Ex-UBS Broker is Accused of Inflating Customer’s AccountThe Financial Industry Regulatory Authority has barred Jeffrey Hamilton Howell from the broker-dealer industry. The former broker is accused of giving a customer bogus weekly account statements that overvalued an account by up to $3M. The alleged misconduct is said to have occurred between 9/2008 and 11/2014.According to FINRA, Howell sent the customer over 300 Stock Tracking Reports that misstated the client’s portfolio in amounts ranging from $289K to approximately $3M. He purportedly used his personal e-mail to send the customer some of the fake reports. This left UBS with records and books that were not accurate.
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority announced that UBS Financial Services and its Puerto Rico subsidiary (UBS) must collectively pay three investors $750,000 in damages for losses they sustained from investing in UBS’s proprietary Puerto Rico closed-end bond funds and Puerto Rico bonds. The claimants are Jenny Robles Adorno, Desarrollos Jarra SE, and Jose A. Rivera.
The investors accused UBS of recklessness, fraud, and negligence. They sought compensatory damages, punitive damages, and reimbursement of commissions that they said were unlawful. In San Juan, the FINRA arbitration panel awarded Rivera $562,500, Robles $30,000 and Jarra $157,500. UBS said it was “disappointed” with the panel’s decision to award any damages to the claimants.
This is not the first Puerto Rico bond fraud arbitration case in which UBS has been ordered to pay investors. Just this March, the firm had to pay over $470,000 to three investors who said their accounts were over-concentrated in the same Puerto Rico focused investments. The claimants in that case alleged negligent supervision and fraud. Similarly, UBS was ordered to pay a former television executive over $1,400,000 in the fall of 2015 for over-concentrating the former customer in UBS’s proprietary funds and misrepresenting the risks of those investments.
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority said that a UBS Group AG (UBS) unit will pay $250K to resolve charges accusing it of not waiving certain fees for mutual fund customers that were eligible for the reduction. FINRA said that the broker-dealer overcharged customers $277,636 to invest in mutual funds. The failure to wave these fees purportedly took place from 9/09 to 6/13.
The self-regulatory organization cited alleged supervisory failures. According to the settlement notice, UBS depended largely on its registered representatives to identify when sales charge waivers were warranted and identifying them. These waivers were linked to the reinstatement rights that let investors get around having to pay front-end sales charges.
Under these rights, individual investors are generally allowed to reinvest money made from selling class A mutual fund shares in the same fund family or the same fund without having to pay fees at the front end. They are given 90-120 days to reinvest for the waiver to be applicable.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Puerto Rico law that would have let its public utilities restructure $20 billion of debt. The territory’s officials enacted the Recovery Act in 2014 in an attempt to help it deal with its $70 billion of debt. Puerto Rico’s large public utilities owe about $26 billion to bondholders and banks. It was their creditors that challenged the law in federal court.
Puerto Rico is not allowed to file for bankruptcy protection. The Commonwealth is excluded from Chapter 9, which is the section of the bankruptcy code that usually applies to local governments, including cities, public utilities, counties, and other branches that have become insolvent and need help. (Puerto Rico has tried to convince the U.S. congress to get rid of the 1984 rule that excluded it from Chapter 9. No reason has been provided for why it was deliberately left out.)
Writing for the majority in the Supreme Court ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas reminded us that the federal bankruptcy code does not let lower government units and states enact their own bankruptcy laws. However, U.S. legislators are looking for ways to potentially help Puerto Rico.
A bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives to help the territory deal with its debt crisis has gone to the Senate for consideration. If passed into law, the bill would establish a board to manage the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt and oversee the territory’s finances. The Commonwealth sure could use the help.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed PROMESA, a bill to help Puerto Rico deal with its recession and its over $70 billion debt, in a landslide vote of 297-to-127. The island has been in financial trouble for some time now, with many of its residents leaving because the situation has gotten so bad. Already, Puerto Rico has defaulted three times in the last year on the debt payments that it owes.
