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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