The Securities Litigation Expert Blog

SEC Regulation Best Interest - Lost Gains Cases

Posted by Jack Duval

Oct 4, 2018 9:12:46 AM

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This blog post continues my series on SEC Regulation Best Interest ("RBI") and the DOL Rule.

A "lost gains" case is one in which the claimant is asking for gains they believe they should have earned but did not.  These cases are different from the traditional securities litigation, where the claimant is asking for actual losses that have been incurred. 

Because the damage theory involves foregone gains instead of out-of-pocket losses, lost gains cases are generally considered to have a higher degree of difficulty.

On the face of it, this is common sense.  If an investor puts $10 million into an account and it declines to $5 million.  Most arbitrators can understand how the client has been damaged.  However, if the same investor puts $10 million into an account and six years later it's still worth $10 million, this is likely to generate less sympathy.

However, in my experience, lost gains cases can represent some of the most abusive fact patterns.

In the lost gains cases I have been involved with, the client’s accounts were essentially treated as an ATM for the Registered Representative.  These fact patterns involved extremely high fees charged for products that were churned into and out of the accounts at issue (as well as account-level fees).  The results were that the Registered Representative appropriated the growth of the accounts.

What growth wasn't appropriated was lost to the short-term holding of the investments.  That is, the investments were never invested as intended and allowed the time needed to generate returns.

In these cases, the clients were invested during strong bull markets but did not participate because of the abusive nature of the trading in their accounts.  

Six years later, they had experienced no growth while their Registered Representatives had made millions (literally).  In a bear market, such a pattern would exacerbate the decline in the accounts due to market forces and be discovered much sooner.  Bull markets hide these kinds of abuses, and the current historic bull market will surely be no exception.

However, what is different this time is the SEC’s pending Regulation Best Interest (“RBI”), which could be made law before the market declines.

Lost Gains Cases Under Regulation Best Interest

Under SEC Regulation Best Interest, lost gains cases should be easy.

This is because the burden of proof will be on the respondents to show their strategy was in the client's best interest and, as I've discussed in my RBI blog post series, they will need to produce contemporaneous evidence of their analyses showing how they came to that conclusion.[1]

In the fact pattern discussed above, this will be impossible.  Furthermore, a key defense will be removed.

Long-Term Time Horizons and the Risks of “Time Diversification”

In many securities litigations, a client's long-term time horizon is used as a defense to justify aggressive investments.  The logic is that the longer an investment is held, the less likely it is to generate a loss.  This is known as “time diversification”.  The problem with time diversification is that it is, at best, only partially correct, at worst it is a setup for disastrous portfolio decisions.[2]

The paradox of time diversification is that in order to benefit from higher returns (in equities usually) the client must increase their risk of interim declines in order to reduce their risk of a terminal loss.[3]

If RBI becomes law, the long-term time horizon will take on a different implication. 

Time Horizon, Fees, and Taxes under Regulation Best Interest

It has always been true that the longer a client's time horizon, the more important minimizing fees and avoiding taxes become.  This is not a matter of debate.  This is not something that reasonable minds can differ upon.  This is a 100 percent mathematical certainty.

Under RBI, this will become a key focal point.

If a client with a long-term time horizon is put into high fee products, charged high account-level fees, and/or churned into and out of commission product on a short-term basis, there is no way to argue it is in their best interest.

For instance, if fees can be reduced by one full percentage point per year, in 30 years time, the difference in terminal values will be about 30 percent.[4] 

For taxable accounts, the difference can be even more stark.  Annual after-tax returns of mutual funds often fall between one and two full percentage points compared to their pre-tax returns (the ones that are advertised).[5]

When combined, high expenses and tax-inefficient investing destroy investor returns.  In such a scenario, the broker, investment manager, and government all get paid before the investor, who is taking all the risk.[6]

Furthermore, the deleterious effects of high fees and taxes are completely return agnostic.  The return-destroying math holds true through all markets, good, bad, or sideways and compounds over time, to the investors disadvantage.

Costs Under Regulation Best Interest

As I have written about here, the SEC has recognized the importance of costs under RBI.[7]

While cost is not the only factor when evaluating an investment or investment strategy, it is one of the most important, if not the most important.  The customers tax status is also critical, which is why it is part of the profiling required under FINRA Rule 2111 and under RBI.[8]

RBI requires the Registered Representative undertake a fact specific analysis before the recommendation is made.  As mentioned above, this analysis will need to show why the recommended investment or strategy is in the best interest of the client compared to other investments offered by the firm.[9]

Any firm that can effectuate stock transactions for a client can purchase index ETFs for the same client (and most will have selling agreements with index mutual fund providers).  Thus, virtually every Broker-Dealer will be required to show why their investment or strategy  recommendation is better over the long-term than an index ETF or mutual fund on a net after-fee, after-tax basis (for their long-term investors).

