The Problem With Private Placements

One of the biggest problems I am seeing these days is private placements (also called alternatives or non-registered investments) that are sold to accredited investors through a private placement memorandum or PPM.  Because these investments are not registered with the SEC the information that you can get about them is far more limited, and can even be fraudulent.

According to this article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, sales of private placements are surging, as part of a broader rise in private capital markets.  Private placements can be great opportunities, but they nearly always carry significant risk and in some cases they can be Ponzi schemes.  Caveat emptor.

Aside from the risk, one of the biggest concerns regulators have is how the products are sold.  FINRA has warned in the past about “fraud and sales practice abuses” by firms and brokers in the market.  In some cases this may be due to the fact that these smaller, less known firms tend to hire troubled brokers for their track record in aggressively selling high-commission deals, sometimes using questionable tactics.  Most of these firms are small to midsize brokerages, with fewer than 500 brokers, and are spread throughout the country.

According to the WSJ, more than 1,200 brokerage firms sold around $710 billion of private placements last year, and sales for the first five months of this year will be even higher.  To make matters worse, securities firms with an unusually high number of “bad brokers” are selling tens of billions of dollars a year of private stakes in companies. The WSJ reviewed records of who was pushing these investments and identified over a hundred firms where 10% to 60% of the in-house brokers had three or more investor complaints, regulatory actions, criminal charges or other red flags on their records.  This is not normal (always run your broker or advisor’s name through Brokercheck).

The bottom line is that investors are far more likely to be exposed to losses or fraud in private investments. If your broker or advisor recommends a private placement or “alternative” investment make sure he/she has a good track record and has done extensive due diligence.

If you get a cold call from a firm you’ve never heard of trying to convince you to invest in one of these, just say NO.

Copyright 2018 by Mark Pugsley.  All rights reserved,

SEC Creating Searchable Database of Bad Brokers

This is a repost of an article that appeared in ThinkAdvisor today.  Apparently the SEC agrees with one of the main goals of this website; people are increasingly googling the names of people they want to do business with, so information about people who have a documented history of unethical or fraudulent conduct needs to be easier to find.  The only reservation I have about this approach is that the database will be limited to (1) individuals,  and (2) those “who have been barred or suspended as a result of federal securities law violations.”

This leaves a number of gaps.  I think the database should include companies that have a history of fraud (which could include a number of well-known companies), and it should also include companies and individuals who have been barred or suspended by FINRA or state regulatory agencies.  But otherwise its a good first step!  -MWP

SEC Creating Searchable Database of Bad Brokers

The site ‘will be particularly valuable’ for spotting fraudsters who have been stripped of their registrations, Clayton said

 

SEC Chairman Jay Clayton. (Photo: Diego Radzinschi/NLJ)The Securities and Exchange Commission is creating a website that will contain “a searchable database of individuals” who have been barred or suspended as a result of federal securities law violations, the agency’s chairman, Jay Clayton, said Wednesday.

“This resource is intended to make the prior actions of repeat offenders and fraudsters more visible to investors,” Clayton said at the Practising Law Institute’s 49th Annual Institute on Securities Regulation conference in New York.

“Clearly, there are fraudsters in our marketplace who are seemingly unafraid of, or undeterred by, the risk of being caught. The SEC can target the underlying conduct of those fraudsters – and we do – but we also can and should arm investors with information that makes it more difficult for them to be defrauded.”

The searchable website, Clayton continued, “will be particularly valuable when bad actors have shifted from the registered space for investment advisors and broker-dealers to the unregistered space.”

Clayton stated in late September that the agency was planning to compile data on people who are not registered as advisors or brokers in order to catch more incidences of fraud.

During his Wednesday comments, Clayton said that the securities regulator reminds investors “repeatedly that they should conduct a background check before investing with a financial professional, and we are showing them how to do just that” with the upcoming website and with FINRA’s BrokerCheck.

Clayton told audience members that the SEC should continually be asking: “Are there opportunities to deter, mitigate or eliminate wrongdoing before an enforcement action becomes necessary?”

Looking back at enforcement actions brought by the agency, he continued, “a common theme emerges – where opacity exists, bad behavior tends to follow.”

