Articles Posted in Investor Alert

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices is representing investors who were solicited by their financial advisors to invest in junk-bonds offered by now bankrupt Hornbeck Offshore. The bonds sold to our clients were rated D by Standard and Poor’s at the time of the solicitation, which is as low as bond ratings go.  This was not even speculation, it was financial homicide. The financial advisor at issue in our clients’ cases, Thomas M. Bonik was registered with NTB Financial Corporation (f/k/a Neidiger, Tucker, Bruner), which is headquartered in Colorado and has offices all over the country.  Mr. Bonik’s office was primarily in St. Augustine, Florida.

Hornbeck Offshore had been struggling financially for years.  The company is primarily engaged in offshore oil drilling and transportation. The persistently low prices for oil and gas for the past few years resulted in Hornbeck struggling financially due to a heavy debt load. Part of that debt was in the form of bonds purchased by investors.  Covid was the last straw for this struggling company and in June it filed a pre-packaged Chapter 11 plan in the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas.  These pre-packaged plans are negotiated in advance with the “Secured” creditors, and typically burn bond holders like our clients. No surprise, our clients have lost every dime they invested in these Hornbeck bonds.

Financial advisors recommend clients invest in corporate or municipal bonds that are technically “junk” rated because these bonds have much higher yields than higher rated bonds. In the persistent low-rate environment in the US and to some degree the worldwide economy has been in since after the financial crisis, investors and advisors alike reach for higher yields, often investing in esoteric alternatives to grab that extra yield.  In this instance, the recommendation was to invest in corporate bonds that were rated “D” by S&P, which defines this rating as:

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 represents investors who’ve suffered losses due to recommendations by financial advisors and brokers to invest in Exchange-Traded Products (ETPs). With market gyrations giving average investors motion sickness this year, it’s understandable for many to find ways of hedging volatility. When the market is up one day and down another, it’s pretty unnerving.

That’s why Wall Street invented Exchange Traded Products linked to volatility indexes, which track the nervy fears of the market at large. When anxiety is high, these indexes are high. One of the most popular such indexes is the so-called VIX, which is managed by the Chicago Board Options Exchange. Brokers and advisors often recommend ETPs based on the VIX for clients who want to hedge against market volatility.

ETPs are securities traded on stock exchanges that can track anything from baskets of bonds to precious metals. For many investors, they can be efficient ways of owning commodities or hedging prices on nearly any kind of security. But each have their own risk profile. Some are clearly unsuitable for unprepared investors.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses as a result of financial advisors who sell investments that are technically “unauthorized” by their firms. These side gigs, while profitable for the broker due to high commissions, are prohibited by FINRA, the industry regulator.

Brokers may pitch clients on a private securities transaction, for example. Of course, the investors rarely have any clue that what they are being asked to invest in is “unauthorized” or a “private securities transaction.” Sometimes these take the form of stock offerings that are unlisted. Broker Henry A. Taylor III, for example, then working for the Cetera brokerage firm, sold $30,000 in private stock that invested in a trucking firm. Taylor did not notify his firm of the sale and had initially deposited his client’s check in his personal account.

After a FINRA arbitration claim was filed, the regulator fined Taylor $7,500 and suspended him for three months earlier this year. Taylor neither admitted nor denied the findings of the FINRA action. The original transaction took place three years ago.

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 exchange-traded products. Many of these high-risk products are unsuitable for retail investors.

With the COVID-19 crisis roiling financial markets, many investors have been sold products that rise when market indexes or individual securities fall. Many “exchange-linked products” (ETPs) often use borrowed money, or leverage, to magnify gains when the market drops, but they can also increase losses. They are generally only suitable for sophisticated investors and are linked to complex underlying futures contracts.

When the coronavirus crisis first made major headlines in the U.S. in early March, the stock, bond and commodities markets crashed. Since markets over-react to widespread greed and fear, traders went into mass selling mode over (later justified) expectations that demand for nearly everything from luxury goods to commodities would drop dramatically.

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. is investigating recent reports that James T. Booth, of Norwalk, Connecticut, was terminated from LPL Financial on June 26, 2019 for stealing upwards of $1 million from his clients. On July 1, 2019, Booth consented to a lifetime ban from the securities industry after FINRA investigated information provided to it by LPL established that Booth converted – or stole – $1 million from clients by depositing the funds into personal accounts for his own use. According to the FINRA Acceptance Waiver and Consent (AWC), Booth committed these egregious acts from approximately April 2014 to May 2019. If you or someone you know was victimized by Booth, you should contact Stoltmann Law Offices to discuss your legal options.

According to FINRA, Booth’s spree occurred while he was registered with Invest Financial Corporation and then LPL Financial. Depending on when an investor’s funds were actually converted by Booth, either Investment Financial or LPL Financial could be held responsible for this misconduct. In almost every case where a financial advisor like Booth converts or steals client money, there are various red flags and compliance failures that facilitate the theft. For example, in some cases, financial advisors will arrange for transfers of funds from a client account to a third party account, like an LLC or some outside business, from which the advisor then steals the money. In other cases, the advisor asks the clients to write a check or wire funds to either the advisor to a company he owns. In any instance, the brokerage firm’s knowledge of what their agent is up to is a phone call away. Part of a compliance department’s responsibility to supervise their agents includes making contact with clients directly to make sure they are satisfied with how their accounts are being managed and to inquire with them about their experience. It does not take a brilliant compliance examiner to figure out that a broker has been stealing money from clients for upwards of five years, like Booth.

FINRA Rules and securities industry regulations require brokerage firms like Invest Financial and LPL Financial to supervise their financial advisors. The foundation for this obligation to supervise to found in the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 which states:

Investors who were solicited to invest in Direct Lending Investments (DLI) in Glendale, California by their financial advisor may have actionable claims to recover their money.  This week, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged registered investment advisor Direct Lending Investments LLC with a fraud spanning multiple years that caused an $11 million over charge of management and performance fees to its private funds https://www.sec.gov/litigation/litreleases/2019/lr24432.htm.  The company allegedly fraudulently inflated it annual returns by 2 percent to 3 percent per year for multiple years.

According to the SEC:

Brendan Ross, DLI’s owner and then-chief executive officer, arranged with QuarterSpot to falsify borrower payment information for QuarterSpot’s loans and to falsely report to Direct Lending that borrowers made hundreds of monthly payments when, in fact, they had not. The SEC alleges that many of these loans should have been valued at zero, but instead were improperly valued at their full value, because of the false payments Ross helped engineer.

On Monday, the Idaho Department of Finance released its annual list of top investor threats. Among the things to look out for are unsolicited investments, especially those involving promissory notes, oil and gas deals and real estate investment opportunities, including real estate investment trusts (REITs). The top threats were determined by surveying members of the North American Securities Administrators Association. They include:

  1. Unregistered Products/Unlicensed Salesmen: The offer of securities by an individual without a valid securities license should be a red flag for investors, as should pitches of investments as “limited or no risk” and high returns.
  2. Promissory Notes: Most promissory notes available to retail investors must be registered as securities with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the states in which they are sold. Average investors should be cautious about offers of promissory notes with a duration of nine months or less, which in some instances, do not require registration at the federal level. Short term notes that appear to be exempt from securities registration have been the source of most fraudulent activity involving promissory notes.
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