MONEY bonds

Risky Puerto Rico Funds Are Still on UBS’s Menu

UBS
Matthew Lloyd—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Brokers, according to an October memo, can recommend clients buy bond funds at the center of a recent $5.2 million settlement and hundreds of arbitration claims.

UBS is sticking with its recommendations that some clients buy risky Puerto Rico closed-end bond funds, despite hundreds of arbitration claims by investors who blame the securities for huge losses, according to an internal document.

UBS told brokers that they may continue to recommend the funds to clients following a $5.2 million settlement last week with Puerto Rico’s financial institutions regulator about sales practices involving the funds, according to an Oct. 9 internal memo reviewed by Reuters.

However, brokers “should continue to evaluate investment recommendations in a manner consistent with UBS policies and FINRA rules,” the firm said in the four-page memo, written in a question and answer format. FINRA, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, is Wall Street’s industry-funded watchdog.

Brokers who have questions about whether a “particular investment recommendation” is suitable should contact their branch manager or the firm’s compliance department, UBS wrote.

It is unclear who wrote the memo, which is unsigned.

A UBS spokeswoman did not say whether the firm planned to give more specific guidance to brokers. She said brokers consider “each client’s entire range of wealth management needs and goals when devising their financial plans.”

She noted that Puerto Rico municipal bonds and closed end funds provided excellent returns for more than a decade, as well as tax benefits.

FINRA requires that investment recommendations be “suitable” for investors, based on factors such as risk tolerance and age.

Lawsuits have been mounting, and there are more than 500 arbitration claims against UBS following a sharp decline in the value of Puerto Rico municipal bonds last year. Investors in closed-end funds with heavy exposure to those bonds suffered deep losses.

Puerto Rico regulators interviewed a sampling of UBS clients while looking into the firm’s bond fund sales practices. Those interviewed were elderly with low net worth and conservative investment goals, according to the settlement with UBS, also on Oct. 9. UBS did not admit to any wrongdoing as part of the deal.

According to the settlement, six UBS brokers in Puerto Rico “may have” directed their clients to improperly borrow money in order to buy the funds. Lawyers handling the arbitration cases said the investors’ losses were magnified because they invested through the illegal loans, sold through UBS Bank USA of Utah.

Even without the added leverage, analysts say funds that invest heavily in Puerto Rico debt still carry significant risk. Ratings agencies have cut Puerto Rico’s debt to junk status because of significant default risks.

Puerto Rico has an onerous debt burden that faces headwinds of a weak economy and significant unfunded pension obligations, said Morningstar analyst Beth Foos. She declined to comment specifically on the UBS funds.

Analysts said investors continue to buy Puerto Rico bonds, drawn to tax advantages and attractive yields as high as 7.75 percent, even though there is a significant risk that the U.S. territory will not be able to repay its bond obligations.

MONEY financial advisers

Got a Beef With Your Broker? Wall Street, Attorneys Fight Over How to Fix Complaint Process

boxers in boxing match
Blend Images—Alamy

Wall Street and attorneys representing investors can't agree how to improve the arbitration system used to settle disputes between brokerages and their customers.

A proposal to strengthen the arbitration process that aggrieved investors use against securities brokers is running into obstacles just as the Securities and Exchange Commission prepares to consider it.

The plan, submitted in June by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, would ban securities industry veterans from serving as public arbitrators on the panels that decide cases filed by investors against their brokerages.

But now some investors’ attorneys who had pushed for the new rule are taking issue with the fact that it could apply to them as well. Other critics say the rule could be so stringent as to leave FINRA, an industry watchdog funded by Wall Street, without enough qualified arbitrators for the dispute resolution system it runs.

The SEC would have to approve the FINRA proposal for it to become a final rule.

FINRA arbitrators typically are considered “public” — those presently unaffiliated with the securities industry — and “nonpublic” — those with Wall Street ties. Many investors and their lawyers want a panel of three public arbitrators to hear their cases because non-public arbitrators may be biased in Wall Street’s favor, they say.

FINRA’s arbitration system has faced criticism for everything from not thoroughly vetting arbitrators to making it too easy for brokers for clean up their records. The plan addresses investor advocates’ criticisms that some arbitrators can be deemed “public” even if they previously worked in the securities industry for years.

The SEC solicited public opinions on the rule with a comment period that ended July 24. Separately, a new FINRA task force is conducting a broader review of the arbitration system.

Investors’ Lawyers Bite Back

One of Wall Street’s largest trade groups backs the proposal, but with a big condition.

In a July 24 letter to the SEC, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association said lawyers who represent investors should also be prohibited from acting as public arbitrators.

Firms and brokers would view arbitrators who have counseled investors as being biased against the industry, SIFMA wrote.

That view, already embodied in FINRA’s proposal, could hurt members of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, a group of 450 lawyers who represent investors and a key force behind the push to weed out public arbitrators with Wall Street ties.

Under FINRA’s proposal, investors’ lawyers would not qualify as public arbitrators if they devoted more than 20 percent of their time within the past five years representing investors in disputes.

Similar restrictions would also apply to accountants and expert witnesses. They could become public arbitrators again, subject to certain restrictions, such as a hiatus from practice.

Lawyers and other professionals who have worked on behalf of the financial industry would be bound by similar rules.

But PIABA is already pushing back. The group has asked the SEC to reject language that would exclude lawyers and others who work on behalf of investors from being public arbitrators, according to its July 24 letter.

FINRA cites no evidence that professionals who serve investors would be biased, wrote Jason Doss, PIABA’s president. What’s more, the “non-public arbitrator” label has traditionally applied to arbitrators who have industry ties, he wrote.

FINRA declined to comment.

It is unclear how many of FINRA’s 3,560 public arbitrators would be deemed non-public. But too few arbitrators would strain the system. That is especially true when markets tank and claims spike, said George Friedman, an arbitration consultant and former director of FINRA’s arbitration unit.

“At the end of the day, we’re looking at fewer public arbitrators when we’re likely to need more going forward,” Friedman said.

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