Articles Posted in FSC Securities

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices continues to represent investors who’ve suffered losses in connection with financial advisors who have oversold energy stocks and other energy-related investments. With the COVID-19 pandemic depressing demand for everything from gasoline to jet fuel, it’s been a mostly rotten year for energy stocks. In fact, when news first hit the markets in early March, stocks in many oil & gas companies and funds that invested in them crashed. At one time, the Energy Select SPDR (XLE), an exchange-traded fund that invests in energy companies, was down as much as 58%.

The net effect of tens of millions of Americans sheltering in place, avoiding travel and not commuting slashed demand for fuels. Only a handful of people were getting on jets, buses, ships, trains, or driving to work. That resulted in energy companies eliminating dividends and losing money.  While the economy has recovered somewhat as more states have re-opened in recent months, energy demand is nowhere near where it was at the beginning of 2020. The U.S. economy is now in a recession, which may continue into 2021.

What is important to realize about oil/gas prices is, the decline in energy demand actually began a few years ago – primary energy consumption dropped by half in 2019 alone — hasn’t stopped brokers from selling investments in oil & gas companies. They have sold stocks, limited partnerships, and mutual funds that concentrate in fossil fuels, which are volatile commodities and have a long history or volatility.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices continues to see a surge of complaints from investors who bought unlisted or non-traded Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). For most investors, the prospect of getting a higher yield on any investment has been alluring. With rates near zero, it’s been hard to earn a return that beats inflation. Enter REITs and funds that invest in them. These are special vehicles that bundle real estate properties into one investment: You can invest in everything from apartment buildings to storage units.

Many REITs are listed and traded on stock exchanges, but some are not, which are called “private” or “unlisted” REITs. In their heyday, REITs routinely paid double-digit yields. Unlisted or “non-traded” REITs have been a consistent sore spot for investors in recent years. Many are loaded with fees and commissions, which dramatically lower investors’ net returns. They even may be money losers, even though they are sold with the promise that 90% of the income generated by properties they hold must be paid to investors. Middleman expenses, which can be as high as 15%, eat up returns in most cases.

Disclosure of the actual financial condition of these vehicles has also been troublesome. It’s hard for investors to know the true value of the properties within these vehicles, which have been aggressively sold by broker-dealers, who make high commissions selling them. When the COVID-19 crisis wracked the economy earlier this year – at first hitting commercial real estate developers and owners particularly hard – REITs that specialized in retail and office properties got clobbered. Retail and Hotel REITs were down 48% and 53%, respectively (as of April 15), according to Deloitte. Investors in these funds, of course, may be still experiencing large losses.

Chicago-based securities law firm Stoltmann Law Offices continues to investigate nationwide claims involving American Realty Capital (“ARC”) New York City REIT.  New York City REIT, Inc. is a non-traded real estate investment trust that owns a portfolio of high-quality commercial real estate located within the five boroughs of New York City, particularly Manhattan.  In order to induce clients to invest in the ARC New York City REIT, brokers pitched the REIT as maximizing total shareholder returns through appreciation and current income, maintaining a low loan to value rate, targeting liquidity events, acquiring high-quality New York City real estate and as having a diversified group of tenants. Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating claims against stockbrokers and investment advisors who recommended this complex high commission based product to investors.

Brokers sold the ARC New York City REIT to customers as having primary objectives of preservation and protection of capital and capital appreciation.  Unfortunately, the ARC New York City REIT ceased paying distributions on March 1, 2018.  Furthermore, the ARC New York City REIT paid substantial fees to advisors.  No public market existed for the ARC New York City REIT and the investment is illiquid pending its IPO.  As of December 31, 2017, ARC New York City REIT owned only six properties and therefore had limited diversification.  The value of the shares of ARC New York City REIT have declined substantially leaving investors stuck with the illiquid investment and a principal loss.

The New York City REIT is a “non-traded” REIT, which means it falls into a subset of the broader REIT investment class. REITs generally speaking are trusts designed to provide tax incentives to the owners of the underlying property. In order to maintain their status as a REIT, the REIT managers have to ensure that at least 90% of all taxable income generated by the REIT trickles down to the investors via dividends. REITs are concentrated investments in income producing property and are basically by definition non-diversified. The real issues investors have traditionally had with REITs are the liquidity and conflicts problems in the non-traded variety, of which the ARC New York REIT was a member.

Chicago-based securities law firm Stoltmann Law Offices continues to represent investors in FINRA arbitrations nationwide recovering losses suffered in the GPB Capital Holdings group of funds, including the GPB Automotive Fund, GPB Holdings Fund II, and the GPB/Armada Waste Management Fund.