PROMESA would establish an Oversight Board that will regulate the U.S. territory’s finances. The Oversight Board would be able to sell Puerto Rican government assets, let the island reduce the minimum wage for certain workers on a temporary basis, and decide whether to restructure the island’s debt. PROMESA is not a “bailout” of Puerto Rico as no taxpayer money would be used to pay off Puerto Rico’s debt and no federal funds would be committed under the bill.
Congress’s passage of PROMESA comes as the island is encountering new financial problems, including that the Commonwealth owes $2 billion on July 1 of this year. If the U.S. Senate were to pass PROMESA before then, however, Puerto Rico may not have to pay the full amount in July. The bill gives the Commonwealth a grace period through at least February 2017.
Under that “grace period” provision, Puerto Rico would be able to pay just interest on its debts and creditors wouldn’t be allowed to go after the Commonwealth with lawsuits. The grace period would hopefully give the board time to devise a plan.
Even though a solution is clearly needed, there are those who oppose the measure, including some creditors, interest groups, and bondholders. Puerto Rico’s $7 billion debt is held by local residents, financial institutions, U.S. hedge funds, and mutual fund firms, which means that there are investors on the mainland who are also holding Puerto Rico debt.
Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro García Padilla announced this week that the U.S. territory would not be paying most of the $422 million in debt that was due on Monday. However, it did pay $23 million in interest. As the Puerto Rican government had swapped $33 million of debt for new debt that matured at a later date, the principal it missed on its Government Development Bank-issued bonds was $367 million.
This was a significant development in the stand-off between the Commonwealth and Washington DC, as well as investors in Puerto Rican debt. Moreover, there are much more significant sums due this summer and, if this week’s failure to pay is an indication, investors could be in trouble.
Puerto Rico currently owes more than $70 billion to bond holders. Over $2 billion in bond payments are due this summer, including $805 million in Puerto Rico general obligation bonds. In the wake of this latest default there is growing concern that there will be more defaults in the future.
One significant Puerto Rico bond issuer, the Puerto Rico Government Development Bank (“GDB”), says it has arrived at a tentative deal with a group of hedge funds holding $900 million of the bank’s debt in which the funds would agree to a possible reduction on the dollar of their original securities’ face value. This group of institutional investors, which is being called the “Ad Hoc Group of bondholders,” include Claren Road Asset Management, Avenue Capital Management, Fir Tree Partners, Brigade Capital Management, Solus Alternative Asset Management, and Fore Research Management. The GDB arrived at a similar deal with credit unions that are holding about $33 million in debt. Regardless, according to Bloomberg, analysts at Moody’s Investors Service said that even if creditors agree to a non-payment, it would still be a default.
Mutual funds, bond insurers, hedge funds, and individual investors are among those still holding the Commonwealth’s debt. Many of them got involved with Puerto Rico closed-end bond funds because of the high yields and tax benefits. When the securities plunged in value a few years ago, thousands of investors lost a significant portion of their savings. Retail investors, retirees, and small business owners were hit especially hard.
According to InvestmentNews, even with Puerto Rico heading toward default on its $72 billion in municipal debt, there are a number of funds that continue to hold the U.S. Territory’s bonds in their portfolios, such as the:
· U.S. Oppenheimer Rochester Maryland Municipal (ORMDX)—Morningstar said that as of the conclusion of February the fund had 48.2% of assets in Puerto Rican debt.
· Oppenheimer’s (OPY) Virginia municipal bond fund (ORVAX) reportedly had 40.8% of its assets in the U.S. territory.
· Eaton Vance Oregon Municipal Income (ETORX) had 9.31% of its portfolio in Puerto Rico bonds.
· MainStay Tax-Free Bond (MKINX) had 8.8%.
InvestmentNews also reports that during a conference call on April 7, management for Oppenheimer Rochester said that about half of its funds’ holdings were in COFINA bonds or general obligation bonds, both from Puerto Rico.
