Colorado Division of Securities Charges Stifel Nicolaus with Fraudulent Sales of Auction Rate Securities

On October 1, 2009, Colorado Securities Commissioner Fred Joseph announced that the Securities Division had filed a complaint against Stifel, Nicolaus & Company. According to the Division’s news release, the complaint alleges:

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

A copy of the Notice of Charges is available in pdf format here.

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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JP Morgan Returns More Than $28 Million to Missouri Auction Rate Securities Investors

On September 21, 2009, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan announced that her office had finalized a consent order with JP Morgan Chase & Co. related to the firm’s marketing and sale of auction rate securities (ARS) to Missouri investors.

According to the press release, Missouri investors will receive more than $28 million. In addition, JP Morgan will pay $86,000 to the Missouri Investor Education and Protection Fund, which is used to educate Missourians about potential investment fraud and other fraudulent schemes.

JP Morgan, like many of the other investment firms across the country marketed auction rate securities as “safe,” “liquid,” and “same as cash,” when, in fact, the investments were subject to the willingness of many of the same firms to provide the necessary liquidity to sustain the auction rate securities market. As these firms’ liquidity began to diminish in late 2007 and early 2008, they became unable to support the market with the necessary liquidity. As a result, in mid-February 2008, the auctions failed and investors were stuck holding long-term and perpetual investments that paid short-term interest rates.

The Kueser Law Firm represents investors in securities arbitration and litigation. If you were sold Auction Rate Securities and your positions have not been redeemed or repurchased, you should contact an attorney to discuss your rights. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or would like additional information.

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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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Brokerage Firms Pay Billions in Bonuses in 2008 While Taking Taxpayer Money

On July 30, 2009, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo issued a report entitled “No Rhyme or Reason: The ‘Heads I Win, Tails You Lose’ Bank Bonus Culture.”

In the report, Mr. Cuomo discusses the compensation programs instituted by banks and brokerage firms while the economy was heading for, and in the midst of, crisis. The findings are truly astonishing are summed up well as “When the banks did well, their employees were paid well. When the banks did poorly, their employees were paid well. And when the banks did very poorly, they were bailed out by taxpayers and their employees were still paid well. Bonuses and overall compensation did not vary significantly as profits diminished.”

The report illustrates that while Citigroup and Merrill Lynch suffered losses of $54 billion in 2008, they “paid out nearly $9 billion in bonuses and then received TARP bailouts totaling $55 billion.” Furthermore, the bonuses paid in 2008 by Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and J.P. Morgan Chase exceeded their net income. Specifically, the report notes that “these three firms earned $9.6 billion, paid bonuses of nearly $18 billion, and received TARP taxpayer funds worth $45 billion.” The report also noted that State Street paid approximately $470 million in bonuses while receiving $2 billion in TARP funding.

Appendix A to the Report is a must read for anyone concerned about the problems in the financial system. A table contained in the Appendix shows that J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. paid each of more than 1,600 employees bonuses that were equal to or greater than $1 million (while the firm accepted $25 billion in TARP). Goldman Sachs and Citigroup paid similar bonuses to more than 950 and 730 employees, respectively (while accepting $10 billion and $45 billion, respectively from TARP). In 2008, Merrill Lynch suffered losses of more than $465,000 per employee. Nevertheless, the firm paid total bonuses that averaged more than $61,000 per employee.

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SEC Charges Morgan Keegan for Fraudulent Marketing and Sales of Auction Rate Securities

On July 21, 2009, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged Morgan Keegan & Company. In its Complaint, the SEC seeks an injunction for violation of the federal securities laws, as well as equitable relief for Morgan Keegan investors. Included in this equitable relief is a request for a court order requiring Morgan Keegan to repurchase illiquid ARS from its customers. More about the SEC’s case, including a link to the Commission’s Litigation Release and Complaint can be found here.

The SEC’s Complaint alleges that Morgan Keegan misled thousands of investors about the liquidity risks related to auction rate securities (ARS). This is another example of the massive fraud related to Auction Rate Securities that was perpetrated by financial services firms across the country. To date, several firms, including UBS, Wachovia, TD Ameritrade, Fidelity, and Stifel Nicolaus have entered into settlements with federal and/or state securities regulators. Some of these settlements have broader relief for investors, while others have left many investors still holding onto these illiquid investments.

If you were sold Auction Rate Securities and your positions have not been redeemed or repurchased, you should contact an attorney to discuss your rights. The Kueser Law Firm represents investors in securities arbitration and litigation. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or would like additional information.

