SEC joins FINRA In Cautioning Investors About Risks of Leveraged ETFs

Earlier this week, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) issued a joint warning cautioning investors on the dangers in investing in leveraged ETFs and inverse ETFs. The two regulators issued the warning because they “believe individual investors may be confused about the performance objectives of leveraged and inverse exchange-traded funds (ETFs).”

The warning also notes that leveraged ETFs are designed to achieve their investment performance objectives on a daily basis, rather than a long-term basis as with typical exchange-traded and mutual funds. In fact, the performance of these funds can vary significantly from their stated objectives over long-term periods. The joint warning contains a detailed description of leveraged and ETFs, as well as examples of how the funds generally operate. The SEC also included a link to a NYSE “Informed Investor” Bulletin entitled “What You Should Know About Exchanged Traded Funds.”

While this warning is welcome, it unfortunately has come after many investors have sustained significant losses in these risky and unsuitable investments. As previously discussed in this blawg, FINRA has already declared that leveraged ETFs are typically unsuitable for retail investors. The most popular of these investments are managed by Rydex, Direxion, and ProShares. If your stockbroker or financial advisor has sold you any leveraged ETFs, or purchased any leveraged ETFs in your accounts, and you have lost money on these investments, you may be entitled to recover these losses. The Kueser Law Firm represents investors who were sold leveraged and inverse ETFs. If you are concerned that your investments have been mismanaged, contact us to learn more about your rights.

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New York Attorney General Sues Charles Schwab Over Auction Rate Securities (ARS) Sales

Yesterday, August 17, 2009, the Attorney General of the state of New York announced that it had filed a lawsuit against Charles Schwab & Co. for its sales of auction rate securities. According to the press release, the Complaint charges Schwab with violations of the Martin Act for:

falsely representing auction rate securities as liquid, short-term investments without discussing the risks. These representations gave investors a false sense of security that their investments would always be liquid when auction rate securities, in fact, faced significant, inherent liquidity risks.

This is another action by Mr. Cuomo’s office to remedy the massive fraud perpetrated by Wall Street firms relating to auction rate securities. In fact, late last month, the Attorney General announced a $456 million settlement with TD Ameritrade related to its sales of auction rate securities.

Auction rate securities, which are also referred to as auction rate preferred shares, ARS, ARPS, and MARS, to name a few, have been at the epicenter of regulatory investigations across the country. Auction rate securities are long-term (or perpetual) investments that traded in periodic “auctions.” They are designed to allow companies, mutual funds, municipalities, and other organizations to borrow money for a long-term period while paying short-term rates of interest, which were reset during the periodic auctions. It was in these auctions that investors who held the securities could also sell their holdings if they needed to have access to cash. Because these auctions occurred on a relatively frequent basis (i.e., weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly), investors had the ability to sell their positions and obtain cash in a relatively short period of time.

For years, Wall Street firms sold auction rate securities as short-term, cash equivalent investments that paid marginally higher rates of interest as compared to other short-term investments. What these firms did not tell their customers was that the liquidity of the auction rate securities markets was entirely dependent on the ability and willingness of these same firms to participate in the auctions — in other words, these firms had to be willing and able to purchase the securities that were not purchased by the other auction market participants. In most cases, these firms were purchasing more securities than the other market participants. The firms (and their representatives) did not disclose these critical facts, but rather, only disclosed that the interest rates paid on the securities was reset at the auctions. In addition, these firms generally failed to inform investors that they would not be able to access their invested capital if the auctions froze.

In 2007, these Wall Street firms came under massive liquidity problems. As a result, these firms made a decision to cease participation in the auction rate markets, leaving investors across the country with illiquid investments that typically paid short-term rates of interest. In some cases, the auction rate securities paid no interest for months at a time. Therefore, investors were left holding a bag of illiquid long-term securities that paid little, if any interest.

Several class actions have been filed across the country on behalf of auction rate securities investors. In addition, numerous securities arbitration claims have been filed by investors. Some of these cases, as well as action by state regulators, has resulted in redemption of some investors’ auction rate securities. However, many investors remain stuck with these illiquid investments.

If you own auction rate securities that have not been redeemed, you may want to contact an attorney to discuss your rights. The Kueser Law Firm is a boutique legal practice that focuses its practice on protecting the rights of investors and recovering investment losses for companies and individuals. You may contact us by completing the form to the right, or by visiting our website.

