On March 29, 2018, AdvisorHub broke a story about Morgan Stanley’s decision to convert all Class "C" mutual fund shares held for six or more years into load-waived "A" shares. This is a beneficial move for clients, who will see their funds expenses ratios cut by about 1.5 percent.
Morgan Stanley brokers were not pleased with the move, which will reduce their 12b-1 fees from one percent to 25 basis points.
Some of them vowed to churn their clients in order to avoid the conversion. (This was not an April Fool’s joke.)
Understanding “C” Share Mutual Funds
In theory, “C” shares are designed for clients who will be relatively short-term holders and want to avoid the front-end load on "A" shares and the back-end load on "B" shares.
In reality, they are an anachronistic holdover from the mid- to late-90's. Back then, broker-dealers where trying to grow their fee-based business and saw "C" shares as a way for transactional brokers to become more annuitized.
Today, clients can get the same investment exposures at a fraction of the costs of "C" shares in ETFs, which are also much more tax-efficient.
The truth is that "C" share funds shouldn't be held for six years, and probably not at all. Clients would be much better off in ETFs. “C” shares have a full one percent 12b-1 fee charged annually to the customer in addition to the management fee and other expenses. They are extremely high-fee and in almost all cases should be avoided.
Some "C" share mutual funds from other companies convert into "A" shares after 10 years, but again, 10 years in a “C” shares is unsuitable.
For a more detailed take on fees, see The Tyranny of High Fees blog post from our sister company, Bantam Inc.
In what hopefully has Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman losing sleep at night, AdvisorHub wrote:
Several Morgan Stanley brokers told AdvisorHub that they plan to "flip C shares, selling out of one fund into another's similar share class as they approach conversion date so that they can continue collecting the higher so-called 12b-1 fee, or trail.
"Losing 75 basis points on every six-year-old share on my team's book will cost us $300,000 in gross and $120,000 in commissions," lamented one broker, who said the team expects to "flip til the cows go home."
These brokers would be selling the "C" share funds before they convert into "A" shares, thus continuing the one percent 12b-1 fee instead of having it reduced to 25 basis points.
This would be an unabashed churn of client accounts, and after a nine-year bull market, one that would likely have serious adverse tax consequences for the clients.
The SEC has considered share class issues long ago and has clearly stated their position. The share class most advantageous to the client must be purchased, or in this case, held.
In Belden, the SEC found that a broker buying "B" shares for a client who could have purchased load-waived "A" shares because of the amount to be invested, was violative of FINRA rules. The Commission’s opinion stated:
As we have frequently pointed out, a broker’s recommendations must be consistent with his customer’s best interests. The test for whether Belden’s recommended investments were suitable is not whether Book acquiesced in them, but whether Belden’s recommendations to him were consistent with Book’s financial situation and needs.
NASD (now FINRA) construes Belden as supporting the principle that the manner of purchase of a recommended security by an associated person, where that security otherwise would be suitable based on the investor’s investment objectives, risk tolerance, and financial means, can render that recommendation unsuitable, and therefore violative of 2310 (now 2110), if there is an alternative basis upon which the security can be purchased to the pecuniary advantage of the investor. (Emphasis added)
There is no way the selling of "C" shares to prevent them from converting into load-waived "A" shares can be in the customer’s best interest.
Churning is the effectuating of any trade for the reason of making commissions. Many churning claims involve high turnover (trading) of securities in a client account. However, churning does not have to involve a series of trades. Indeed, it can be one trade.
In the event a registered representative sells a “C” share fund before its conversion to a load-waived “A” share, it would constitute a one-trade churn.
Morgan Stanley supervisory systems should be able to flag any "C" share trades that occur close to a conversion, however, some brokers may preemptively sell "C" shares when they are further away from the six-year marker.
These will also be churns, but will very likely not be flagged.
Morgan Stanley supervisors should closely monitor all “C” share transactions for abuses.
 Jed Horowitz; Morgan Stanley to Squeeze Mutual Fund Sales Compensation; AdvisorHub; March 29, 2018; Available at: https://advisorhub.com/morgan-stanley-to-squeeze-mutual-fund-sales-compensation/; Accessed April 4, 2018.
 See Wendell Belden, Exchange Act Release No. 47859; May 14, 2003.
 NASD NTM 03-69; Fee-Based Compensation; November 2003; 746 at footnote 5.
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