The Securities Litigation Expert Blog

Protecting Senior Investors - FINRA FAQs

Posted by Jack Duval

Jan 17, 2018 7:48:00 AM

 

accelerant - senior investor fraud.jpg

 

This blog post continues a series that I began in 2012 highlighting regulatory efforts to protect senior investors.  (My previous blog posts on protecting senior investors can be found here.)

On January 3, 2018, FINRA posted guidance in the form of Frequently Asked Questions (“FAQs”) relating to protecting senior investors.

They did this in advance of FINRA Rule 2165 – Financial Exploitation of Specified Adults and Rule 4512 – Customer Account Information becoming (respectively) effective and amended on February 5, 2018.  Both rules were approved by the SEC in March 2017 and discussed in FINRA RM 17- 11.

I summarize and discuss a few of the more important points made in the FAQs and how they relate to account supervision.

Rule 2165 – Financial Exploitation of Specified Adults[1]

Q.1.1. May a member place a temporary hold on a securities transaction pursuant to Rule 2165?

A. Rule 2165 provides a safe harbor for a member to place a temporary hold on a disbursement of funds or securities from the account of a specified adult if the member reasonably believes that financial exploitation of the specified adult has occurred, is occurring, has been attempted or will be attempted. (Emphasis added)

This FAQ illustrates one of the key deficiencies with Rule 2165, that trading may continue in accounts where financial exploitation is occurring.  This is especially relevant to instances where the perpetrator of the exploitation is the Registered Representative.  In these instances, the Registered Representative could generate excessive compensation for herself without triggering a red flag under Rule 2165.  Indeed, it is conceivable that abusive trading could occur even if the account was under a temporary hold.

In these instances, the Registered Representative would be making withdrawals from the account through the broker-dealers own compensation mechanism.

An example of this could be the selling of a long-held low cost basis stock and using the proceeds to buy a high commission products.  The Registered Representative would get paid twice, once on the stock sale and once on the product purchases.  The payment of the commissions would not be reflected as a “disbursement of funds” and thus not flagged by a compliance system.

This scenario is not far-fetched.  I have seen cases where Registered Representatives have churned accounts after the client has died.

Supervisors must know the clients and their accounts well enough to detect abuse by Registered Representatives.

Q.1.2 Under Rule 2165, may a member that has a reasonable belief of financial exploitation of a Specified Adult regarding a disbursement or disbursements place a temporary hold or restrictions on an entire account if the member permits legitimate disbursements from the account?

A. FINRA has stated that, where a questionable disbursement involves less than all assets in an account, a member should not place a blanket hold on the entire account. Each disbursement should be analyzed separately.  (Emphasis added)

Here FINRA wants to avoid the failure of paying of legitimate bills and other disbursements even if a temporary hold has been placed on the account.  This would require significant diligence from the supervisor and Registered Representative to insure the disbursements were legitimate.

Rule 4512 – Customer Account Information[2]

Q.3.2. does the requirement in Rule 4512(a)(1)(F) to make reasonable efforts to obtain the name and contact information for a trusted contact upon the opening of a non-institutional customer’s account or when updating account information for an existing non-institutional account apply to all non-institutional accounts?

A. Rule 4512(a)(1)(F) provides that the trusted-contact provision “shall not apply to an institutional account”.  Accordingly, the trusted-contact provision applies to any account that does not meet the definition of an “institutional account” in Rule 4512(c), including accounts of non-natural persons that do not meet the definition.

FINRA defines an “institutional account” as:[3]

(1)  A bank, savings and loan association, insurance company or registered investment company;

(2) An investment adviser registered either with the SEC under Section 203 of the Investment Advisers Act or with a state securities commission (or any agency or office performing like functions); or

(3) Any other person (whether a natural person, corporation, partnership, trust or otherwise) with total assets of at least $50 million.

The key provision of this guidance is that member firms should try to obtain trusted contact information for all accounts, including entities such as trusts, corporations, and partnerships.

Also, in my experience, even if a client meets the “institutional” account criteria by having assets of $50 million or greater, they are just as subject to potential abuse as anyone else.  Furthermore, having more assets does not imply greater sophistication or protection from bad actors.

Supervisors should monitor these accounts with the same diligence as they do other accounts.

Q.3.4. When is a member required to seek to obtain the trusted-contact information for accounts in existence prior to the effective date of the amendments to Rule 4512 (“existing accounts”)?  When is a member required to update the trusted-contact information?

A. Consistent with the current requirements of Rule 4512(b), a member would not need to seek to obtain the trusted-contact information for existing accounts until such a time as the member updates the information for the account either in the course of the member’s routine and customary business or as otherwise required by applicable laws or rules.

Since knowing the client is an ongoing duty[4], asking clients for trusted contact information should be done at least as soon as the next contact with the client.  Client contact could be when making a trade recommendation, when presenting an account review, or for other reasons.

