Articles Posted in Variable Annuities

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority is ordering VALIC Financial Advisors Inc. to pay a $1.75M fine for purported conflicts of interest that impacted the way that the firm compensated brokers for selling annuities. According to the self-regulatory organization, from 10/2011 through 10/2014, the Houston-Based financial firm established a conflict of interest when it said registered representatives would receive financial incentives for recommending that clients transfer their money from VALIC variable annuities into a Valic fixed index annuity or onto its fee-based platform. FINRA said that the firm created even more conflict when it told representatives they would not get compensation from moving customer money to a non-Valic product from a Valic variable annuity.

FINRA said that because of these conflicts, a significant amount of assets were moved to the firm’s advisory platform and sales of  VALIC ’s proprietary fixed index annuity increased by over 610% after it was included in the firm’s compensation policy.

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Secretary of State William Galvin is accusing Texas-based brokerage firm Investment Professionals of selling investment products to elderly customers even though the investments were not suitable for them. The San Antonio broker-dealer allegedly ran high-pressure sales contests at several partner community banks in the New England state between 2013 and 2016. Galvin said that the purported “sales gimmicks” were  “unacceptable” and that his office would not tolerate them.

The Texas-based brokerage firm allegedly prioritized sales volume over whether or not the investments they were selling were suitable for the older customers. The customers had accounts at the local Massachusetts banks. For example, one bank customer, who was suffering from terminal cancer, saw so many of her assets placed in a variable annuity that she could not access her savings.

Galvin charged that these sales contests were not in alignment with Investment Professionals’ own procedures and policies and his office accused the firm of inadequate supervision, in particular of the Texas broker-dealer’s representatives who worked out of the Massachusetts banks. He noted that sales contests are “contrary to investor protections.”

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FINRA has issued a complaint against Stanley Clayton Niekras accusing the broker of elder financial abuse. According to the regulator, Niekras allegedly cheated a couple, who are in their nineties and in failing mental and physical health, out of over $70K in financial panning services fees.

Even though Niekras didn’t have an investment advisory or financial planning agreement with the elderly couple, he allegedly billed them for hundreds of hours of time that he purportedly spent working on their “financial future” –work that he claimed to have done over four years. The purported elder fraud would have taken place while he worked for MML Investors Services. FINRA said that Niekras charged the couple  $250/hr in retroactive compensation. The couple received their bill for these supposed services in 2013.

FINRA contends that Niekras knew that he had no right to the “financial planning fees or the “estate planning” fees he was charging the couple. The self-regulatory organization said that the broker, who had been contending with tax liens, had told MML Investors Services that he could cover the liens because of commissions he was expecting. Niekras purportedly thought that he could sell variable annuities to the children of the older couple, who had gifted them with about $500K in securities and cash each.
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Texas-Based Brokerage Firm Accused of Inadequate Supervision Involving VA Exchanges
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority is ordering IMS Securities Inc. to pay a $100K fine. The Texas-based brokerage firm is accused of failures related to its monitoring of variable annuity exchanges. By settling, however, it is not denying or admitting to the allegations. 
 
According to the self-regulatory authority, the firm exhibited inadequate supervisory procedures for “problematic rates of exchange” in transactions involving variable annuities. FINRA claims that from 7/ 15/13 through 7/8/14, IMS Securities depended on its CFO to review annuity exchanges but did not provide tools or guidance to help look for “problematic rates of exchange.”  The broker-dealer is accused of not probing possibly “problematic patterns” of VA exchanges and not enforcing written supervisory procedures related to consolidated reports. 

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority is fining Prudential Annuities Distributors Inc. $950K for not identifying and stopping a senior fraud scam that allowed a broker to steal $1.3M from an older investor’s variable annuity account. The self-regulatory organization said that the firm failed on numerous occasions to properly investigate “red flags” indicating that Travis Weitzel was moving money from the 89-year-old’s VA account to a bank account listed under the maiden name of Wetzel’s wife.

According to FINRA, from 6/10 until 9/12, Wetzel turned in 114 forged annuity withdrawal requests to Prudential Annuities. He initiated up to five withdrawals a month, totaling close to $50K. He asked for the money to be wired from the elderly customer’s account to the third-party account of his wife.

The SRO said that Prudential Annuities did as Wetzel instructed without properly investigating the warning signs. When the firm looked at certain withdrawals during several quarterly audits, it saw that the money was going to a third party and determined that these were legitimate transactions. Prudential also purportedly failed to discern what the relationship was between the elderly customer and the third-party account holder.

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FINRA has banned Winston Wade Turner from the securities industry. The former Prudential (PRU) and MetLife (MET) broker is accused of engaging in deceptive variable annuities sales. Turner was fired from Pruco Securities, a Prudential subsidiary, in 2015. The cause of his firing was deceptive sales practices.