This will present a significant hurdle for BDs because almost all equity investors are categorized as long-term investors, which is as it should be.[10]

Thus, all client accounts with a long-term time horizon will require an analysis that justifies the fees charged and taxes generated compared to low-fee, low-tax alternatives such as index ETFs and mutual funds.  In my opinion, this analysis will have to be rigorous, mathematical in nature, and be based on conservative assumptions.

Supervision to Avoid Lost Gains Cases

Supervisors will need to insure their Registered Representatives have undertaken a fact specific analysis for all their clients.  For those clients with a long-term time horizon, supervisors will need to insure the analyses comport to industry standards, reflect the client’s best interest given their particular facts and circumstances, and that the findings are reflected in the client’s portfolio.

__________

Notes:

[1]      Regulation Best Interest; Jack Duval; Available at: http://blog.accelerant.biz/blog/topic/regulation-best-interest; Accessed October 4, 2018.

[2]      “The Myth of Time Diversification: Analysis, Application, and Incorrect New Account Forms”; Jack Duval; PIABA Bar Journal; Spring 2006; Available at: http://blog.accelerant.biz/myth-of-time-diversification-whitepaper-0; Accessed October 4, 2018.

[3]       Statistically, the risk of interim declines is known as “first passage time probability”.

[4]       Reducing Attorney Fees (Investment Fees, that is); Jack Duval; Available at: https://blog.bant.am/index.php/2018/04/03/reducing-attorney-fees-investment-fees/; Accessed October 4, 2018.

[5]       Taxes – Another Killer of Attorney Returns; Jack Duval; Available at: https://blog.bant.am/index.php/2018/06/04/taxes-another-killer-of-attorney-returns/; Accessed October 4, 2018.

[6]        Wealth Confiscation by Your Three Investment “Partners”; Jack Duval; Available at: https://blog.bant.am/index.php/2018/09/07/wealth-confiscation-by-your-three-investment-partners/; Accessed October 4, 2018.

[7]         SEC Regulation Best Interest – Reasonable Care; Jack Duval; Available at: http://blog.accelerant.biz/blog/sec-regulation-best-interest-reasonable-care; Accessed October 4, 2018.

[8]         Under RBI, the Retail Customer Investment Profile includes “tax status”; SEC Regulation Best Interest; Release No. 34-83062; File No. S7-07-18; 406.  Available at: https://www.sec.gov/rules/proposed/2018/34-83062.pdf; Accessed October 4, 2018.

[9]          A separate issue is investments not offered by the firm.  This will likely come up for advisors who only sell one type of product such as insurance.  This is a key difference between RBI and the fiduciary duty imposed upon Registered Investment Advisors.  An Investment Advisor's duties are not limited to the products their firm sells.  This is a non-trivial difference and a significant shortfall in RBI.

[10]        Short-term investors should not be invested in equities.  The received view is that only funds which can be held for five years or more should be invested in equities, although some authors suggest avoiding equities unless having a 12-year time horizon.

 

To learn more about fiduciary expert Jack Duval, click here.

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Topics: Investment Suitability, Suitability Expert, FINRA Rule 2111 (Suitability), Securities Exchange Commission, Regulation Best Interest, Fact Specific Analysis, Lost Gains Cases, supervision

SEC Regulation Best Interest - Reasonable Care

Posted by Jack Duval

Sep 14, 2018 8:12:46 AM

Accelerant SEC Regulation Best Interest - Logo 

This blog post continues my series on SEC Regulation Best Interest ("RBI") and the DOL Rule.

Knowing the Client and the Investment

As I’ve written previously, a Registered Representative must know both the client and the investment in order to make a Best Interest recommendation under the proposed SEC rules.  (This is also true under the existing FINRA Suitability Rule 2111.)