One of the appealing pitches that broker-dealers and investment advisers offer is the opportunity to invest in private companies with outstanding earnings potential, or in the case of GPB, relatively high annualized “interest” payments. Instead of buying shares in public companies on stock exchanges, the advisers sell interests in “closely held” companies, which are not listed on exchanges and not required to openly disclose their financial statements.

One such company was GPB Capital Holdings LLC, which has been the subject of federal and state litigation. GPB Capital is a New York City-based alternative investing firm that “seeks to acquire income-producing private companies.” So-called private placements have posed problems for investors in recent years because of sketchy financial disclosure and overselling.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C, a Chicago-based securities law firm specializing in representing investors nationwide, continues to hear from investors who have suffered devastating losses in alternative investments.  One of the most common and popular alternative investments peddled by brokers over the last several years are “business development companies” or “BDCs”. The most common issuer of BDCs is a company called Franklin Square, and brokerage firms have pushed hundreds of millions of dollars in these speculative investments to unsuspecting investors for a decade.

FSKR, the publicly-traded BDC called FS KKR Capital Corp. (NYSE: FSKR), was created by the merger of four Franklin Square non-traded BDCs in December 2019:

  • FS Investment Corporation II (FSIC II)

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented hundreds of investors who have been victims of one of the most egregious investment frauds: Ponzi schemes. These swindles promise quick riches and rely upon an increasing number of “investors” to keep the operation going, sometimes over a period of years. The schemes eventually blow up when new investors can’t be found to perpetuate it or promoters are outed by investors or associates for faking returns.

The most famous Ponzi scheme – and perhaps one of the largest – involved broker-money manager Bernie Madoff. Over a period of 17 years, Madoff defrauded thousands of investors, lying about profitable trades. In 2009, he was sentenced to 150 years in prison, after pleading guilty to a $65 billion swindle of some 65,000 victims around the world. Many of Madoff’s victims, which ranged from non-profit organizations to celebrities, were financially ruined. A court-appointed “Madoff Victims Fund” has distributed nearly $3 billion to investors. His sons, who worked for their father’s firm, turned Madoff into authorities when they learned of the scam.

Despite the notoriety of the Madoff swindle, Ponzi schemes are still ensnaring innocent investors. As one of the oldest investment fraud vehicles around, the Ponzi scheme has two selling points: Promoters promise outrageous returns in a short period of time and rely upon continuing stream of new victims to “pay off” early investors in fake profits. This perennial false promise of easy riches makes it one of the most durable schemes for dishonest brokers, who continue to sell them — until the frauds collapse.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. continues to see a surge of investor cases involving “alternative” investments like non-traded REITs, BDCs, oil and gas LPs, and other private placements. These “alts” are almost always considered to be on the speculative end of the risk scale, and frankly, they usually perform poorly and result in investor losses.

Alternative investments cover a wide variety of unconventional investment vehicles. They may employ novel or quantitative trading strategies or pool money for investments in commodities or real estate, for example. The one thing they all usually have in common is steep management fees along with commissions. Both expenses come out of investors’ pockets. Examples of alternative investments, or “alts” in industry parlance, include unlisted or “private” Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), private equity, venture capital and hedge funds. While they are generally sold to high-net worth investors who can afford to take on increased risk, they are usually illiquid and complex. Brokers who sell these vehicles may not fully disclose how risky they are. Most of these investments are unregulated, so supervision by regulators is typically light or non-existent.

Investors can file arbitration claims with FINRA if brokers sell inappropriate alternative investments to clients. A year ago, FINRA censured and fined the broker-dealer Berthel Fisher in connection with sales of “inappropriate” alternative investments. FINRA awarded six investors $1.1 million and fined the firm $675,000. Berthel Fisher has had a history of running afoul of investors and regulatory fines. In 2014, the firm was fined $775,000 by FINRA for “supervisory deficiencies, including Berthel Fisher’s failure to supervise the sale of non-traded real estate investment trusts (REITs), and leveraged and inverse exchange-traded funds (ETFs).” The firm was also selling managed commodity futures; oil and gas programs; business development companies; leveraged and inverse Exchange Traded Funds and equipment leasing programs.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with unscrupulous investment brokers selling risky variable annuities.

Variable annuities are hybrid products that combine mutual funds within an annuity “wrapper.” As a retirement savings vehicle, you can invest in a variety of stock, bond and other funds that compound earnings tax free. Unlike “fixed” annuities, which pay a set rate of return and a guaranteed monthly payment, variables are not focused on guaranteed income and performance is based on market returns, so you could lose money. Both products provide a death “benefit,” that is, a lump-sum payment to survivors when the annuity holder dies.