Q.4.1.  What is a member allowed to disclose to the trusted contact about a customer’s account?

A. Supplementary Material .06(a) to Rule 4512 requires that, at the time of account opening, a member disclose in writing (which may be electronic) to the customer that the member or an associated person is authorized to contact the trusted contact and disclose information about the customer’s account to address possible financial exploitation, to confirm the specifics of the customer’s current contact information, health status, or the identity of any legal guardian, executor, trustee or holder of a power of attorney, or as otherwise permitted by Rule 2165.[5]

… A member also could reach out to a trusted contact if it suspects that the customer may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or other forms of diminished capacity.

The disclosures should be limited to what the trusted contact would need to know to help make a determination as to any suspected exploitation or diminished capacity.  In most instances, it would not be necessary to disclose the total account value and details about a client’s investments with the trusted contact.

In the case of suspected possible financial exploitation, the focus would likely be on distribution requests.  If diminished capacity is suspected, no financial information would need to be disclosed, unless it was part of the indicia of the diminished capacity.

_________________

Notes:

[1]       Frequently Asked Questions Regarding FINRA Rules Relating to Financial Exploitation of Seniors;  January 3, 2018; Available at: http://www.finra.org/industry/frequently-asked-questions-regarding-finra-rules-relating-financial-exploitation-seniors; Accessed January 15, 2018.

[2]       Id.

[3]       FINRA Rule 4512 – Customer Account Information; Available at: http://finra.complinet.com/en/display/display.html?rbid=2403&element_id=9958; Accessed January 16, 2018.

[4]       See FINRA Rule 2111 – Suitability, regarding client profiling, and FINRA Rule 2090 – Know Your Client regarding diligence in the maintenance of client accounts.

[5]       FINRA also confirms that disclosures of financial information to a trusted contact would not be in violation of Regulation S-P (the SEC’s Privacy of Consumer Financial Information rule), since any disclosures would have been made with the customer’s consent.  See Regulation S-P Final Rule, available at: https://www.sec.gov/rules/final/34-42974.htm.  Accessed January 17, 2018.

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Topics: fraud, Senior Investors, supervision, Protecting Senior Investors, Elder Abuse, dementia, Alzheimer's, financial exploitation

Jack Duval Quoted in MarketWatch Article on CoCo Bonds

Posted by Jack Duval

Jan 2, 2018 10:46:12 AM

Accelerant Managing Partner Jack Duval was quoted in a MarketWatch article on contingent convertible ("CoCo") bonds.

What the article didn't mention is that Deutsche Bank and other CoCo issuers have been exploring making a market in total return swaps on CoCo's, including those issued by themselves.  If implemented, these derivitives would set up highly complex and perverse incentives where the bank (as counterparty) could profit from weakening it's own financial strength.

Banco Popular Bail-In

In a pattern that is repeated frequently in securities markets, in early- to mid-2017 Banco Popular common equity declined 80 percent while the Banco Popular 8 1/4 perpetual CoCo's only declined 20 percent.  This relationship existed until a month before the CoCo's were wiped out in the reorganization, thus "bailing-in" the bank by being completely written off.

Banco Popular CoCo v. Common Equity Chart.gif

Source: Bloomberg

Suitability of Complex Products

As I have discussed here and here, contingent convertible bonds are highly complex and subject to extraordinary risks that are not typical of traditional bonds.  They are only suitable for highly sophisticated investors who can evaluate the company specific and regulatory risks and are willing to lose their entire investment.  This eliminates virtually all retail investors and most institutional investors.

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Topics: Contingent Convertible Bond, CoCo, Banco Popular, Bail-in, MarketWatch

The Accelerant Arbitration Market Indicator - December 2017 Update

Posted by Jack Duval

Dec 18, 2017 11:09:30 AM

The Accelerant Arbitration Market Indicator was 2.37 at the end of October.  This is another new all-time high.  Complacency rules the markets as investors embrace risk assets with perceived impunity.

New FINRA arbitration claim filings continue to run at cycle-lows, as they have for the past four years. The current annualized rate is 3,418 for 2017.  

Historically, high readings from this indicator have presaged market declines.

 

 AAI + Forward Return-3.jpg

FINRA Arbitration Claims v. S&P 500-3.jpg

 

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 Get Updates on the Accelerant Arbitration Market Indicator

 

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Topics: Jack Duval, Accelerant Arbitration Market Indicator, FINRA Arbitration, Securities Expert

Volatility-Linked Products - Bank of America Strategic Return Notes

Posted by Jack Duval

Dec 1, 2017 10:07:27 AM

This blog post continues a series exploring volatility-linked exchange-traded products.

