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.

New Evidence May Reopen Broker Fraud Case

You may recall the bizarre story of the Long Island stockbroker who hoodwinked the producers of the Broadway show “Rebecca” into thinking he’d lined up millions of dollars for the show. The producers put up $60,000 and the broker, Mark C. Hotton, put the money in his pocket.

It was a strange tale in many ways, not the least of which was that Hotton had been fleecing investors of millions of dollars for years before he wound up in headlines for picking up a paltry $60,000 from the show biz chumps.

I nearly choked when I read that Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara had said in a press release that the FBI had uncovered Hotton’s misdeeds “with lightning speed” in 2012. Hotton had been fleecing people ever since he forged documents and bounced a $31,550 check to buy some used cars in 1990. That’s some pretty slow lightning.

In my story for The New York Times last week, I wrote about the latest twist in Hotton’s story. His former employer, Oppenheimer & Co., had been ordered by arbitrators to pay out only $2.5 million of the $5 million that a married couple had lost at Hotton’s hands. Then, six months later, their lawyer discovered evidence that the firm had held back a smoking gun. Read about it 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.

“Flash Boys” irritates Wall Street and even some finc’l journalists. (Two reasons to buy it.)

Best-selling author Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, The Big Short) has often irritated Wall Street with his readable inside takes on the goings-on of financial one-percenters. And with his latest best-seller, Flash Boys, he’s even getting under the skin of other financial writers, which I suppose makes sense since there isn’t a one of us who can come close to Lewis’s genius.

Flash Boys is Lewis’s book on high-frequency trading, a topic that, up until now, was impenetrable to the average reader. And that’s what’s so threatening to Wall Street: Grandma could read Flash Boys and get a handle on the downsides of the computer-driven trading that’s dominating the markets.

The book is mostly a look at HFT through the eyes of a Canadian trader who got tired of getting bad trade executions and pushed back against what he considered market manipulation.

But Lewis also writes about the bizarre case of a former Goldman Sachs computer programmer who got thrown into jail for taking HFT code with him when he left Goldman. That’s right — a computer nerd you’ve never heard of wound up in the slammer for taking high-frequency computer code from Wall Street, while Wall Street big shots who oversaw mortgage fraud and other disgraces that helped bring down the economy walk the streets. You can read my CNN.com column about Goldman and its former computer programmer here.

I reviewed Flash Boys in today’s San Francisco Chronicle. You can read my review 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.

About that Reformed ‘Wolf’ of Wall Street

Jordan Belfort, who did jail time for fleecing investors at Stratton Oakmont, the Long Island brokerage firm he founded, has put himself out there as a reformed man. Indeed, he has been making money legitimately, giving speeches to audiences enthralled with the idea of spending an hour or so in the same room as a convicted felon who claims to have seen the light.

Belfort is, of course, the author of the 2007 book “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which was made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio (playing Belfort) that was released last month. He’s taken to social media to inform the public that he’s a good guy who is giving all the movie proceeds back to the investors he defrauded. But the prosecutors who put him in jail say he’s not telling the story just right. I write about it in my story today in The New York Times.

 

 

Is Your Stockbroker Smart Enough to Understand the Product He’s Selling You?

Brokerage firms spend big bucks on TV and print ads that depict their stockbrokers as informed, sophisticated professionals who are looking out for clients. So it might come as a surprise to know that when investment products blow up, brokers have been known to complain that they had no way of knowing that the product was bad.

In my story for The New York Times tonight, I show how brokers wiggle out of responsibility  when they sell customers a product that turns out to be garbage. You can read the story here.

Investors’ Story Left Out of Wall Street ‘Wolf’ Movie

You’ve seen the trailers.  A convicted stock fraudster played by Leonardo DiCaprio parties it up on his 170-foot yacht and entertains his office of crooked stock brokers with a half-naked marching band that celebrates the group’s  latest money haul from their clueless clients.

Paramount’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a 3-hour movie that opens Christmas Day. I saw a screening in New York on Wednesday night. The mostly 30-something crowd loved watching the hard-partying life that comes when you perfect a method to steal from the public.

My prediction: Young people will be wowed by DiCaprio’s character, Jordan Belfort, just as they were by Michael Douglas aka Gordon Gekko (remember “Greed is Good?”) in the movie “Wall Street.” Douglas said in this story that he was “shocked” that young people decided to work on Wall Street after watching him play a Wall Street bad guy.

Ask your college-aged kids what they think when they see the movie, and let me know.

It was sort of bothering me that amid all this hard partying and cocaine-snorting that nobody had bothered to mention that people actually got hurt by the funny brokers who throw midgets at a bullseye for fun. Thus, my story in today’s New York Times: “Investors’ Story Left Out of Wall Street ‘Wolf’ Movie. You can read it 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:

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

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

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

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

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

Jury Largely Sides With Bank in Madoff-Related Case

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

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

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

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

Custodians don’t always take custody: investors beware

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

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

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

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