Friday, July 29, 2016


The Massachusetts Securities Division – one of the most active and sophisticated in the nation – recently issued a Policy Statement “to provide its state-registered investment advisers who establish concurrent or sub-advisory relationships with third-party robo-advisers with guidelines on how to best comply with the Massachusetts Uniform Securities act and meet the fiduciary duties owed to their clients.” That may be the longest sentence I have ever written.

So let’s start with the basics: what is a robo-adviser? Generally speaking, a robo-adviser is an online wealth management service that provides automated algorithm-based portfolio advice. Of course, a traditional adviser may also utilize software based data but they typically employ that data in the context of more personalized advice and wealth management or retirement planning. A few examples of robo-advisers in the marketplace today are Covestor, Market Riders, Asset Builder and Flex Score.

The problem, at least as I see it, is robo-advisers dressed up as fiduciaries. Some, and in particular one ubiquitous SEC registered RIA, actually promotes itself as a premium fiduciary with unparalleled individualized portfolio construction. In my opinion, it is not. Not even close. Unfortunately, the SEC has failed to take action against such cynical charades, but the Massachusetts Securities Division is doing what it can do within its jurisdictional constraints.

According to the new Massachusetts policy, any investment adviser registered pursuant to the Massachusetts Uniform Securities act must:

  • Must clearly identify any third-party robo-advisers with which it contracts; must use phraseology that clearly indicates that the third party is a robo-adviser or otherwise utilizes algorithms or equivalent methods in the course of providing automated portfolio management services; and must detail the services provided by each third-party robo-adivser;
  • If applicable, must inform clients that investment advisory services could be obtained directly from the third-party robo-adviser;
  • Must detail the ways in which it provides value to the client for its fees, in light of the fiduciary duty it owes to the client;
  • Must detail the services that it cannot provide to the client, in light of the fiduciary duty it owes to the client;
  • If applicable, must clarify that the third-party robo-adviser may limit the investment products available to the client (such as exchange-traded funds, for example); and
  • Must use unique, distinguishable, and plain-English language to describe its and the third-party robo-adviser’s services, whether drafted by the state-registered investment adviser or by a compliance consultant.

If you want to review the flesh on these bones, click here. Now, if only the SEC, California, Missouri, Florida and… would follow Lantagne’s lead.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

84 Year Old Takes on Edward Jones for Unauthorized Trading

An elderly St. Louis man has filed a FINRA arbitration claim against Edward Jones and one of its financial advisers. The elderly client alleges that the financial adviser over-rode his objections to liquidating over a thousand shares of Cigna. Those shares were held in the client’s 401(k) before rolling over to an Edward Jones IRA. The financial adviser informed the client that Edward Jones would not permit him to retain such a high concentration of one share in the IRA once the rollover was completed. According to the client, he didn’t give a damn because he had dedicated his life to his employer, which ultimately became Cigna.

As bad luck would have it, the elderly gentleman had a good thing going with his Cigna shares. But the young FA liquidated almost all of them, using the proceeds to purchase favored mediocre-performing mutual funds. The commissions must have been smashing but the retirement account missed out on approximately $900,000 in appreciation in the Cigna shares.

According to the Statement of Claim, which contains allegations that still must be proven, the FA’s murky self-serving account notes do not jive with what the FA admitted to the elderly gentleman’s wife and daughter. Notably, there isn’t a single piece of paper signed or initialed by the client which evidences his consent to the liquidation of his beloved shares. Wouldn’t you think that is something a broker-dealer would want to obtain as a matter of course? Who knows - maybe you can use discretion in a non-discretionary account, as long as you stick a trade confirmation in the mail. But what if you are a broker-dealer that is willing to change trade confirmations after the fact? Food for thought. And once again folks – these are mere allegations until proven to the satisfaction of a Panel.

For more information regarding unauthorized trading, see Douglas Schulz's article "Unauthorized Trading, Time and Price Discretion & the Mismarking of Order Tickets:"

Friday, July 8, 2016

Broker-Dealers Using Compliance as a WMD

There seems to be a new trend in town: broker-dealers unleashing compliance or “reputation managers” upon rich-target independent branch operators.  Perhaps it isn’t really that new of a trend.  Indeed, after handling several such matters over the years, I am able to at least describe the modus operandi for these “internal raids”.

First, the broker-dealer’s “business side” identifies a branch with a substantial AUM.  As it stands, the broker-dealer is sharing in a small fraction of the revenue the branch is generating.  Coupled with an external factor, such as a desire to satiate regulators or even a mere personality conflict, executives at the highest level of the organization decide to raid the branch.  But they do it under the pretense of a newly born compliance concern, and they respond to old concerns with an utterly disproportionate sanction – termination without notice.  No Letter of Caution or fine, of course, as this would merely give the target rich financial adviser the opportunity to escape the WMD.

Upon termination the broker-dealer is oddly well prepared to immediately file a devastating U-5, send a highly prejudicial warning/solicitation letter to the adviser’s clients, and/or offer immediate home-office supervision or new OSJ opportunities to all of the branch’s financial advisers.  The impact upon the financial adviser is massive, as he is unable to become registered with a new broker-dealer until a na├»ve state regulator slowly plods through its investigation of the opportunistic and frequently defamatory U-5 disclosure.  The raiding broker-dealer will be slow but “cooperative” in responding to the regulator’s requests for documents.  In terms of private legal counsel, the financial adviser’s source of revenue will dry up at the very moment he or she needs to retain an army of lawyers.  The non-terminated financial advisers will cherry-pick their old boss’ clients.  (They will be ripe for the picking after the nasty letter they received about their now-terminated broker.)  By the time the adviser is registered with a new broker-dealer, his or her book is all but gone.

I have previously written a blog about the causes of action available to a financial adviser who has been raided in such a fashion.  But until FINRA panels start fully compensating the victims of these internal raiding schemes and awarding substantial punitive damage awards – the bombings will continue.  Moreover, state regulators need to issue provisional registration states to such financial advisors while they conduct their investigation.  Food for thought. 

See also