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Message to Investors: Don’t Ignore Losses in Your Investment Accounts

According to a recent article on InvestmentNews.com, a study commissioned by Charles Schwab revealed that a significant percentage of investors are unaware of the losses sustained in their accounts. To make matters worse, more than one-third of the investors surveyed did not know which mutual funds they owned and less than one-third spoke with their financial advisor or stockbroker on a regular basis.

In the article, a Charles Schwab executive was quoted as stating that “some investors tend to be overwhelmed or intimidated by investing.” This is interesting because it confirms the important role that stockbrokers and financial advisors play in investors’ financial decisions. While this seems elementary, it astonishes me as to how many broker-dealers take the position in arbitration cases that the stockbroker or financial adviser played a passive role in the losses sustained in the investor’s accounts.

The survey also reported that 60% of the investors surveyed do not plan to make any changes to their investment allocations following the stock market’s rapid post-September descent. Stockbrokers and financial advisers often tell their clients to “stay the course.” In addition (or alternatively), many advisers and stockbrokers will show their clients charts or other documents that show how following a decline in the stock market a large portion of the recovery often occurs on select days — thus reinforcing their recommendation to stay the course, otherwise taking the risk that the investor will miss those few opportunities to participate in the recovery. Following this recommendation, clients feel forced to hold the same investments that created their losses.

It is important not to ignore losses in your investment accounts for many reasons, including but not limited to the following:

1. It is more difficult to recover from a significant loss than it is to sustain the loss in the first place. For example, if you start with $100,000 in an investment account and you sustain losses of 50%, the value of your account would be $50,000. Therefore, you would need a gain of 100% of this reduced amount ($50,000) in order to recover from the 50% loss you sustained.

2. If you are sustaining losses that cause you to lose sleep (or suffer other emotional distress), your investment accounts are probably invested in an unsuitable manner. This is something that you need to discuss with your stockbroker or financial adviser. If your adviser is unwilling to make significant changes to the accounts, or worse yet, if the stockbroker tries to reassure you that the investments are appropriate, you should seek a second opinion. In addition, you may want to consult with a securities attorney to discuss whether you have a legal claim.

3. If you decide to file a claim related to your losses, any failure to act could reduce or diminish your ability to succeed in arbitration or litigation. Whenever legal action is initiated, there are several issues related to the timing of the investor’s actions and the claim itself that must be considered (including statutes of limiations, equitable defenses, and arbitration eligibility rules).

When a stockbroker or financial adviser makes a recommendation to his or her client, they (and the firms they represent) may be liable for losses resulting from the recommendation. The Kueser Law Firm represents investors in securities arbitration. If you are concerned that your investments have been mismanaged, contact us to learn more about your rights.

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TheAtlantic.com: The Final Days of Merrill Lynch

The September 2009 edition of The Atlantic contains a story written by William D. Cohan, which outlines the Final Days of Merrill Lynch. Mr. Cohan is also the author of House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street (available at Amazon.com).

This article is an worthwhile (and brief) read for anyone interested in the collapse of Merrill Lynch or Wall Street in general.

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Do You Understand the Fees Charged by Your Mutual Funds? Probably Not.

In a July 31, 2009 article, Sam Mamundi of Marketwatch.com discussed the hidden sales fees charged by mutual funds. As noted in the article, “[t]he majority of retail funds are sold through brokerages, and each brokerage firm levies a range of charges to the fund for every sale. The cost of these agreements is passed on to investors.” These charges come in a variety of forms, including “revenue sharing agreements” and 12b-1 fees.

Many broker-dealers have revenue sharing agreements with mutual fund companies. Under these agreements, the broker-dealers are paid a percentage of the mutual fund sales they generate by the mutual fund companies. Each firm negotiates its own rates of revenue sharing with each mutual fund company.

Over the past few years, there have been lawsuits involving revenue sharing agreements. These cases were brought against broker-dealers and were largely based upon the premise that these undisclosed fees created a conflict of interest because the firms’ brokers (and also the broker-dealers) had a financial incentive to push the funds managed by the companies with whom the broker-dealer had an agreement, and not based upon their clients’ best interests.

Although mutual fund companies specifically report the amount of 12b-1 fees they charge against shareholders in their annual and semi-annual reports, the amount of money charged to shareholders for these revenue sharing agreements are not specifically disclosed. In fact, as noted in the Marketwatch.com article:

“There’s no direct rule requiring funds or brokerage firms to disclose revenue-sharing deals. Funds simply have to state that they pay for these deals, and often that’s tucked away at the back of a prospectus — which many investors don’t read before they buy into a fund.”

