Articles Posted in Merrill Lynch

Stoltmann Law Offices is a Chicago-based securities and investment fraud law firm that offers representation to investors nationwide on a contingency fee basis. We are currently investigating “selling away” claims involving Merrill Lynch and a financial advisor from their San Francisco office, Richard Hogan. The most important take-away from this post is to understand it does not matter that Merrill Lynch calls it, if the misconduct involved investments and clients, Merrill Lynch is responsible for the conduct of its agent – full stop.  “Selling away” is a securities industry moniker used to deflect responsibility for unapproved investment recommendation by rogue brokers.  The law makes it clear that the firm, Merrill Lynch, has an obligation to supervise their broker’s conduct and the law also allows for investors to make agency-based claims agains Merrill Lynch too.

According to a recent filing by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), Richard A. Hogan conceded to a twelve month ban and a $10,000 fine as a result of an investigation by the regulator into alleged misconduct committed by Mr. Hogan. According to FINRA, Hogan participated in “private securities transactions” involving three Merrill Lynch clients and about $630,000 in Asia-based funds. the funds were a Hong Kong based equity fund and a Vietnam based equity fund. FINRA further stated that Mr. Hogan misrepresented to Merrill Lynch what his involvement was in these funds, which Merrill Lynch apparently did not offer on their platform.  Once Merrill Lynch found out otherwise, in July 2020, Merrill Lynch fired him.

“Private Securities Transaction” is more securities industry code for investments made or solicited by brokers “outside” of the firm with whom they are registered. Brokers like Hogan have an obligation under FINRA Rule 3280 to disclose transactions of this nature and receive approval from the firm, before participating in it.  According to FINRA, Hogan never disclosed that he recommended these Asia-Fund investments to firm clients, which was something he was required to disclose.  Hogan then became a very easy mark for FINRA to exercise its police power over registered brokers, suspend, and fine him.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices is representing investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with broker-advisors who’ve executed unsuitable short-term trading strategies. When a broker takes your money in and out of investment products intended to be held long term, like Unit Investment Trusts or mutual funds, the brokerage firm can be liable for any losses sustained.

FINRA, the U.S. securities industry regulator, recently concluded a sweep of Unit Investment Trust (UIT) sales that resulted in a combined $16.8 million in restitution payments and $6.6 million in fines against six firms, according to Advisorhub.com. UITs are mutual-fund-like vehicles sold by brokers that carry high up-front fees or “loads”.

The regulator reached a settlement with two Wells Fargo Advisors broker-dealers “that agreed to pay $3.1 million in fines and restitution over failure to supervise improper short-term trading of UITs. The sanctions, which were levied against the firm’s core Wells Fargo Clearing Services broker-dealer and Wells’ independent Financial Network unit, included almost $2.5 million in restitution and $650,000 in fines.” The FINRA sweep previously “also hit Merrill Lynch, which paid the lion’s share of the penalties with $11.65 million in fines and restitution, as well as Stifel Nicolaus & Co., Cambridge Investment Research, and Oppenheimer & Co.”

Chicago-Based Stoltmann Law Offices has been representing California investors before FINRA arbitration panels for many years. We are looking into allegations made by an investor that allege that Ryan Raskin, who was registered with Merrill Lynch until he was discharged for cause in March 2020, executed unauthorized trades for a client. Merrill Lynch denied that complaint outright, which is a common practice used by brokerage firms when clients come to them with a complaint without being armed with an experienced FINRA investor-rights lawyer.

According to a story published by AdvisorHub.com, Raskin was employed with Merrill Lynch since 2016. On January 13, 2021, Mr. Raskin was barred by FINRA for failing to respond to requests for information. FINRA has the authority, under FINRA Rule 8210, to seek information and documents from any licensed, registered representative, even after the are terminated or are not working in the securities industry. As part of their enforcement mandate to enforce securities law and regulations, FINRA is given pretty broad discretion to seek out information related to its investigations, and in the event a broker like Raskin refuses to cooperate or ignores a valid request for information from FINRA, the penalty is a lifetime ban from the securities industry.  Sometimes brokers do this because they are out of the business and don’t really care if they lose their license to provide investment advice. Sometimes brokers ignore FINRA because they have something serious to hide.