Now, FINRA has barred him for a number of causes, including giving false information to clients about variable annuity sales, the fraudulent misrepresentation and omission of key facts to customers about the sales, providing false information in VA-related documents, and not giving testimony to the self-regulatory organization during its probe into this matter.

According to the SRO, Turner fraudulently misrepresented and omitted material facts about VA sales and concealed that he had persuaded a lot of customers to give up existing variable annuities or other investments so that they would buy the newer VAs that he was selling. He is accused of persuading at least 12 clients to trade their existing investments for this purpose, costing them over $150K in surrender charges.

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FINRA Takes a Closer Look at Variable Annuities
At a recent Insured Retirement Institute Conference, Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc. enforcement officials said that even though variable annuities are not on the regulator’s list of examination priorities for 2016 this doesn’t mean it isn’t scrutinizing them. FINRA Sr. VP/deputy enforcement chief Russ Ryan said that variable annuities often are involved in its cases.

It was just recently that FINRA charged MetLife (MET) $25M for making misrepresentations and omissions related to variable annuity sales. New products were marketed as less costly and better than the variable annuities that clients already owned when, in truth, said the regulator, the clients should have stayed with these older investments. The alleged misrepresentations and omissions were found in 72% of 35,500 applications for variable annuity replacements that were approved by MetLife.

FINRA said that training and supervision were a key factor in the case, which is what they are also seeing in other variable annuity cases. The regulator is also looking at L-share variable annuities, which offer greater liquidity and a shorter surrender-penalty period.

With a variable annuity contract, an insurer consents to pay the investor periodic payments either right away or in the future. The investor buys the contract with a single payment or a series of payments. The VA’s value will depend on performance and the investment options selected by the investor.

Massachusetts Targets Rogue Brokers
The Massachusetts Securities Division is going after rogue brokers. The regulator sent a letter to more than 240 firms that have a higher than average number of reps who have been reported for misconduct. The state says it wants the firms’ hiring information and is interested in learning about brokerage firms’ hiring procedures and policies. The letter was issued to financial firms where over 15% of their current representatives have at least one current disclosure incident documented.

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The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority said that MetLife Securities Inc. (MSI) would pay a $20M fine as well as $5M to customers for negligent and material misrepresentations that it purportedly made related to variable annuity replacement applications. According to the self-regulatory organization, these alleged omissions and misrepresentations were on tens of thousands of applications, and they made each replacement variable annuity seem of greater benefit to the customer despite the fact that the variable annuities that were recommended were usually more costly than the ones that the customers already owned. MetLife Securities made at least $152M in gross dealer commissions over six years through its variable annuity replacement business.

Based on a sample of transactions that were randomly examined, FINRA said that from ’09 through ’14, MetLife Securities omitted or misrepresented at least one material fact connected to the guarantees and costs of existing variable annuity contracts in 72% of the 35,500 replacement applications that it approved. Among the alleged misrepresentations:

· Existing variable were costing customers more than the variable annuities they were recommending, when the opposite was true.

· Customers were not told that the variable annuity replacements promised to them would lessen or get rid of key features that their current variable annuity possessed.

· In disclosures, the value of customers’ existing death benefits was understated.

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Two J.P. Morgan Firms Fined over Deficiencies
J.P. Morgan Securities and J.P. Morgan Clearing Corp. have been fined $775K and $250K respectively for several deficiencies. J.P. Morgan Securities is a broker-dealer of the bank JPMorgan Chase (JPM). .J.P. Morgan Clearing is the custodian, clearing, lending, and settlement arm of the bank. The fines were imposed by FINRA.

According to the self-regulatory organization, the firms committed a number of breaches that violated FINRA and SEC rules. The alleged violations by the brokerage firm mostly affect clients of J.P. Morgan Private Bank and JPMS Heritage Private Client Services, which are two JPMS Global Wealth Management businesses.

From 9/07 to 2014, JPMS purportedly did not send letters to clients confirming modifications to their investment goals within 30 days of the changes. JPMS also allegedly did not collect and check the outside brokerage account statements of nearly 2,000 representatives from ’12 – ’13. Morgan Clearing Corp. is accused of, from ’11-’13, not sending out yearly privacy notices to hundreds of thousands of account holders at the broker-dealers where it provides clearing and custody.

Broker Banned by FINRA for Money Laundering
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority said that it is barring James Van Doren. The broker was sentenced to 15 months behind bars for a money laundering scam.

According to FINRA, Van Doren took part in unethical behavior by helping to make it possible for a childhood friend and business associate to avoid certain legal duties. The former broker invested in a number of real estate deals with the friend’s company and helped conceal assets when the company couldn’t fulfill its duties.

He also accepted $244K from the friend to hide the assets that his creditors were looking for. He eventually returned most of the funds to the friend while keeping some for financial losses he sustained.

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