The main reason variable annuities are often a bad deal for retirement investors is they are extremely expensive to own. In addition to sales commissions, mutual fund managers levy fees. There are also insurance-related expenses, riders, and other fees that act as a drag on return. Brokers often tout the tax “benefit” of owning a variable annuity, but then sell then to investors in their IRAs, which is a huge problem.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. has been representing investors in FINRA arbitration cases involving the GPB Funds since March 2019, and we have filed dozens since. There is one common thread with GPB over the last year or so.  They consistently oversell “good news” which is followed up with more bad news.  Recently, GPB announced it had hired a new CFO – Someone who was going to right the ship and get those audited financials done so that GPB can comply with necessary SEC financial filing rules. Brokerage firms and their brokers who do not want to be sued for this mess, continuously promulgate the “good news”, trying to stave off investor complaints.  All that happens no matter the spin, is more bad news which brokerage firms and brokers do not tell their clients.

On  February 10, 2020 , GPB announced it would not be providing investors with IRS Form K-1 any time soon. So, as the lucky owner of units in a GPB fund, investors will have to wait to file their tax returns until GPB figures out how to send investors reliable tax documents.  Another mess created by GPB are for investors who received surprise IRS Form 1099-Rs because they or their brokers did not act fast enough last fall when GPB was bounced off of various trading platforms, including Charles Schwab. What this means is, those investors are being taxed as if they took a distribution of their GPB asset from their IRA.  So, if you invested $100,000 in a GPB fund in your IRA, and did not have it transferred to an IRA custodial firm, whatever the book value of the fund was on your statement, say $60,000, will be treated as an IRA distribution, and the investor likely will have to pay income tax on that amount. GPB is the gift that keeps on giving!

About a week after GPB announced that it could not even get tax forms to investors, another lawsuit was filed in Delaware Chancery Court against the fund by a group of angry investors.  This lawsuit, Lipman v. GPB Capital Holdings, LLC, Case No. 2020-0054, is a derivative suit filed against GPB on behalf of investors and the GPB Auto and Holdings II funds. The first paragraph of this complaint refers to David Gentile, Jeffrey Lash, and Jeffrey Schneider as “scoundrels who never should have been allowed to run a legitimate company.” Only days later, GPB was sued in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York by Volkswagen of America regarding control over three dealerships. This lawsuit relates back to David Rosenberg, who was the head of these three Volkswagen dealerships. He blew the whistle on GPB to the SEC, warning the regulator that GPB was engaging in financial fraud. GPB terminated him and Volkswagen alleges that this termination violated the agreement between GPB and the car company. The more things change with GPB, the more things stay the same. At the end, it is the investors left holding the bag.

The news continues to get worse for the thousands of retail investors with money locked-up in various GPB Capital Funds. Those funds include the GPB Automotive Fund, GPB Waste Management Fund, and GPB Fund II, amongst others. Stoltmann Law Offices has been investigating these funds for several months. We have filed roughly two dozen FINRA Arbitration claims on behalf of our clients to recover their losses in these funds from the brokerage firms responsible for soliciting them to invest in these ill-fated private placements.

On November 22, 2019, GPB sent a letter to their “partners” informing them of some really bad news.  The recent indictment of GPB Capital’s Chief Compliance Officer by the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York for obstruction of justice, amongst other claims, has caused the auditing process to fall off the rails. All of those promises by GPB to investors, all of those promises repeated by financial advisors to their clients, that GPB was well on its way to finally providing restated, audited financial statements, have officially been broken. The letter states that GPB’s auditor has “decided to suspend work on outstanding financial statement audits. In addition, the Audit Committee has elected to resign effective ups the earlier of the completion of the Rosenberg Investigation or by November 27, 2019.” The “Rosenberg investigation” is the self-implemented third party investigation into how the company’s CCO obstructed justice, and what GPB knew and when it knew it. Well, according to the indictment, detailed on this blog last month, GPB hired the CCO with knowledge that he had confidential information obtained from his participation in the SEC’s investigation of GPB. They knew he had  obtained information from the SEC in the course of its investigation, it would seem, and GPB made him their chief compliance officer.

The November 22, 2019 notice also eviscerates another false narrative promoted by GPB and passed along to clients by financial advisors, who are scrambling at this point to come up with excuses.  Despite operating in a red-hot economy where car sales are through the roof, the GPB Automotive Fund has managed to lose over $200 million and GPB Holdings II has lost roughly $125 million.  To add insult to injury to the investors stuck holding this rapidly depreciating asset, GPB is not allowing investors to unload their units on secondary markets.  Unfortunately for investors, this is what a Ponzi scheme looks like when it is no longer able to attract new investor money.

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