Mr. Raskin was discharged from Merrill Lynch in March 2020 for “conduct involving business practices inconsistent with Firm standards, including inappropriate investment recommendation.” The impetus for FINRAs Rule 8210 request was this discharge by Merrill Lynch, which was reported to FINRA on Form U-5. Although the FINRA Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent (AWC), which was signed by Mr. Raskin, does not state any specific allegations with respect to misconduct. Still, Merrill Lynch discharged Mr. Raskin for “inappropriate investment recommendations” and one customer did make a complaint against him for unauthorized trading.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices in investigating cases where brokers have been treated unfairly by their firms.  A growing issue for financial advisors is when they are pushed out of their firms or treated unfairly simply for getting older. When this happens, brokers can file age discrimination lawsuits against their former employers.

Judith Bovitz, a 70-year-old financial advisor with Wells Fargo, sued her employer last year for age and gender discrimination. She claimed Wells retaliated against her by transferring her to a smaller branch office when she complained that younger, male advisors were being assigned more lucrative accounts, according to Reuters. She had a $100 million book of business at the time of the lawsuit. Bovitz spent her 34-year career at Wells and its Prudential Securities predecessor. “I’ve lost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year because other advisors were given accounts,” Bovitz told Advisorhub.com. “I’m sick and tired of being passed over.” The company said it is “reviewing” Bovitz’s allegations.

In 2011, Wells Fargo Advisors, the wealth management unit of Wells Fargo & Co. agreed to pay $32 million to settle a gender bias class-action suit with about 3,000 women advisors. The women claimed that compared with their male advisor counterparts, female advisors were “provided fewer business opportunities by the company. The women also claimed that female advisors were impaired by limited career advancement, work assignments and distribution of accounts,” one of the ways firms chose to shift customers to younger, male advisors.

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 investigate investor claims related to UBS YES products.  In recent years, with savings yields at rock bottom, investors have been eager to attempt to safely earn a higher return on their money. Wall Street has responded with so-called “yield enhancement strategies” (YES) designed to pump up returns. But these strategies eek out this extra yield by employing extremely risky options trading strategies.

What brokers haven’t told investors in countless pitches, however, is that yield enhancement products are complicated and carry numerous hidden risks. The UBS YES program, involving an “iron condor” options trading plan, has attracted a great deal of attention recently. Investors are suing UBS, the Swiss wealth management firm, claiming they lost money when UBS brokers enrolled them in the strategy. Arbitration claims against the company have also been filed with FINRA, the securities industry regulator.

Investors who invested in the UBS YES program claim they suffered losses, even though the firm claimed the strategy was “conservative” and “low risk,” according to Wealthmanagement.com. What investors apparently were not told is how complex and convoluted the YES strategy was:

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 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 risky municipal bonds. One of the most troubling investments for investors has been bond mutual funds and single municipal bonds issued by Caribbean territories like Puerto Rico. The island was devastated by Hurricane Maria and a debt crisis. The island’s government, which issued billions in municipal bonds, filed for bankruptcy, which forced bondholders to take losses. Like Puerto Rico, the neighboring Virgin Islands may be facing a debt meltdown of its own.

The U.S. Virgin Islands, also severely damaged by two hurricanes in recent years, is also dealing with an ongoing debt crisis. With only about 100,000 inhabitants spanning three Caribbean Islands, the U.S. protectorate had been issuing high-yield municipal bonds in recent years to fund essential government services such as a power utility. The government owes more than $6.5 billion to creditors, which averages some $19,000 per resident. In addition, the islands have billions in unfunded pension and healthcare obligations. That’s one of the highest per-capita debt loads in the Western Hemisphere.

The debt explosion in the Virgin Islands has gone from bad to worse. Three years ago, credit ratings agencies slashed the ratings on government bonds to junk status. While that made the bonds’ yields more attractive (they rose), it also indicated a higher risk of default. As a result, prices on those issues dropped.

Stoltmann Law Offices has brought arbitration claims against dozens of brokerage firms like Ameriprise Financial, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, and JP Morgan Securities involving the unsuitable recommendations for investors to invest in oil and gas related securities.  In 2014 and 2015, we represented dozens of investors against various firms involving Master Limited Partnerships, or MLPs, which are almost always related to the oil and gas industry.  Then, during a big drop in the price of oil, a lot of oil and gas companies went into bankruptcy, dragging a lot of investor money with them.  History is repeating itself.

The price of oil has completely tanked in the last month. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the price of oil was being pressured by a price war involving Saudi Arabia, Russia, and OPEC.  Combined with the broad-based ongoing market crash, oil and gas investments – which are inextricably linked to the price of oil – have suffered catastrophic losses.  There are some well-know names on this list:

Goldman Sachs MLP and Energy Renaissance Fund – GER: Year to Date has dropped from 4.37 to 0.68 per share

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