UBS Group AG (UBS) must pay Obdulio Melendez Ramos, Carlos L. Merced, and Ramon Velez Garcia over $470K for losses they sustained from investing in Puerto Rico bonds/bond funds that lost value. The three men filed their case with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. They contend their accounts were over-concentrated in risky Puerto Rico bonds/bond funds. Ramos, Garcia, and Merced had alleged negligent supervision and fraud.
Addressing the panel’s ruling, a spokesperson for UBS called the decision “disappointing” and said that he disagreed with the outcome. In an emailed statement, Gregg Rosenberg contended that that there were specific circumstances involved with this case and its outcome was not a indicative of how other arbitrators might rule in similar cases. However, according to a recent supplement for the firm’s fourth quarter earnings results, since August 2013 drops in Puerto Rico municipal bond prices, as well as in the prices of related proprietary funds UBS manages and distributes, have led to customer complaints, regulatory inquiries, and arbitrations filed against the firm.
Claimed damages against UBS are estimated to total $1.5B. The vast majority of those claims are still outstanding.
Many investors have accused UBS Puerto Rico of inappropriately persuading them to invest in the island’s municipal bonds even though these investments were not appropriate for them. UBS brokers even purportedly encouraged some investors to borrow so that they could become more heavily invested in the bonds. When Puerto Rico bond prices plunged, it was the investors, many of whom were retirees, that suffered.
Pursuant to a recent arbitration ruling, UBS Group AG (UBS) must pay $1.45 million to Christel Marie Bengoa Lopez for losses she sustained in Puerto Rico closed-end bond funds. According to her arbitration claim, filed with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”), Bengoa Lopez invested a $5 million gift from her father after he sold his business.
Her broker at UBS purportedly touted the Puerto Rico closed-end bond funds as conservative, safe investments. She claims that he recommended that she use a credit line issued by UBS that would utilize her investments as collateral to purchase an apartment. However, when the closed-end bond funds became worth less than the balance of the loan, the brokerage firm insisted that it be paid back in full.
Commenting on the arbitrator’s ruling, UBS noted that it disagreed with the case outcome.
Unfortunately, numerous investors have lost substantial amounts of money from investing in Puerto Rico funds, many of which were sold by UBS. These funds were concentrated in the U.S. territory’s debt. When some funds lost half or more for their value in 2013, investors realized that the Puerto Rico investments were not as safe as represented. In fact, some investors lost everything.
Brokers from UBS, Banco Santander (SAN), Banco Popular, and other brokerage firms on the island are accused of steering investors toward Puerto Rico closed-end bond funds and individual Puerto Rico bonds even though Puerto Rico debt was not the best investment match for investors in terms of the latter’s goals and the degree of risk their portfolios could handle. Since 2013, Puerto Rico has been struggling to pay back $70 billion in debt-held not just by hedge funds and other institutional creditors but also by middle class Puerto Ricans, who hold about 30%, reports CNN, and other average Americans, who hold about 15%.
The Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corporation (COFINA) has submitted a plan to restructure the financially beleaguered island’s debt. COFINA, which is comprised of investors who possess debt backed by sales-tax revenues, has issued $17.3 billion in Puerto Rico debt-$7.5 billion in senior debt and $9.7 billion in second lien debt.
COFINA’s proposal is in response to another plan submitted by the island’s development bank earlier this month. With its proposed plan, COFINA is asking Puerto Rico to suspend repayments to members of the bondholder group until 2018, when payments would steadily grow to at least $600 million by 2021.
In exchange for the delayed payment, the bondholders are asking for the preservation of the notes’ tax-backed guarantee. Already, COFINA’s payments due this fiscal year have been put aside with its bond trustee.
The bondholder’s group includes creditors such as Whitebox Advisors, Metropolitan Life Insurance and Golden Tree Asset Management. The bondholder group believes that delaying repayments for two years should give the island time to recover financially.