Monday, May 23, 2016

Probes into Trading Executions

We've been keeping logs of valuation/pricing disputes and issues pertaining to fees charged (more regularly buy-side probes).

This new set is a little different.  Here, we're looking at investigations into whether the buyer/client/customer got a fair execution from the broker-dealer (primarily sell-side probes).

As you'll see from the following list, the regulatory heat is on...
  1. Oct. 2017: RBS to pay $44 million to settle U.S. charges it defrauded customers: "RBS will pay a $35 million fine, plus at least $9.09 million to more than 30 customers, including Pacific Investment Management Co, Soros Fund Management and affiliates of Bank of America, Barclays, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Prosecutors said that from 2008 to 2013, RBS cheated customers by lying about bond prices, charging commissions it did not earn and concealing the fraud in an effort to boost profit at the customers’ expense."

  2. May 2017: SEC Charges Former Head Traders at Nomura With Fraud. "The Securities and Exchange Commission today charged a pair of former head traders who ran the commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) desk at Nomura Securities International Inc. with deliberately lying to customers in order to inflate the profits of the CMBS desk and line their own pockets as a result." ... “As alleged in our complaints, Im and Chan operated under cover of an opaque CMBS secondary market to gain illegal trading profits and potentially larger bonuses by lying to firms on the other side of their trades about the prices at which they were buying and selling securities,” said Andrew M. Calamari, Director of the SEC’s New York Regional Office." 

  3. May 2017: Two Former Barclays RMBS Traders Settle Fraud Charges for False or Misleading Statements and Excessive Mark-ups; Barclays Settles Charges for Failing Reasonably to Supervise. "The SEC staff’s investigation found that Lee and Wong made false or misleading statements to Barclays RMBS customers, including false or misleading about the price at which Barclays had bought the securities; the amount of profit Barclays was making for facilitating the trades; and who owned the securities, including creating a fictional third-party to create the appearance of price negotiations." 

  4. Jan. 2017: Citadel pays SEC $22.6 million to settle charges of misleading customers. "The SEC found that between 2007 and 2010, Citadel used two algorithms to execute stock trades on customers’ behalf that gave investors a worse price for their trades, even when Citadel knew better prices existed elsewhere. The SEC penalized Citadel for failing to disclose the use of those algorithms to clients." 

  5. Sept. 2016: Ex-Morgan Stanley Trader Caught in SEC Mortgage-Bond Probe. "Bonacci, 31, misled Morgan Stanley customers in 2012 in at least five transactions about the price the bank had paid for the mortgage bonds he was selling, and how much the bank was getting paid for arranging the trades, the SEC said in an administrative order." 

  6. Sept. 2016: Westpac refunds $20m to customers over foreign transaction fees. "The Australian Securities and Investments Commission indicated the bank did not clearly disclose the transactions that attract the fees — including where transactions are made in Australian dollars but processed by overseas merchants such as Amazon." 

  7. August 2016: Former Goldman Sachs Trader Settles Fraud Charges. "An SEC investigation found that Edwin Chin generated extra revenue for Goldman by concealing the prices at which the firm had bought various RMBS, then re-selling them at higher prices to the buying customer with Goldman keeping the difference." 

  8. May 2016: Why Merrill Lynch and Stifel Were Fined by FINRA. "Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, a subsidiary of Bank of America (BAC), was ordered to pay $422,708 in fines and restitution by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority for charging customers excessive markups and markdowns on municipal securities." 

  9. May 2016: State Street Nears Settlements to End Probes Into Alleged Overcharges. "The lawsuits accuse State Street of promising to execute foreign exchange trades for clients at market prices, but instead using inaccurate or fake rates that included hidden markups. The alleged overcharges occurred between 1998 and 2009, ..."

  10. May 2016: U.S. investigates market-making operations of Citadel, KCG.  "Federal authorities are ... looking into the possibility that the two giants of electronic trading are giving small investors a poor deal when executing stock transactions on their behalf." 

  11. May 2016: Lawson Financial, Its Top Officials Charged in Muni Case. "[FINRA] has filed a complaint against Phoenix-based Lawson Financial Corp. and the firm's president and chief executive officer, charging them with securities fraud in connection with the sale of millions of dollars of municipal revenue bonds to customers." 

  12. Apr. 2016: Three Firms Ordered by FINRA to Pay $115K for Muni, Other Violations. "Alton Securities Group, based in Alton, Ill., did not receive a fine for its conduct but was ordered to pay $75,000 in restitution, plus interest, to customers for taking excessive markups and markdowns in muni and corporate debt and for not making suitable recommendations on exchange traded funds. FINRA found in 104 muni trades occurring between February 2009 and June 2013, markups ranging from 3.01% to 4.53% that [] violated MSRB Rule G-30 on prices and commissions."

  13. Feb. 2016: Oppenheimer One of 7 Firms FINRA Fines Over Minimum Denominations. "Oppenheimer & Co., WFG Investments, and E*TRADE are three of seven firms that [FINRA] fined ... for trading municipal securities below the minimum denomination." 

