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.

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.”

JPMorgan’s Teflon CEO Glides Past Reputation Hits

What does it take for investors and other supporters of a popular public company to finally decide the firm has gone too far in breaking the rules?

If you’re JPMorgan Chase & Co., it apparently takes more than a $6.2 billion trading blunder, a really embarrassing hearing before a Senate investigations committee, and a report that 8 federal agencies are circling you with probes.

In my column today for Bloomberg View, I write about the stunning ability of “The World’s Most-Admired Bank” to wallow in credit for all its good news, but slip by when the bad stuff happens.

“Steel City Re, a Pittsburgh-based firm that measures corporate reputations, ranks the bank in the 90th percentile among 50 financial conglomerates…Little wonder, I suppose, that earlier this year, JPMorgan topped the Fortune magazine list of most-admired banks in the world for the second year in a row. Are the bank’s admirers living in some parallel universe where black marks just don’t register?”

 

How does JPMorgan do it? You can read my column here.

Are you a lowly Main Street investor? Well, nobody cares what you think about financial reform

It’s never a great time to be a lowly member of the investing public looking for protection from the sharks of finance. But today? Well, try to lower your expectations a tad more.

Deep-pocketed banks are dominating the process of writing the new financial rules mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act. It isn’t that there’s nobody advocating for small investors. It’s just that the few organizations that make a case for the public are outgunned by the well-funded financial industry.

“Despite a significant expansion in the number of foot soldiers out there working in the public interest on these financial issues, we are still completely overwhelmed by the industry lobbyists,” Dennis Kelleher, chief executive officer of Better Markets, told me.

I wrote about the lopsided battle to influence the new financial rules in my Bloomberg View column tonight. You can read it here.

 

 

Getting a little vertigo from the regulatory revolving door?

There’s been a lot of attention to the government-to-private practice “revolving door” since President Barack Obama nominated white-collar defense lawyer Mary Jo White to be chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Investor advocates say we should be worried when lawyers shuffle back and forth between jobs as regulators and lucrative spots defending banks and brokerage firms. But the lawyers who move in and out of government jobs say they can handle the conflicts just fine.

The New York City Bar Association had a panel to discuss “The Financial Crisis and the Regulatory Revolving Door” on Feb. 12 and moderator Scott Cohn of CNBC posed the question “Which is it?” Is it spinning out of control or is it non-existent?”

I was one of the six panelists, and cited a few gems from a just-released report by The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) that illustrated the close connection between the SEC and its alumni who’d moved on to represent the institutions the SEC regulates.

In an item about the panel on Feb. 19, POGO said “White’s nomination highlights the challenge that the SEC and many agencies face when senior officials have tangled ties to the industry they’re supposed to be regulating.” You can read the POGO post here.

I wrote about Mary Jo White’s conflicts in a recent column for Bloomberg View.

Your thoughts on the debate? Let me know at @antillaview or susan.antilla15@gmail.com.

 

 

 

Mary Jo White’s Past and the Future of the SEC

Have you been buying into the sales pitch for President Obama’s nominee for chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission?

Mary Jo White’s supporters say she was tough as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, where she prosecuted mobsters and terrorists. From my column for Bloomberg View today:

She spent the past 10 years representing Wall Street, so she knows something about the legerdemain of banksters. And — insert violin solo here — she is a patriot, willing to give up millions of dollars in income as chairman of the litigation department at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP for a lousy government salary.”

Of course, the addition of “former SEC chairman” can only enhance her resume if and when she decides to go back to private practice. As for the idea that she might somehow be able to use her experience working for Wall Street to help crack cases as a regulator, I’m not buying it.

The SEC and Justice Department have had former defense lawyers checking in and out of top spots for years, and it hasn’t led to any big-bank carnage among the people who orchestrated flakey derivatives, self-destructing collateralized-debt obligations or other outrages. When was the last time you saw anyone from a well-known bank doing a perp walk for his role in the financial crisis?

You can read the full column here.

As always, I’m happy to hear from readers via Twitter or at susan.antilla15@gmail.com.

 

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.

‘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.

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.

Is there Justice for Goldman Sachs?

Do you remember that 11-hour Senate hearing where there were more scatological references than you could find in a Beavis and Butthead movie? “How much of that sh**ty deal did you sell?” asked Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who was running a hearing of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on investigations. “Should Goldman Sachs be trying to sell the sh**ty deal?

Levin was grilling a Goldman executive about the over-the-top emails Levin’s committee had collected that made very clear that insiders at Goldman — and other firms — were privately trashing the same securities they were selling to their customers. One gem the investigators had come across: A Goldman executive emailing a colleague “Boy that Timberwolf was one sh**ty deal.”

When all was said and done, Levin asked the Justice Department to look into whether Goldman had broken the law by misleading clients. Last Thursday, Justice said it wouldn’t be bringing a case.

In my column for CNN.com today, I raise the question that’s on a lot of people’s minds: Do big banks like Goldman get special treatment? Read article

No Big Boy Pants for Banks That Whine Over Rules

Are you tired of it yet? “We are all for financial reform,” the Wall Street story goes. “But we can’t have regulations that make us anti-competitive.”

Another financial crisis like the last one and you have to wonder who we’d be worrying about competing against. Whatever. The financial industry is very busy trying to make the case that before we can make new rules, we have to prove that the benefits outweigh the costs. I write about it in my latest column for Bloomberg View:

To get an idea of who has the upper hand in this fight, consider what it entails to be the chump who has to explain the “benefits” side of financial regulation. Costs can be easy to figure out. But how do you put a dollar figure on credit markets that don’t collapse? Or the elderly who don’t lose their life savings because regulators have cracked down on rip-off artists who troll retirement villages?

The object of the exercise is to swamp regulators with work and make rule-making impossible. The strategy is working. Read article.

 

$200 Million of Customers’ $ Went Missing, But Iowa Sure Loved PFGBest

You can count on “the absolute dedication” of our company to protect your money. That’s what a futures trading firm in Iowa, PFG Best, said to customers just after MF Global filed for bankruptcy last Fall. Fast forward to July 11. PFG itself was filing for bankruptcy after $200 million of its customers’ money had disappeared.

PFG Best is the latest example of a lot of things that              are wrong with the financial industry and the people who purport to police it.

Its CEO, who said in a suicide note earlier this month (the suicide attempt failed) that he’d been stealing from customers for 20 years, sat on an advisory committee of one of his company’s regulators. In fact, the board of directors of the National Futures Association voted three times to put Russell Wasendorf, Sr. on the committee it consulted with about possible new regulations.

And then there are all the awards that Wasendorf got for his charity and civic-mindedness. Do keep that in mind next time you’re wowed by some business big-shot whose generosity is fueling a few too many press releases. I wrote about the PFG debacle in a column for Dealbreaker.com today. Read article.

Scandal? What scandal?

Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., wrote an op-ed today for Politico.com. He talks about the challenges facing America and offers some solutions that might make America a more attractive place to invest.

He managed to carry on for 975 words without addressing the impact of his industry’s reckless behavior on investor confidence. Read article

Kids Cheat Just Like Their Role Models in Business Do

Your kids are cheating at school? Well, what did you expect?

New York City officials said this week that 70 students at one of its most prestigious high schools had been involved in a cheating scheme. In the ensuing press coverage, much was made of the stressful demands on Stuyvesant teenagers to meet expectations in a school that sends graduates to places like MIT and Brown.

“Most of the students come from families where the goal is ‘Ivy League school or bust’; you either go to an Ivy League school or you haven’t lived up to your potential,” one Stuyvesant grad told the New York Times.

My column in The Huffington Post today takes a look at kids, cheating, and the bad role models in business that kids can’t help but notice. Read article