In this post, I examine the Bank of America Strategic Return Notes Linked to the Investable Volatility Index (“SRNs”), which were issued on November 23, 2010 and matured on November 27, 2015.

The SRNs were supposed to offer investors exposure to a volatility index over a five-year period.  However, due to high upfront and ongoing annual fees and the negative roll yield (previously discussed here and here), the investment resulted in almost a complete loss.

What is remarkable is that anyone who understood volatility products and negative roll yield would have known this ex-ante, that is, before the product was brought to market.  This is an example of how complexity risk manifests itself in investments, the people who created the investment didn’t understand it.

Disclosures, Negative Roll Yield, and Principal Destruction

The SRN Pricing Supplement lists the two percent upfront fee and the 0.75% annual internal fee as costs but does not mention the negative roll yield as a cost.  This is remarkable given that the negative roll yield is the primary cost of the strategy as it was to be implemented.

There was one disclosure in the SRN Pricing Supplement (on page 14) which addressed the negative roll yield (however, the phrase “negative roll yield” was not used):[1]

If the level of forward implied volatility is higher in the more distant S&P 500 Index options expirations months than it is in the nearer expiration months, then the level of the Index could be adversely affected as the Index positions are rebalanced daily to maintain a constant maturity.  The rebalancing involves increasing exposure to more distant forward implied volatility and decreasing exposure to more near-term forward implied volatility which may decrease the payment you receive at maturity or upon exchange.  Historically, the more distant expiration months have typically had a higher level of forward implied volatility than the nearer expiration months.

This explanation does not make it clear that the negative roll yield will be an almost certain daily destroyer of the investor’s principal.  Given the five-year term of the investment, the negative roll yield, coupled with the two percent up-front fee, and the 0.75% annual internal fee are virtually guaranteed to result in a catastrophic loss to the investor.

Of course, that is what happened.  The SRN’s were issued at $10/share and matured at $0.50/share.[2]  A 95 percent loss.  The negative roll yield was costing between four and 12 percent per quarter in 2011.[3]

Complexity Risk

This is a classic example of complexity risk, which I have written about extensively here and here.  Merrill Lynch broker Glen Ringwall was quoted saying:[4]

The roll costs are far larger than we ever understood or were disclosed to us…  This is borderline crooked.

To Mr. Ringwall’s point, if we assume that the negative roll yield was four percent per quarter that equals 16 percent per year.  Apply that over the five-year term of the SRNs and you get an 80 percent decline in principal.  Add the 5.6 percent total term costs from the front-end load and the ongoing management fees and the SRN is programmed to decline by 85.6 percent over its lifetime (assuming no movement in the underlying index).  Put another way, the underlying index would need to have and 85.6 percent return just to break even.

It is hard to believe that anyone associated with the SRNs creation understood these economics.  It appears that the brokers who sold it certainly did not understand.  And I can assure you that not one client who was sold the SRNs understood them.

DIY Client Due Diligence

In fairness, the SRN Annex to the Pricing Supplement did provide these user-friendly explanations what would help clients understand how to calculate the negative roll yield themselves:[5]

 

Screen Shot 2017-12-01 at 8.16.17 AM.png

Screen Shot 2017-12-01 at 8.16.29 AM.png

Screen Shot 2017-12-01 at 8.16.45 AM.png

Obviously, no client is working through these equations.

The written and formula disclosures above illustrate the primary point of investment complexity risk:  the more complex an investment is, the more likely it is to behave in ways that are unexpected.

This is the reason why complexity should generally be avoided and even sophisticated institutional investors should have a complexity risk budget to track and limit their exposures.

Supervison

As I have discussed in my previous posts, there are other volatility products such as the iPath VXX ETN trading today that have the same internal negative roll yield dynamics.

Supervisors must be knowledgeable about these investments and how they are not meant to be held longer than one day.  Supervisory policies and procedures should be implemented to insure that any holding periods longer than one day are flagged in exception reports and remedied immediately.

_________________

Notes:

[1]       Strategic Return Notes Pricing Supplement; PS-14.

[2]       Jean Eaglesham, The Wall Street Journal; SEC Readies Case Against Merrill Lynch Over Notes That Lost 95%; Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/sec-readies-case-against-merrill-over-notes-that-lost-95-1466544740; Accessed December 1, 2017.

[3]       Id.

[4]       Id.

[5]       Strategic Return Notes Pricing Supplement; Annex A; A1-2.  I have only produced part of them here.

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Topics: suitability, supervision, Complex Investments, Complexity Risk, volatility-linked products, negative roll yield

Private Equity - Due Diligence

Posted by Jack Duval

Nov 16, 2017 8:30:16 AM

This blog post begins a series examining the risks and returns of private equity investments.

Apollo Group Structure:  Got it?