The Securities and Exchange Commission is also reportedly looking into the issue of hidden mutual fund sales fees. In her testimony before the Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government on June 2, 2009, SEC Chairperson Mary Schapiro stated:

I also have asked the staff to prepare a recommendation on rule 12b-1, which permits mutual funds to use fund assets to compensate broker-dealers and other intermediaries for distribution and servicing expenses. These fees, with their bureaucratic sounding name and sometimes unclear purpose, are not well understood by investors. Yet in 2008, rule 12b-1 was used to collect over $13 billion in investors’ funds out of fund assets. It is essential, therefore, that the SEC engage in a comprehensive re-examination of rule 12b-1 and the fees collected pursuant to the rule. If issues relating to these fees undermine investor interests, then we at the SEC have an obligation to step in and adjust our regulations.

President Obama is also focusing on this issue. In a June White Paper (will open in Adobe Acrobat), the President noted that for the country “[t]o rebuild trust in our markets, we need strong and consistent regulation and supervision of consumer financial services and investment markets.” To that end, President Obama recommended “[s]tronger regulations to improve the transparency, fairness, and appropriateness of consumer and investor products and services.” In order to accomplish this goal, the President has set out to increase the power of the SEC so that the agency is better equipped to protect consumers and investors. Whether this will be enough is yet to be determined.

Undisclosed fees and revenue sharing agreements are another example of conflicts of interest between Wall Street firms and Main Street investors. Unfortunately, stockbrokers and financial advisors often lose sight of their clients’ goals and, as a result, their clients suffer unnecessary losses in the value of their IRAs, 401(k)s, college savings plans, or other investments accounts. The Kueser Law Firm represents investors who have suffered losses in their investments as the result of stockbroker or financial adviser misconduct. If you are concerned that your investments have been mismanaged, contact us to learn more about your rights.

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Fidelity Cautions Investors on Leveraged ETFs?

On August 4, 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported that Fidelity Investments had joined other broker-dealers in warning its customers about the risks of investing in Leveraged ETFs (see other blawg posts on this topic here and here). The article, written by Daisy Maxey, states that Fidelity’s website warned investors that “Leveraged products are complex, carry substantial risks and are intended for short-term trading,” and that “[m]ost reset daily and seek to achieve their objectives on a daily basis. Due to compounding, performance over longer periods can differ significantly from the performance of the underlying index.”

The author of this blog spent several minutes searching Fidelity’s website (including searching the site for “leveraged ETF” and “leveraged product”) and could not find this warning. The website did contain an article from The Motley Fool entitled “Leveraged ETFs: Buyer Beware!” This brief article contained some discussion and examples of how leveraged ETFs work.

Last month, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) declared that leveraged ETFs are typically unsuitable for retail investors. In addition, Massachusetts securities regulators have issued subpoenas to four firms in order to obtain information related to their sales practices involving leveraged ETFs.

Leveraged ETFs are unsuitable for retail investors because of their level of risk. The financial website Investopedia.com defines a leveraged ETF as “an exchange-traded fund (ETF) that utilizes financial derivatives and debt to amplify the returns of an underlying index.” The fund essentially borrows money and combines this money with investors’ money to purchase derivatives such as options, futures, or swaps. Because of the use of debt and derivatives, these ETFs carry a significant amount of risk. These funds also generally charge higher expenses to shareholders, which results in reduced returns (or increased losses if the market goes against the investment objective of the fund).

The most popular of these investments are managed by Rydex, Direxion, and ProShares. If your stockbroker or financial advisor has sold you any leveraged ETFs, or purchased any leveraged ETFs in your accounts, and you have lost money on these investments, you may be entitled to recover these losses. The Kueser Law Firm represents investors in securities arbitration. If you are concerned that your investments have been mismanaged, contact us to learn more about your rights.

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More Broker Dealers Restrict Sales of Leveraged ETFs

Weeks after Edward D. Jones, Ameriprise, Linsco Private Ledger (LPL) and UBS announced that they were restricting the sale of leveraged ETFs (see here), two more broker-dealers have decided to take action related to their sales of these risky, and often misunderstood investments.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney announced that it is reviewing its sales procedures related to leveraged ETFs. In addition, Charles Schwab issued an “unusual” warning to its clients that have purchased leveraged ETFs. This warning provides investors with some background discussion related to these risky investments, as well as examples of how hypothetical leveraged ETFs would perform in a few hypothetical situations.