Under RBI, the SEC addresses this directly, writing: [1]

... we believe acting in the best interest of the retail customer would require a broker-dealer to have a reasonable basis to believe that a specific recommendation is in the best interest of the particular retail customer based on its understanding of the investment or investment strategy under proposed paragraph (a)(2)(ii)(A), and in light of the retail customer's investment objectives, financial situation, and needs.  (Emphasis added)

Additionally, the SEC believes the principals that underlie the RBI requirements are the same as those under the DOL’s Best Interest Standard (which was a fiduciary standard):

We believe that the principles underlying our proposed best interest obligation as discussed above, and the specific Disclosure, Care, and Conflict of Interest Obligations described in more detail below, generally draw from underlying principles similar to the principles underlying the DOL's best interest standard, as described by the DOL in the BIC Exemption.[2]  (Emphasis added)

Although RBI does not impose a fiduciary duty, the SEC refers to the DOL Rule (as well as obligations under RBI) regarding how Registered Representatives will be held to a prudent expert standard:

(The DOL Rule) defines advice to be in the "best interest" if the person providing the advice acts "with the care, skill, prudence, and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent person acting in a like capacity and familiar with the such (sic) matter would use... without regard to the financial or other interests" of the person.[3]

Further, the proposed Disclosure Obligation, Care Obligation and Conflict of Interest Obligations described in more detail below, establish standards of professional conduct that, among other things, would require the broker-dealer to employ reasonable care when making a recommendation.[4]  (Emphasis added)

Reasonable Care

An important question, then, is what constitutes “reasonable care”?  (I am here only focusing on the reasonable care obligation concerning investments, not those regarding the obligation to know the client.)

At a minimum, reasonable care requires the Registered Representative to undertake an analysis of the potential recommended investments to express her investment thesis and choose one that is in the best interest of the client.

In short, reasonable care requires that the Registered Representative do her homework.  Additionally, the diligence undertaken will need to be evidenced in writing so that it can be supervised, and for the broker’s own protection, should litigation ensue.

Choosing Between Investments

The SEC has provided guidance on the analysis of investments in RBI, writing: [5]

We reiterate that we recognize that it may be consistent with a retail customer's investment objectives - and in many cases, in a retail customer's best interest - for a retail customer to allocate investments across a variety of investment products, or to invest in riskier or more costly products, such as some actively managed mutual funds, variable annuities, and structured products.

However, in recommending such products, a broker-dealer must satisfy its obligations under proposed Regulation Best Interest.  Such recommendations would continue to be evaluated under a fact specific analysis based on the security or investment strategy recommended in connection with the retail customer's investment profile, consistent with the proposed best interest obligation.  (Emphasis added)

Fact Specific Analysis

The “fact specific analysis” is a new requirement and, as mentioned above, will need to be evidenced for each recommendation and supervised by the broker-dealer (“BD”).

The SEC mentions variable annuities as an example of a “more costly product”.  A fact specific analysis would need to show that a variable annuity was in the client’s best interest after accounting for those costs and compared to other available options.  For most variable annuities, this will be exceedingly difficult.

In a typical variable annuity contract the client is charged two to four percent per year in total fees.  These consist of asset management fees, mortality and expense fees, administrative fees, and riders.  Academic literature has shown a typical death benefit guaranteeing the principal to be worth between one and 10 basis points per year.[6]  However, most variable annuity contracts charge 100 to 125 basis points for the guarantee.

Such a high markup is very difficult to justify (as are all the other fees).

The advantage of tax-deferred growth inside a variable annuity is overwhelmed by these extremely high fees and the net investment returns will likely never overcome them when compared to a similar allocation into index funds, which typically distribute no capital gains.

Furthermore, most variable annuities require the sacrifice of liquidity, a risk that is completely uncompensated.[7]

In order to justify the recommendation of a variable annuity under RBI, a Registered Representative would have to show, in a fact specific analysis, how it is in her client’s best interest to buy the variable annuity versus a similar allocation in index funds.

I have yet to see such an analysis and am highly skeptical that one could pass the prudent expert standard.

The Importance of Costs

The SEC recognizes the importance of costs when undertaking a fact specific analysis, writing:[8]

… we emphasize that the costs and financial incentives associated with a recommendation would generally be one of many important factors...

Furthermore, the SEC states clearly that when choosing among identical securities, RBI requires the less expensive security be recommended:[9]

Thus, where, for example, a broker-dealer is choosing among identical securities available to the broker-dealer, it would be inconsistent with the Care Obligation to recommend the more expensive alternative for the customer…

If a broker-dealer recommends a more expensive security or strategy over another reasonably available alternative offered by the broker-dealer, they must have a reasonable basis to believe the higher cost is justified and that the recommendation is in the customer's best interest.