Apollo Group Structure.jpg

Source: Apollo Group S-1

On July 28, 2017, Apollo Group Management LLC announced the largest ever capital raise for a private equity fund.  While this $23.5B fund will be the largest ever, it may not hold the title for long.  The New York Times reports there are two other private equity funds in raises with higher targets.[1]

While these capital raises are impressive, they also raise questions.  As the private equity space has become increasingly crowded, returns have declined.  Industry statistics are sobering.

The most recent data from Prequin reveals that for the time period ending 2016:[2] 

  • Private equity AUM were at $2.491T, an all-time high;
  • Cash held by private equity funds was at $820M, an increase of $65B from 2015;
  • Median net IRRs have declined from 20+ percent in the early 1990’s to 12.6 percent in 2013 (the most recent vintage with meaningful numbers)
  • Likewise, median net multiples have declined from around two to around one over the same time period.

The reduction in returns has led to a number of abusive practices at private equity funds.  These abuses were highlighted by the SEC in a high-profile campaign in 2015.[3]  However, the continued bull market has helped to keep valuations high and has served to reduce litigation.  This will not always be the case.

When the market turns, successful exits will become harder to realize and this will depress IRRs.  At that point, private equity funds and the advisors who sold them may find themselves in the difficult position of having to justify total fund expenses that can amount to six percent of committed capital, annually.

While private equity remains a legitimate asset class, a tremendous amount of diligence must be conducted in order to insure that abusive practices are not being utilized by funds at the expense of their limited partners.

I will give an overview of some areas that disserve heightened diligence and then explore them in later blog posts.

Private Equity Due Diligence

Diligence into private equity funds is a time-consuming and laborious process.  Most investors are not equipped to undertake this due diligence as the private placement memorandums are written in legalese and encompass concepts from finance, economics, accounting, and law.  This is a form of complexity risk, something I have written about extensively.  Indeed, because of their complexity, many professionals are ill-equipped to properly evaluate private equity investments.

An example of private equity complexity risk can be seen at CalPERS, the massive California Pension manager.  CalPERS endured public embarrassment in 2015 when it had to admit it could not account for the fees being paid to the pension's private equity fund managers.[4]  This fact is even more remarkable in context of CalPERS’ investment staff of nearly 400.[5]

Advisors must have extensive training and experience with private equity investments before they can undertake the rigorous due diligence required to make a suitability determination.

Areas requiring heightened diligence include: 

  • General Partner/Limited Partner Conflicts, which include:
    • Non-performance based compensation;
    • Waivers of fiduciary responsibility;
    • Shifting expenses to funds (i.e. limited partners);
  • Valuation:
    • How are marks set?;
    • Assumptions used in marks?;
  • IRRs:
    • Do they reflect the economic returns to limited partners (even if “accurate” at the fund level)?;
    • Treatment of timing of flows;
    • Timing of allocation of unrealized losses;
    • Omissions of key assumptions;
  • Performance
    • Leverage-adjusted returns;
    • De-smoothed returns and volatility;

I will examine these and other factors of private equity risk and return, as well as their implications for suitability and supervision, in subsequent blog posts.

_________________

Notes:

[1]       Tom Buerkle, “Apollo’s Huge Buyout Fund Provides for a Large Margin of Error”, New York Time’s; June 28,2017.  Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/28/business/dealbook/apollo-global-management-buyout-fund.html; Accessed November 16, 2017.

[2]       Prequin 2017 Global Private Equity and Venture Capital Report.  Available at: www.prequin.com; Accessed November 16, 2017.

[3]       SEC Announces Enforcement Results for FY 2015; October 22, 2015.  Available at: https://www.sec.gov/news/pressrelease/2015-245.html; Accessed November 16, 2017.

[4]       Randy Diamond; “CalPERS CIO looking at possible drastic cuts to private equity, citing transparency”; Pensions & Investments; June 19, 2017.  Available at: http://www.pionline.com/article/20170619/ONLINE/170619871/calpers-cio-looking-at-possible-drastic-cuts-to-private-equity-citing-transparency?newsletter=investments-digest&issue=20170619; Accessed November 16, 2017.

[5]       CalPERS biography of Ted Eliopoulos, Chief Investment Officer.  Available at: http://www.pionline.com/article/20170619/ONLINE/170619871/calpers-cio-looking-at-possible-drastic-cuts-to-private-equity-citing-transparency?newsletter=investments-digest&issue=20170619; Accessed November 16, 2017.

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Topics: suitability, supervision, Due Diligence, private equity, de-smoothed returns, IRR, leverage-adjusted returns

Volatility-Linked Products - Death By a Thousand Cuts

Posted by Jack Duval

Oct 25, 2017 9:11:58 AM

This blog post continues a series exploring volatility-linked exchange-traded products.

In my previous blog post, I discussed how volatility-linked ETPs are likely to lead to significant, if not catastrophic, losses if they are used in a buy-and-hold strategy.