  14. Jan. 2016: BNY Mellon faces lawsuit claiming FX transaction overcharges on ADRs

  15. Jan. 2016: The Hidden—and Outrageously High—Fees Investors Pay for Bonds

  16. Jan. 2016: Barclays, Credit Suisse Charged With Dark Pool Violations. “Dark pools have a significant role in today’s equity marketplace, and the firms that run these venues must ensure that they do not make misstatements to subscribers about their material operations,” said Andrew Ceresney, Director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division. “These largest-ever penalties imposed in SEC cases involving two of the largest ATSs show that firms pay a steep price when they mislead subscribers.” 

  17. July 2015: Banks are ripping off investors in overseas markets. "...these are the first in history by ADR shareholders against depositary banks, in this case Citibank and JPMorgan, according to Germinario. In the Citibank case, ..., the investors claim the bank docked fees from dividends and cash distributions by foreign companies without proper disclosure ..." 

  18. Mar. 2015: BNY Mellon Agrees to Pay $714 Million to Settle Forex Probes. "Federal and state officials alleged in lawsuits filed in 2011 that the bank misled investors about foreign-exchange deals by promising it would provide the best rates available when executing trades. Instead, the bank obtained the best rates for itself and gave less favorable terms to customers, pocketing the difference,..." 

  19. Jan. 2015: SEC Charges Direct Edge Exchanges With Failing to Properly Describe Order Types

  20. Aug. 2014: Edward Jones to Pay $20 Million for Overcharging Retail Customers in Municipal Bond Underwritings

  21. Mar. 2014: SEC Said Examining Hidden Electronic Bond Trading Prices. "The practice of dealers showing clients different prices for the same securities on electronic bond-trading platforms is drawing the scrutiny of the [SEC], which is concerned that smaller investors are being penalized." 

  22. Feb. 2014: Regulators Are Probing How Goldman, Citi and Others Divvied Up Bonds. "The Securities and Exchange Commission has sent requests for information about how banks allocate corporate-bond deals and how they traded those bonds after they were sold, the people said."
Visit our recent research piece on financial markets probes and litigation, here.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

How About a Real Federal Bailout for Puerto Rico?

Later this month, Congress will begin its race against a July 1st deadline to pass legislation addressing the financial mess in Puerto Rico. July 1 appears to be the date on which the Commonwealth will default on general obligation debt service payment – the first such default by a state or territory since 1933. The proposed bill, HR 4900, includes a combination of federal oversight over Puerto Rico finances and a mechanism to restructure the island’s public sector debt. Although the restructuring procedure would begin with voluntary negotiations between issuers and bondholders, the bill would authorize courts to impose cram-downs on holdout bondholders.

This last aspect has displeased hedge funds that own Puerto Rico bonds, and they have been trying to kill the legislation. The most visible part of this effort has been a spate of issue ads on TV urging voters to call their Representative to stop the so-called federal bailout. When people think of a bailout, they normally assume that taxpayer money is being spent on some objectionable purpose. In this case, the ad misleads viewers to think that Congress is trying to send more federal dollars to the island. In fact, the legislation does not provide any new funding to Puerto Rico whatsoever. Even the federal oversight board is to be funded with proceeds from new bonds that will be obligations of the Commonwealth. 

Although I like HR 4900 overall, I think it would be better if the federal government did make a financial commitment. Specifically, I suggest that Puerto Rico Commonwealth bonds be exchanged for newly issued US Treasury Bonds with similar maturities. The federal government would service these new Treasury Bonds by diverting grant monies earmarked for the Commonwealth government.

Right now, most Puerto Rico bonds carry coupons of between 5% and 8%. Treasury rates are below 3% at all maturities. Refunding Puerto Rico bonds at par with Treasuries saves bondholders from taking a haircut and saves taxpayer money viz.-a-viz. fully servicing the current bonds. The swap is thus a win/win situation.

While the debt burden would then be shifted onto the federal government’s books, there is a surefire way for federal taxpayers to be made whole. Each year, the federal government provides over $7 billion in grants to Puerto Rico’s public sector to support a variety of services. Under my proposal, any money needed to pay principal and interest on the newly issued Treasury bonds would be withheld from Puerto Rico and used instead to pay holders of the new Treasury bonds.

This concept has a rough precedent in the municipal bond market. Several states provide credit support to local school district bonds through aid intercepts. The state deducts principal and interest from money that would otherwise be apportioned to the school district borrower and remits it to bondholders. School bonds serviced this way carry ratings similar to those of the state, allowing small districts to realize substantial interest savings. (Typically the aid intercept mechanism is just a backup in case the school district fails to pay, so this is a bit different from my recommendation for Puerto Rico).

I propose this only as a solution for Commonwealth-issued bonds including General Obligations and COFINA sales tax supported debt. Debt issued by other Puerto Rico borrowers should be restructured either according to procedures laid out in HR 4900 or using the Chapter 9-like mechanism provided by the Puerto Rico Corporations Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2014 now being reviewed by the Supreme Court. This non-Commonwealth debt is more akin to municipal bonds on the mainland that have been adjusted under Chapter 9, so there should be less political concern about using these mechanisms to restructure them.

* * *

I have been writing a lot about Puerto Rico lately. Here are some of my other recent commentaries on the web: