- claims to tie stock performance to the general rise in gold prices – a rise in gold prices does not guarantee a rise in the price of a gold company’s stock;
- uses scare tactics such as the threat of inflation or an economic meltdown;
- makes speculative claims based on a new reserve’s proximity to an existing reserve; or
- centers on a company that has changed its name or trading symbol to align it more closely with gold – for example, one company that currently purports to engage in gold mining was originally incorporated to provide golfing opportunities on private courses to nonmembers.
FINRA News Release:
WASHINGTON — The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced
today that it has fined SunTrust Robinson Humphrey, Inc. (SunTrust RH) and SunTrust Investment Services, Inc. (SunTrust IS) for violations related to the sale of auction rate securities (ARS). SunTrust RH, which underwrote the ARS, was fined $4.6 million for failing to adequately disclose the increased risk that auctions could fail, sharing material non-public information, using sales material that did not adequately disclose the risks associated with ARS, and having inadequate supervisory procedures and training concerning the sales and marketing of ARS. SunTrust IS was fined $400,000 for having deficient ARS sales material, procedures and training.
FINRA found that beginning in late summer 2007, SunTrust RH became aware of stresses in the ARS market that raised the risk that auctions might fail. At the same time, SunTrust RH was told by its parent, SunTrust Bank, to reduce its use of the bank’s capital and began to examine whether it had the financial capability in the event of a major market disruption to support all ARS in which it acted as the sole or lead broker-dealer. As these stresses increased, the firm failed to adequately disclose the increased risk to its sales representatives while encouraging them to sell SunTrust RH-led ARS issues in order to reduce the firm’s inventory. As a result, certain SunTrust RH sales representatives continued to sell these ARS as safe and liquid. In February 2008, SunTrust RH stopped supporting ARS auctions, knowing that those auctions would fail and the ARS would become illiquid.
Additionally, FINRA found that on Feb. 13, 2008, SunTrust RH shared material non-public information regarding the potential refinancing of certain ARS issues with SunTrust Bank, which was contemplating investing in ARS. This information was material because SunTrust Bank was assured that if the auction market froze, it would likely be able to dispose of the illiquid ARS on the date the ARS was refinanced.
In addition, both SunTrust RH and SunTrust IS used advertising and marketing materials that were not fair and balanced, and did not provide a sound basis for evaluating all the facts about purchasing ARS. Specifically, the materials did not contain adequate disclosure of all the risks of ARS, including adequately disclosing the risk that ARS auctions could fail, rendering the investments illiquid for substantial periods of time. Both firms failed to maintain adequate supervisory procedures and training concerning their sales and marketing of ARS.
Brad Bennett, FINRA Executive Vice President and Chief of Enforcement, said, “SunTrust Robinson Humphrey and SunTrust Investment Services withheld information about the ARS market which prevented their sales representatives from making proper recommendations and their customers from making informed decisions about ARS. Because of that, the customers were left holding illiquid securities when the auctions failed.”
This action concludes the agreements in principle with FINRA that were previously announced in Sept. 2008 and withdrawn in May 2009. SunTrust RH and SunTrust IS voluntarily repurchased approximately $381 million and $262 million of ARS, respectively, from their customers after FINRA began its investigation. In addition, as part of the settlements, the firms will participate in a special FINRA-administered arbitration program for eligible investors to resolve investor claims for consequential damages.
In concluding these settlements, the firms neither admitted nor denied the charges, but consented to the entry of FINRA’s findings. FINRA’s investigation was conducted by Michael Choi, James Ruppert and Erin Lynch under the supervision of Jim Day, Enforcement Chief Counsel and Associate Vice President.
Investors can obtain more information about, and the disciplinary record of, any FINRA-registered broker or brokerage firm by using FINRA’s BrokerCheck. FINRA makes BrokerCheck available at no charge. In 2010, members of the public used this service to conduct 17.2 million reviews of broker or firm records. Investors can access BrokerCheck at www.finra.org/brokercheck or by calling (800) 289-9999 . Investors may find copies of this disciplinary action as well as other disciplinary documents in FINRA’s Disciplinary Actions Online database.
FINRA, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, is the largest non-governmental regulator for all securities firms doing business in the United States. FINRA is dedicated to investor protection and market integrity through effective and efficient regulation and complementary compliance and technology-based services. FINRA touches virtually every aspect of the securities business – from registering and educating all industry participants to examining securities firms, writing and enforcing rules and the federal securities laws, informing and educating the investing public, providing trade reporting and other industry utilities, and administering the largest dispute resolution forum for investors and registered firms.
FINRA News Release: http://www.finra.org/Newsroom/NewsReleases/2011/P124006
WASHINGTON — The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) today issued an Investor Alert warning investors about putting their assets into riskier and sometimescomplex products that promise higher returns than more traditional investments. With yields on many fixed-income investments at historically low levels and a volatile stock market, investors may be tempted to chase returns by investing in structured notes with principal protection, high-yield bonds, floating-rate loan funds and leveraged products.
FINRA’s Investor Alert, The Grass Isn’t Always Greener—Chasing Return in a Challenging Investment Environment, was prompted by significant recent inflows into investments like high-yield bond funds, floating-rate loan funds and structured retail products. High-yield bond funds had $75 billion in new sales in 2010. Floating-rate funds grew from $15 billion in 2008 to $60 billion in April 2011, and sales of structured products increased from $33 billion in 2009 to $54 billion in 2010.
“Investors should never make an investing decision solely by looking at an investment’s return, whether past or projected. Higher returns come with higher risk. Investors should always look behind an investment’s yield, ensure that they understand how the investment works and carefully consider its fees and risks before investing,” said Gerri Walsh, FINRA’s Vice President for Investor Education.
While there are many ways investors could try to increase their return, The Grass Isn’t Always Greener notes that many investors are turning to riskier products.
High-yield bonds are bonds with lower credit ratings, higher risk of default and consequently a more attractive interest rate to compensate the investor for the additional risk. While high-yield bonds can make sense in many portfolios, the higher yield may come with an increased possibility of losing money.
Floating-rate loan funds invest in loans extended by financial institutions to entities of below investment-grade credit quality. Companies that are extended these high interest rate loans usually have a high debt-to-equity ratio, and those loans’ yields tend to be higher than investment-grade bonds. The interest rates on floating-rate loans adjust by a pre-determined spread over a reference rate, like the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). A fund that invests in floating-rate loans may be attractive in a low or rising interest rate environment because, in addition to having higher yields, the fund’s interest rate increases when rates rise.
Structured retail products are typically unsecured debt with payoffs linked to a variety of underlying assets. These products can seem attractive to investors because they can offer higher returns and might even feature a level of principal protection, subject to the credit worthiness of the issuer. However, these products can also have significant drawbacks such as credit risk, market risk, lack of liquidity and high hidden costs.
Leveraged products include ETFs and mutual funds that seek to deliver multiples of a specified benchmark by increasing exposure to the benchmark through the use of derivatives. Leveraged products often “reset” daily, meaning that they are designed to achieve their stated objectives on a daily basis. Their performance over longer periods of time can differ significantly from the performance of their underlying index or benchmark.
The Grass Isn’t Always Greener explains the benefits and risks of these products and includes a checklist of questions investors should ask before investing.
Finra Press Release: http://www.finra.org/Newsroom/NewsReleases/2011/P123938