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Madoff Sentenced to 150 Years

This morning, U.S. District Court Judge Denny Chin sentenced Bernard Madoff to the maximum sentence of 150 years of prison for his role in a “historic” multi-billion dollar fraud.

Judge Chin stated “Here the message must be sent that Mr. Madoff’s crimes were extraordinarily evil and that this kind of manipulation of the system is not just a bloodless crime that takes place on paper, but one instead that takes a staggering toll.”

Mr. Madoff’s “error of judgment” or “tragic mistake” (as he referred to his fraud) devastated the lives of thousands of people. While it is unlikely that Mr. Madoff’s former clients will receive any significant restitution, it is comforting to see that he was not able to buy leniency and that the maximum sentence was ordered.

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Another day, more advisers alleged of fraud

On June 11, 2009, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed two fraud actions against different financial/investment advisers.

Morgan European Holdings ApS, et al.

On June 11, the SEC obtained an emergency court order and asset freeze to shut down a fraudulent prime bank scheme. The action was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Flordia against Morgan European Holdings ApS, a/k/a Money Talks, Inc. ApS, John Morgan, Marian Morgan, Bowman Marketing Group, Inc., Stephen E. Bowman, and Thomas D. Woodcock, Jr.

According to the Litigation Release, the SEC has alleged that the Defendants solicited investments in fictitious prime bank trading programs. As noted in the Release,

the Complaint alleges that, during 2006 and 2007, the defendants raised millions of dollars from investors to participate in a fictitious investment program involving the trading of financial instruments among top financial institutions. The defendants told investors that their principal was guaranteed or never placed at risk. However, according to the Complaint, the defendants used investor funds for various undisclosed purposes, including Bowman’s gambling expenses, mortgage payments by the Morgans, and Ponzi payments to some investors. The SEC claims that John Morgan, Marian Morgan, and Stephen Bowman have continued to lull investors into remaining complacent by promising the imminent payment of their principal and returns. None of the relevant offerings was registered with the Commission, nor were any of the defendants registered as a broker-dealer or associated with a registered broker-dealer.

The SEC claims that the Defendants’ actions violated Sections 5(a), 5(c), and 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933 and Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5 promulgated thereunder. In addition the individual defendants were charged with violation of Section 15(a) of the 1934 Act. A hearing on the preliminary injunction is scheduled for June 25.

Aura Financial Services, Inc.

The SEC also charged an Alabama Broker-Dealer, Aura Financial Services, Inc., with engaging in fraudulent sales practices and high pressure sales tactics to convince customers to open an account and invest money with the firm. The SEC alleges that the firm and six of its representatives unfairly enriched themselves by more than $1 million in commissions and fees. At the same time, the customers’ accounts were largely depleted “through trading losses and excessive transaction costs.”

More information about this matter can be found by reading the SEC’s Litigation Release.

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Another adviser allegedly defrauds clients

On June 10, 2009, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Matthew Weitzman, a New York investment adviser, with defrauding his clients out of $6 million. According to the SEC’s Litigation Release (No. 21078), some of these clients were terminally ill or mentally impaired.

The SEC filed its complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The Litigation Release also states that:

The SEC alleges that Matthew D. Weitzman sold securities in clients’ brokerage accounts and illegally funneled their money to a bank account that he secretly controlled. While Weitzman spent the money on a multi-million dollar home, cars, and other luxury items, he provided false account statements to clients often showing inflated account balances and securities holdings. Weitzman also submitted to a broker-dealer phony letters from clients that purported to authorize the money transfers. When clients questioned Weitzman about the transfers they did not authorize, he misrepresented that he was withdrawing their funds to make legitimate investments.

Mr. Weitzman is the co-founder and a principal of AFW Wealth Advisors, which is an alternative name for AFW Asset Management, Inc., a registered investment advisor located in Puchase, New York. According to the SEC’s release, Mr. Weitzman was also the Compliance Officer for AFW.

This is another example in a long line of instances just this year where an investment adviser has been alleged to have abused the trust and confidence placed in them by their clients. Fortunately, securities regulators are taking a more active role in finding, investigating, and, where appropriate, prosecuting offenders. Unfortunately, clients are suffering millions, if not billions of dollars in losses.

The Kueser Law Firm represents investors that have been the victims of securities fraud, investment fraud, as well as other forms of stockbroker and financial adviser misconduct. In addition, the firm represents consumers that have been defrauded. If you would like to contact the firm for a free consultation, please call 816.374.5865 or visit our website, www.jmkesquire.com, for more information.

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