In this post, I want to explain the mechanics of how this process works.

Constant Maturity

Most volatility-linked ETPs must, by prospectus, maintain a constant maturity.  For instance, the VXX pricing supplement states:[1]

(The VXX) is linked to the performance of the S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures Index TR that is calculated based on the strategy of continuously owning a rolling portfolio of one-month and two-month VIX futures to target a constant weighted average futures maturity of 1 month.

In order to keep the weighted average futures maturity of one month, the two contracts will have to be adjusted on a daily basis.  This necessarily implies buying more of the two-month VIX futures and selling the one-month VIX futures.

Having to keep buying longer dated futures and selling shorter dated futures is what creates losses over time.

Contango

Contango is a term describing the typical futures market curve where longer dated contracts are more expensive than shorter dated contracts, all else being equal.  (The opposite of this is known as “backwardation”, and is rare.)

The VXX pricing supplement describes contango as follows:[2]

… many of the contracts included in the Indices have historically traded in “contango” markets.  Contango markets are those in which the prices of contracts are higher in the distant delivery months than in the nearer delivery months.  VIX futures have frequently exhibited very high contango in the past, resulting in a significant cost to “roll” the futures.  The existence of contango in the futures markets could result in negative “roll yields”, which could adversely affect the value of the Index underlying your ETNs and, accordingly, decrease the payment you receive at maturity or upon redemption.  (Emphasis added)

Chart 1: VIX Futures Curve[3]

 VIX Volatility Chart.gif

 

Negative Roll Yield

In plain English, by continuously buying longer-term VIX contracts and selling shorter-term VIX contracts the VXX ETN is buying high and selling low every day.  This phenomenon is known as “negative roll yield”.

It is a mathematical certainty that negative roll yield will erode the value of any investment that maintains a constant maturity such as the VXX.  As discussed in my previous post, the longer volatility-linked ETPs are held, the longer their holders are subjected to negative roll yield.

This results in a death by a thousand cuts, one each day.  The certainty of negative roll yield over time is why constant maturity volatility-linked ETPs all head towards zero.  Due to Zeno’s paradox and the magic of reverse splits, they never reach zero.  However, that is cold comfort for anyone who has lost 99.9 percent of their investment.

Supervision

The supervisors of any firm allowing their advisors to trade in volatility-linked ETPs should be well versed in the mechanics of these products.  Clients certainly don't understand these complex products and frequently their advisors do not either.  Their suitability is limited to trading clients who want to speculate on intra-day or one-day changes in the VIX index, and they are unsuitable for a buy-and-hold strategy.

Furthermore, supervisory systems should flag any volatility-linked positions held more than a day.

_________________

Notes:

[1]       Barclays iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN pricing supplement; July 18, 2018; Available at: http://www.ipathetn.com/US/16/en/documentation.app?instrumentId=259118&documentId=6091544;  Accessed October 25, 2017; PS-1.

[2]       Id. at PS-13.

[3]       VIX Volatility Curve; Bloomberg; Accessed October 25, 2017.

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Topics: suitability, supervision, Complex Investments, Complexity Risk, volatility-linked products

Volatility-Linked Exchange-Traded Products

Posted by Jack Duval

Oct 20, 2017 8:04:35 AM

This blog post begins a series exploring volatility-linked exchange-traded products.

VXX LT Chart.gif

The VXX has declined from 11,940 to 34.39 (split adjusted).  Source: Bloomberg.

A recent FINRA Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent (“AWC”), with Wells Fargo and the issuance of FINRA RN 17-32, highlights the risks of volatility-linked exchange-traded products (“ETPs”).  In particular, using them as part of a buy-and-hold strategy is virtually certain to produce losses.

Wells Fargo AWC

On October 16, 2017, FINRA ordered Wells Fargo to pay $3.4 million in restitution to clients who had been recommended volatility-linked exchange-traded products.  FINRA found that Wells Fargo registered representatives had sold the volatility-linked ETPs without fully understanding their risks and features and that the firm had failed to supervise solicited sales of the products.

The FINRA AWC press release stated:[1]

Certain Wells Fargo representatives mistakenly believed that the products could be used as a long-term hedge on their customers’ equity positions in the event of a market downturn.  In fact, volatility-linked ETPs are generally short-term trading products that degrade significantly over time and should not be used as part of a long-term buy-and-hold investment strategy.

FINRA RN 17-32 – Volatility-Linked Exchange Traded Products

The language in the Wells Fargo AWC press release is echoed in FINRA RN 17-32:[2]

… many volatility-linked ETPs are highly likely to lose value over time.  Accordingly, volatility-linked ETPs may be unsuitable for certain retail investors, particularly those who plan to use them as traditional buy-and-hold investments.