Although many broker-dealers have instituted these measures, some broker-dealers continue to do nothing. For example, as reported in the Wall Street Journal article, Fidelity Investments continues to make leveraged ETFs available to their customers and leveraged ETFs remain available through TD Ameritrade’s web trading platform.

As previously stated in this blawg, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has declared that leveraged ETFs are typically unsuitable for retail investors. In addition, Massachusetts securities regulators have issued subpoenas to four firms in order to obtain information related to their sales practices involving leveraged ETFs.

Leveraged ETFs are unsuitable for retail investors because of their level of risk. The financial website Investopedia.com defines a leveraged ETF as “an exchange-traded fund (ETF) that utilizes financial derivatives and debt to amplify the returns of an underlying index.” The fund essentially borrows money and combines this money with investors’ money to purchase derivatives such as options, futures, or swaps. Because of the use of debt and derivatives, these ETFs carry a significant amount of risk. These funds also generally charge higher expenses to shareholders, which results in reduced returns (or increased losses if the market goes against the investment objective of the fund).

The most popular of these investments are managed by Rydex, Direxion, and ProShares. If your stockbroker or financial advisor has sold you any leveraged ETFs, or purchased any leveraged ETFs in your accounts, and you have lost money on these investments, you may be entitled to recover these losses. The Kueser Law Firm represents investors in securities arbitration. If you are concerned that your investments have been mismanaged, contact us to learn more about your rights.

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Firms Asked to Account for Sales of Leveraged ETFs

According to an article on InvestmentNews, Massachusetts securities regulators have subpoenaed four brokerage firms for information related to their sales practices of leveraged ETFs. The subpoenas come only a few weeks after Edward D. Jones, Ameriprise, Linsco Private Ledger (LPL) and UBS restricted the sale of the products or stopped selling leveraged ETFs altogether. This also comes approximately three weeks after FINRA advised firms that leveraged ETFs “typically are unsuitable for retail investors.”

The most widely traded leveraged ETFs are managed by Direxion Funds, ProShares, and Rydex. Because these funds are “leveraged,” they are designed to provide market returns that significantly exceed market indices. For example, the Rydex Inverse Dow 2x Strategy Fund “seeks to provide investment results that inversely correspond to 200% of the daily performance of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.” (from Rydex Funds’ website.*) Therefore, if the Dow Jones Industrial Average increases by 10%, this fund is designed to lose 20%. Conversely, if the DJIA declines by 10%, this fund is designed to gain 20%. Another example is the Direxion S&P 500 Bull 2.5x Fund, which is designed to provide “daily investment results, before fees and expenses, of 250% of the price performance of the S&P 500 Index.” (from the Direxion Funds’ website.*) Therefore, if the S&P 500 Index declines by 10%, this fund is designed to lose 25%. What most investors are not told is that these funds are designed to produce the stated returns on a daily basis. Therefore, these funds are not designed to be bought and held.

The truth is that leveraged ETFs are unsuitable for retail investors because of their level of risk. As stated on Investopedia.com, a leveraged ETF is “an exchange-traded fund (ETF) that utilizes financial derivatives and debt to amplify the returns of an underlying index.” The fund essentially borrows money and combines this money with investors’ money to purchase derivatives such as options, futures, or swaps. Because of the use of debt and derivatives, these ETFs carry a significant amount of risk. These funds also generally charge higher expenses to shareholders, which results in reduced returns (or increased losses if the market goes against the investment objective of the fund).

From January 2, 2008 through March 6, 2009, the S&P 500 Index declined from 1,447.16 to 683.38. This represents a loss of 52.8% during a 14-month period. As you can imagine, leveraged ETFs that were focused on growth (bullish funds) suffered tremendous declines during this period.

If your financial advisor or stockbroker sold you funds that are managed by Direxion, ProShares, or Rydex and you suffered losses, you may have a claim for recovery of those losses. The Kueser Law Firm represents investors in securities arbitration. If you are concerned that your investments have been mismanaged, contact us to learn more about your rights.

* This blog intentionally refuses to link to the websites of companies that manage and sell leveraged ETFs because of the riskiness of these funds. If you would like to learn more about these funds, use Google to search for the information. If your adviser has recommended these funds to you, get a new adviser or at least a second opinion.

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