A key word in the quote above is “identical”.  Very few investments are likely to be identical in the literal sense.  However, many are certain to be highly comparable with differences that are essentially trivial.  For instance, in the variable annuity example, a large cap blend sub-account inside the variable annuity is likely to be highly comparable to an S&P 500 Index fund.

A simple correlation analysis would almost certainly reveal that the differences were small, as would an analysis of the holdings and the sub-accounts active share.  Indeed, most funds (or sub-accounts) in the same size and style category are likely to be close to identical, although none would likely meet the literal meaning of “identical”.

The more comparable two investments are, the more important it will be to choose the less expensive option.  For products that have insurance or other features such as principal protection, an additional analysis of the costs, liquidity, guarantor risk, and other factors will be required.

Importantly, the case of identical investments isn’t the only standard the SEC sets out, indeed, it is only a special case.

Comparable Product Factors

The SEC has provided guidance on what a BD must consider when undertaking their fact specific analysis for comparable products or strategies offered by the firm:[10]

While every inquiry will be specific to the broker-dealer and the investment or investment strategy, broker-dealers may wish to consider questions such as: 

  • Can less costly, complex, or risky products available at the broker-dealer achieve the objective of the product?
  • What assumptions underlie the product, and how sound are they? What market or performance factors determine the investor’s return?
  • What are the risks specific to retail customers? If the product was designed mainly to generate yield, does the yield justify the risk to principal?
  • What costs and fees for the retail customer are associated with this product? Why are they appropriate?  Are all of the costs and fees transparent?  How do they compare with comparable products offered by the firm?[11]
  • What financial incentives are associated with the product, and how will costs, fees and compensation relating to the product impact an investor’s return?
  • Does the product present any novel legal, tax, market, investment, or credit risks?
  • How liquid is the product? Is there a secondary market for the product?

As described above, the broker-dealer's diligence and understanding of the risks and rewards would generally involve consideration of factors, such as the costs; the investment objectives and characteristics associated with a product or strategy (including any special or unusual features, liquidity, risks and potential benefits, volatility and likely performance in a variety of market and economic conditions), as well as the financial and other benefits to the broker-dealer.

Fact Specific Analysis Supervision

Perhaps most important is that Registered Representatives will have to undertake their fact specific analysis before the recommendation is made.  As discussed above, that analysis would need to be in writing and show how the recommendation is in the client’s best interest and comports with all their particular facts and circumstances, including risk tolerance and investment objectives.

If there was no analysis, or the analysis was deficient, then the recommendation would likely fail to meet the RBI standard (or might only meet it by chance) and would certainly have failed to have been supervised.

The requirement of a fact specific analysis will necessitate additional supervisory systems and oversight, and BDs will need to implement policies and procedures to make sure they comply with RBI.

__________

Notes:

[1]           SEC Regulation Best Interest; Release No. 34-83062; File No. S7-07-18; Available at: https://www.sec.gov/rules/proposed/2018/34-83062.pdf; Accessed September 12, 2018.

at 141.

[2]           Id. at 58.

[3]           Id. at 108.

[4]           Id. at 59.

[5]           Id. at 147.

[6]           Mose Arye Milevsky and Steven E. Posner; The Titanic Option: Valuation of the Guaranteed Minimum Death Benefit in Variable Annuities and Mutual Funds; The Journal of Risk and Insurance, 2001; Vol. 68; No. 1, 93-128.  Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.178.1519&rep=rep1&type=pdf;  Accessed September 12, 2018.

[7]           Many variable annuities allow the withdrawal of up to 10 percent of the original investment on a penalty-free basis every year.  However, withdrawals above that amount often have eight to 10 percent penalties in the first year and decline each year after that.

            Typically, investors in illiquid investments such as hedge funds and private equity funds demand an illiquidity premium of three percent per year for the loss of liquidity.  Variable annuities provide no such return premium.  Indeed, because of their fee structure, they are likely to return three percent less than the benchmark each year.

[8]           RBI at 147.

[9]           Id. at 148.

[10]         Id. at 139-40 and 143.

[11]         An interesting question arises about firms that only offer one type of product, such as insurance carriers that only sell insurance or variable products.  I will address this in later posts.

 

To learn more about fiduciary expert Jack Duval, click here.

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Topics: fiduciary obligations, Investment Suitability, Suitability Expert, FINRA Rule 2111 (Suitability), Securities Exchange Commission, Regulation Best Interest, prudent expert standard, Reasonable Care, Fact Specific Analysis

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