Buy-and-Hold

Using a buy-and-hold strategy with volatility-linked products is almost guaranteed to produce losses for investors.  These products are designed to be traded intra-day or over one day holding periods.  Even relatively short-term holding periods of a week or two can be enough to lock in losses.  Longer holding periods can produce catastrophic losses.

How these losses are built into the structure of volatility-linked ETPs will be explored in my next post.

_________________

Notes:

[1]       FINRA News Release; Available at: http://www.finra.org/newsroom/2017/finra-orders-wells-fargo-broker-dealers-pay-34-million-restitution-and-reminds-firms; Accessed October 19, 2017.

[2]       FINRA RN 17-32; Volatility-Linked Exchange-Traded Products; October 2017; Available at: https://www.finra.org/sites/default/files/notice_doc_file_ref/Regulatory-Notice-17-32.pdf; Accessed October 19, 2017; 1.

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Topics: suitability, supervision, Complex Investments, Complexity Risk, volatility-linked products

The Accelerant Arbitration Market Indicator - August 2017 Update

Posted by Jack Duval

Aug 21, 2017 7:41:44 AM

The Accelerant Arbitration Market Indicator was 2.26 at the end of July.  This is another new all-time high watermark.  The reading reflects an extremely low level of investor fear (represented by low number of FINRA arbitration claim filings) and a high level of investor greed (represented by the new highs on the S&P 500 Index.)

New FINRA arbitration claim filings are running at an annualized rate of 3,362 for 2017.  This level of filings would be near the lowest for the annual records we have (our data begin in 1991).  The low of 3,238 came at year-end 2007.

Historically, low levels of fear and high levels of greed have come before market corrections.  Caveat emptor.

 

 AAI + Forward Return-2.jpg

FINRA Arbitration Claims v. S&P 500-2.jpg

 

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Topics: Jack Duval, Accelerant Arbitration Market Indicator, FINRA Arbitration, Securities Expert

The DOL Fiduciary Rule - Reasonable Compensation and Index Funds

Posted by Jack Duval

Aug 9, 2017 9:23:09 AM

DOL - Accelerant Fiduciary Rule Expert.jpeg

This blog post continues a series exploring the DOL Fiduciary Rule (“DOL FR”).  My previous blog posts can be found here.

A large part of the motivation for the DOL FR is summarized in the Federal Register as follows:[1]

This final rule and exemptions aim to ensure that advice is in consumers’ best interest, thereby rooting out excessive fees and substandard performance otherwise attributable to advisers’ conflicts, producing gains for retirement investors.  (Emphasis added)

Reasonable Compensation

One of the ways that “excessive fees and substandard performance” will be rooted out is the requirement, under the BICE, that no more than reasonable compensation be charged.  For instance, the BICE states:[2]

In particular, under this standards-based approach, the Adviser and Financial Institution must give prudent advice that is in the customer’s best interest, avoid misleading statements, and receive no more than reasonable compensation.  (Emphasis added)

Perhaps the most impactful part of the reasonable compensation standard is that it is not based on what is customary.  The DOL could not be more clear on this, writing:[3]

The Department is unwilling to condone all “customary” compensation arrangements and declines to adopt a standard that turns on whether the agreement is “customary.”  For example, it may in some instances be “customary” to charge customers fees that are not transparent or that bear little relationship to the value of the services actually rendered, but that does not make the charges reasonable…

An imprudent recommendation for an investor to overpay for an investment transaction would violate that standard, regardless of whether the overpayment was attributable to compensation for services, a charge for benefits or guarantees, or something else.  (Emphasis added)

From “Everyone is doing it” to the Prudent Expert Standard

Industry custom and practice is frequently a topic of expert testimony in securities litigations.  However, under the DOL FR, this will no longer be relevant when it comes to justifying compensation.

The mere fact that “everyone is doing it” will fail to meet the fiduciary standard.  As discussed in a previous blog post, what will be required is diligence that meets the Prudent Expert Standard and all the attendant fiduciary obligations.

This will require substantial, documented, due diligence into the recommended investment and alternatives.  Each investment will have to stand on its own against comparable investments in the same category.

As an example, before a large cap growth mutual fund can be recommended, it will have to be judged against other large cap growth investment options, including: both active and passive mutual funds and ETFs.

Are Index Funds the Only Prudent Investment?

There has been some speculation that the DOL FR would require the use of index funds.  The DOL has spoken to this indirectly, writing:[4]

… the Department confirms that an Adviser and Financial Institution do not have to recommend the transaction that is the lowest cost or that generates the lowest fees without regard to other relevant factors.

However, advisors will be hard pressed to justify not using index funds.[5]  Contrary to popular belief, index funds don’t give average returns, most index funds perform in the 75-80th percentile range compared to other funds in their category, over five- and 10-year periods.