The agency’s enforcement division, he said, “will continue to be active in pursuing cases where hidden or inappropriate fees are at issue, but we also are exploring whether more can be done to clarify fee disclosures made to retail investors and, thereby, deter and reduce the opportunities for misbehavior.”

As an example, he cited firms that invest clients’ money in a mutual fund share class that charges a 12b-1 fee when a lower-cost share class of the same fund is available, “or advisors may improperly choose to use fund assets to pay expenses that should be paid by the firm.”

Customers, he added, “may be deceived if brokers charge fees that are designed to cover the costs of services provided, while also marking up the prices of securities to earn a profit that is not disclosed.”

Barred Broker Hank Brock Pleads Guilty to $10 Million Tax Fraud Scheme

Henry (“Hank”) Brock of St. George, Utah pleaded guilty on Monday to tax evasion, securities fraud and wire fraud. According to the Department of Justice press release, Brock sold fraudulent tax-avoidance and investment strategies to his clients through a financial services company he ran called Mutual Benefit International Group, Ltd.  and through its subsidiaries, Brock Seminars LLC, and MB Holdings BVI, LLC.  The DOJ alleged that as president of Mutual Benefit Brock marketed a fraudulent tax scheme investment called “IRA Exit Strategy” to potential investors through seminars, phone calls, mailings, emails and online ads from 2009 through 2017.

According to the Felony Information that was filed on October 17, 2017, Brock promised investors that this IRA Exit Strategy would help them to avoid paying taxes on IRA withdrawals, which are normally subject to IRS penalties and taxes. Specifically, Brock gave his clients tax forms which falsely showed they were investors in his business, and that the company had incurred substantial losses.  These losses were then used to offset tax liabilities from their IRA withdrawals on fraudulent income tax returns that they were instructed to file with the IRS.

According to the Department of Justice, Brock fraudulently raised over $10.8 million by making false representations to investors regarding this “IRA Exit Strategy,” and by misrepresenting the financial condition of his company and other matters.  On at least one occasion the DOJ alleges Brock transferred $196,323 of a client’s investment funds and used the money for his own personal and business expenses.

Brock faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison for tax evasion, 20 years in prison for securities fraud and 20 years in prison for wire fraud. He will also be ordered to pay restitution and monetary penalties.  Sentencing is scheduled for March 5, 2018 before U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart.

This is not the first time that Brock has had run-ins with government regulators.  In April of 2006 he entered into a Stipulation and Consent Order with the Utah Division of Securities, which is obtainable through a government records (GRAMA) request.  As part of  that settlement Brock was barred from associating with a broker-dealer or investment adviser licensed in the State of Utah – for life.

He was also specifically prohibited from “advising individuals in any way regarding the sale, promotion or purchase of securities; and presenting seminars in order to solicit business for, or otherwise make referrals to, for any form of compensation, any broker-dealer, agent, investment adviser or investment representative licensed in Utah.”

It is unclear to me whether Brock violated the terms of his settlement with the state when he solicited investors for Mutual Benefit, but I assume the state is looking into that possibility.

Although this 2006 settlement is no longer available on the Division of Securities’ online database, the fact that Brock has been permanently barred from selling securities is disclosed on FINRA’s website brokercheck.com.  It is always a good idea to run a search on Broker Check before doing business with anyone in the financial services industry.

Mr. Brock is also somewhat infamous for a lawsuit he filed against the Utah Division of Securities in 2010 for $357.6 million.  In the lawsuit he an another man, Jay Rice, accused state regulators of targeting them without proof of wrongdoing in an over-zealous campaign to bring down securities violators. They claimed that they were put out of business and forced to declare bankruptcy as a result of the agency’s actions. “They destroyed my reputation maliciously and wholly without cause,” Mr. Brock said in an interview at the time. “ Among the claims in the lawsuit are allegations that the Securities Division bribed Mr. Rice’s clients, went through Mr. Brock’s computers without permission and sent out a press release announcing the action to bar him from the securities industry that contained false information.

U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell initially dismissed the case in July 2010 based on governmental immunity, but then the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded just the portion of the case alleging violations of their state constitutional rights.

If you lost money or are facing IRS penalties after working with Hank Brock of Mutual Benefit International Group please share your story in the comments below.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark W. Pugsley. All Rights Reserved.