lynn Povich, a 47-year journalism veteran who started as a secretary in the Paris bureau of Newsweek magazine in 1965, tells how 46 women with degrees from top schools fought back after being relegated to jobs checking facts and clipping newspaper stories while men with similar credentials got the bylines and big salaries.

Today’s statistics sound out-of-line when you consider that over the past 10 years, between 70 and 76% of all journalism and mass communications graduates have been women.

Let me know what you think about who’s shaping most of the coverage you’re reading. Read article.

Vetting a Stock Broker? Pay Attention to Who’s Supplying the Records

Investors are spending more time checking on the backgrounds of the financial types who pitch for their business, and that — mostly — is a good thing.

The public used a regulatory database to check the records of 14.2 million stockbrokers and advisers last year, according to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, known as Finra, a self-regulatory group that’s financed by Wall Street. That’s more than double the 6.7 million searches in 2007, the year before the financial crisis began.

Nothing wrong with investors getting more vigilant, of course. But there are some important caveats about what investors get when they check in with a broker-vetting site.

Finra’s records don’t include lawsuits against brokers that aren’t considered “investment-related.” That means that a lot of brokers who are exposed to the possibility of big judgments have official records that say nothing about that exposure.

And then there’s the issue of the freebie websites popping up to help investors vet brokers. Check the fine print, and you learn that some of those sites get their revenues from advisors who pay to be featured. If you get it for free, and the broker pays to get his or her name in front of you on the site, can it really be investor-friendly?

I took a look at the broker background-checking business in my latest column for Bloomberg View. Read article.

And Another Word on Justice and Goldman Sachs

Over at wallstreetonparade.com, editor Pamela Martens has more to say about the lopsided priorities of prosecutors who won’t quit in pursuing Sergey Aleynikov, a small fish who has been arrested yet again on charges he stole data from Goldman Sachs. The most recent Aleynikov arraignment was on the same day that we learned that prosecutors will not be charging Goldman with any crimes related to a scathing government report on how the firm treated its customers in the period leading up to the financial crisis.

Aleynikov was tried and found guilty of stealing computer code from Goldman, but an appeals court reversed that on April 11, saying that prosecutors hadn’t properly applied corporate espionage laws. Martens writes:

“Then, on Thursday, August 9, 2012, the unthinkable happened.  Aleynikov was arrested and charged based on the same set of facts by Cyrus Vance of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. Under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, an individual is not permitted to be tried twice for the same crime.  But when you take from Wall Street, all bets are off apparently.” Read article.

Why Mom and Pop Investors Are Taking a Pass on Stocks

There’s a lot of talk about the individual investor getting out — and staying out — of the stock market, but a column that ran over the weekend in The Washington Post does a good job of putting together all the reasons why. Barry Ritholtz, who runs the finance blog The Big Picture, raises the question “What has driven the typical investor away from equities?” and writes:

“The short answer is that there is no single answer. It is complex, not reducible to single variable analysis. This annoys pundits who thrive on dumbing down complex and nuanced issues to easily digestible sound bites. Television is not particularly good at subtlety, hence the overwhelming tendency for shout-fests and silly bull/bear debates.”

 

Mom and pop investors have had enough of Wall Street scandals and the portfolio whiplash that comes with high-frequency trading, Ritholtz says. And even if Wall Street’s problem with being ethically challenged doesn’t bother you, the lousy returns of the stock market probably does. Read article.