Furthermore, the longer the time horizon of the investor, the more compelling are index funds due to the simple math of compounding returns on the fees avoided.  Since, most IRA and pension fund assets are managed for the long term, this is highly salient.

Over the years, Morningstar has conducted research into what is the most predictive factor of mutual fund performance.  The answer every time is: fees.  Morningstar Director of Manager Research, Russel Kinnnel, writes:[6]

The expense ratio is the most proven predictor of future fund returns…

Using expense ratios to choose funds helped in every asset class and in every quintile from 2010 to 2015.  For example, in U.S. equity funds, the cheapest quintile had a total-return success rate of 62% compared with 48% for the second-cheapest quintile, then 39% for the middle quintile, 30% for the second-priciest quintile, and 20% for the priciest quintile.  So the cheaper the quintile, the better your chances.  All told, the cheapest-quintile funds were 3 times as likely to succeed as the priciest quintile.[7]  (Emphasis added)

Chart 1: Performance Success by Fee Quintile[8]

 Accelerant - DOL Fiduciary Rule - Mutual Fund Fees.png

The dominance of fees in predicting future performance addresses another point raised by the DOL:[9]

No single factor is dispositive in determining whether compensation is reasonable; the essential question is whether the charges are reasonable in relation to what the investor receives.  (Emphasis added)

In my example, the investor is receiving large cap growth stocks.  Is it reasonable to charge more and deliver what is likely to be worse performance?  That is very difficult to justify.

Another factor making active management hard to justify is that many active funds have a significant overlap with their benchmark index.  This “closet indexing” means that the fund manager is buying the same stocks that are in the benchmark.  This would be harmless except for the fact that many benchmark indexes are almost costless while active funds frequently charge one percent or more for their services.[10]

Where closet indexing occurs, the client is paying an active fee for passive management, which is not reasonable and fails the fiduciary standard.  Closet indexing can be measured using the active share and other metrics, which I will discuss in more detail in later posts.

Because of their extremely low fees and generally superior long-term performance, index funds can help advisors accomplish the DOL’s goals of "rooting out excessive fees and substandard performance".

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Notes:

[1]       Federal Register; Vol. 81. No. 68; April 8, 2016; Definition of the Term Fiduciary; 20951.  This language also appears, verbatim, in the DOL Regulatory Impact Analysis; April 14, 2015; 7.

[2]       Federal Register; Vol. 81, No. 68; April 8, 2016; Best Interest Contract Exemption; 21003.

[3]       Id. at 21031.

[4]       Federal Register; Vol. 81, No. 68; April 8, 2016; Best Interest Contract Exemption; 21030.

[5]       I am including here capitalization-weighted and non-capitalization weighted indexes (aka “smart beta” indexes), many of which have proven to outperform the relevant capitalization-weighted index on an after-fee basis.

[6]       Russel Kinnel, Predictive Power of Fees: Why Mutual Fund Fees Are So Important; Morningstar; May 2016; 1-2.  Available at: http://news.morningstar.com/articlenet/article.aspx?id=752485;  Accessed May 23, 2017.

[7]       Id. Success is defined as a fund surviving the entire time period and outperforming the relevant category group; 1.

[8]       Id. at 3. The lowest fee funds are in the first Expense Ratio Quintile and the highest fee funds are in the fifth Expense Ratio Quintile, etc.

[9]       Federal Register; Vol. 81, No. 68; April 8, 2016; Best Interest Contract Exemption; 21030.

[10]     For instance, the Vanguard S&P 500 Index ETF has an expense ratio of four basis points, (4/100) of one percent.  Bloomberg; August 9, 2017.  Morningstar reports that the average third quintile expense ratios for U.S. Equity mutual funds was 1.26 percent as of December 31, 2010.  See supra Note 6; at 4.

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Topics: litigation, Due Diligence, securities litigation, fiduciary obligations, erisa fiduciary expert, dol fiduciary rule, prudent expert standard, index funds, reasonable compensation, active share

The DOL Fiduciary Rule - Risk Tolerance Questionnaires

Posted by Jack Duval

Aug 2, 2017 7:31:02 AM

DOL - Accelerant Fiduciary Rule Expert.jpeg

This blog post continues a series exploring the DOL Fiduciary Rule (“DOL FR”).  My previous blog posts can be found here.

In my last blog post, I discussed how the traditional three-choice Investment Objective and Risk Tolerance options would no longer be sufficient under the DOL FR.  In this post, I will expand on topic of Investment Policy Statements (“IPS”) and an often-missed aspect of their drafting – determining both the client’s ability and willingness to take risk.

The Difference Between the Ability and Willingness to Take Risk

Most financial plans focus on the client’s ability to take risk.  This is usually accomplished mathematically, by predicting cash flows and evaluating those against known liabilities.  Generally, the thinking is if the client can sustain losses and still meet her needs, then she has the ability to take risk.  (For instance, if the client needs $20,000 per month to sustain her lifestyle, but her portfolio can generate $40,000 per month, after fees and taxes, then she has a high ability to take risk.) 

