Friday, October 22, 2010

FINRA Issues Regulatory Notice on Sales Practices for Commodity Futures-Linked Securities

On October 20, 2010, FINRA issued Regulatory Notice 10-51 regarding sales practice obligations for commodity futures-linked securities. FINRA notes that in recent years, securities that offer exposure to commodities have become increasingly popular to retail investors - presumably due to a low correlation with other asset classes and enhanced portfolio diversification. FINRA notes that commodity futures-linked securities can be an effective tool for gaining exposure to this asset class that in some cases can be difficult for investors to access.

FINRA recognizes, however, that in some cases the performance of the commodity futures-linked security can deviate significantly from the performance of the referenced commodity. This deviation can produce unexpected results for investors who are not familiar with futures markets, or who mistakenly believe that commodity futures-linked securities are designed to track commodity spot prices (i.e., the immediate delivery value of the commodity).

Therefore, FINRA issued Regulatory Notice 10-51 to remind firms that offer commodity futures-linked securities that they must ensure that communications with the public about these securities are fair and balanced, that recommendations to customers are suitable, and that their registered representatives adequately understand and are able to inform their customers about these securities before they recommend them. FINRA notes that under NASD Rule 2210, firms must ensure that all communications with the public are fair and balanced, and provide a sound basis for evaluating the facts about any particular security or type of security, industry or service.

FINRA states that firms should not suggest that a commodity-futures linked security offers direct exposure to the commodity's spot price, overstate the degree of correlation between the the spot price and the commodity-futures linked security, or understate the risks inherent in investing in commodity futures. Firms should also not overstate the hedging value value of commodity futures-linked products, or commodities generally, for, by example, implying that their performance is always negatively correlated with equities or other asset classes. That a prospectus may convey such information does not excuse the firm's duty to ensure that its communications regarding the product are fair, balanced and not misleading.

Moreover, FINRA notes that NASD Rule 2310 requires that, before recommending the purchase, sale or exchange or a security, a firm must have a reasonable basis for believing that the transaction is suitable for the customer. For commodity futures-linked securities, the registered representative and retail customer should discuss, among other things:
  • The commodity, basket of commodities or commodities index that a given product tracks;
  • The product's goals, strategy and structure;
  • That commodities prices, and the performance of commodity futures-linked securities, can be volatile;
  • That the use of futures contracts can affect the performance of the product as compared to the performance of the underlying commodity or index;
  • The product's methodology, including its strategy, if any, for managing roll yield and other factors that may affect performance; and
  • The product's tax implications. (Commodity pools have different tax implications than mutual funds or exchange-traded notes.)
In sum, due to the volatility of commodities prices and, correspondingly, the performance of commodity futures-linked securities, and due to the prospect that commodity futures-linked securities may produce unexpected results for investors who are not familiar with futures markets, firms should take the necessary precautions to ensure that the sales of commodity futures-linked securities comply with federal securities laws and FINRA rules. A complete copy of Regulatory Notice 10-51 can be found here.

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