The client’s willingness to take risk is a softer metric that requires getting to know the client and their history, going through questionnaires, and scenario planning.  Many of the questionnaires and scenario plans revolve around a series of questions, hypothetical situations, and attempt to determine the client’s probable responses to market events.  For instance: what would you do it your portfolio declined by 10, 20, or 30 percent?

Problems with Risk Tolerance Questionnaires

In my experience, most risk tolerance questionnaires lead to inflated risk tolerances.  The reason is that unless the most conservative answer is given to every question, the client will be scored with a moderate or moderate-aggressive risk tolerance.  Furthermore, if even one question is answered with the most aggressive option, the client will typically end up with a moderate-aggressive or aggressive risk tolerance.

Another flaw in risk tolerance questionnaire design is that they are generic and rely on percentage gains and declines in their examples.  Percentage losses don’t live for clients, but dollar losses do.  For instance, many clients can be philosophical about a 30 percent decline in their portfolio, but most would not be as sanguine about a $3 million decline on a $10 million portfolio.

These flaws can have far-reaching implications.  The skewing towards aggressive Risk Tolerances can lead to misaligned asset allocations, unsuitable investments, and higher than expected volatility.  This frequently leads to clients changing their Risk Tolerance (to what it should have been originally) after a market decline.

Ironically, if litigation should ensue from misaligned asset allocations originating from skewed Risk Tolerances, the questionnaires underlying the improper allocations will be presented as proof of the client’s willingness to take risk, and used to justify aggressive and/or speculative investments.

The Prudent Expert and Risk Tolerance

For background on the Prudent Expert Standard required under the Best Interest Contract Exemption, see my previous posts here and here.

Simplistic, one-dimensional Risk Tolerance Questionnaires will not meet the Prudent Expert Standard.  Instead, the due diligence required to "know the client" is at least a two-dimensional approach to risk tolerance that encompasses both the ability and willingness to take risk.

If only one type of Risk Tolerance is identified, the advisor cannot make a Prudent Expert determination of the client’s true Risk Tolerance.  This will not meet the fiduciary standard, nor even the suitability standard.

One of the few financial writers to address the two dimensions of Risk Tolerance is Michael Kitces.  Some of his writings on risk tolerance can be found here, here, and here.  Kitces has created some very useful charts comparing Risk Tolerances that arise from the one- and two-dimensional Risk Tolerance methodologies.

Chart 1:  One- and Two-Dimensional Risk Tolerance Methodologies[1] 

Accelerant - Risk Tolerance - The Ability and Willingness to Take Risk.png

The central idea illustrated in these charts is that in the one-dimensional methodology (left pane), both the ability and willingness to take risk act as a floor to the resulting Risk Tolerance.  Conversely, in the two-dimensional Risk Tolerance methodology (right pane), both the ability and willingness to take risk act as a ceiling to the resulting Risk Tolerance. 

Unpacking One- and Two-Dimensional Risk Tolerance

In the one-dimensional Risk Tolerance methodology, both the ability and willingness to take risk increase Risk Tolerance.  Thus, if the client has either a high ability or high willingness to take risk, she will end up with an aggressive Risk Tolerance.  However, this is the perverse Risk Tolerance outcome discussed above.

Under the one-dimensional Risk Tolerance methodology, a low ability to take risk is overridden by a high willingness to take risk, at the same time a low willingness to take risk is overridden by a high ability to take risk. 

However, under the two-dimensional Risk Tolerance methodology, this cannot happen because both the ability and willingness to take risk decrease Risk Tolerance.  Thus, if the client has either a low ability or low willingness to take risk, she will end up with a conservative Risk Tolerance.

Under the two-dimensional Risk Tolerance methodology, a high ability to take risk is overridden by a low willingness to take risk, at the same time a high willingness to take risk is overridden by a low ability to take risk.

The two-dimensional Risk Tolerance methodology results in much more accurate Risk Tolerances and helps implement a financial advisor’s version of the Hippocratic Oath: help clients achieve their goals with the least amount of risk possible.

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Notes:

[1]       Michael Kitces; Nerd’s Eye View; Adopting a Two-Dimensional Risk Tolerance Assessment Process; January 25, 2017.  Available at: https://www.kitces.com/blog/tolerisk-aligning-risk-tolerance-and-risk-capacity-on-two-dimensions/; Accessed August 1, 2017.

 

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Topics: risk tolerance, litigation, suitability, Due Diligence, securities litigation, Investment Policy Statement, fiduciary obligations, erisa fiduciary expert, dol fiduciary rule, prudent expert standard

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