According to a number of state and federal regulators, they are continuing to keep their eyes on LPL Financial (LPLA), the fourth biggest brokerage firm in the US after Wells Fargo (WFC), Morgan Stanley (MS)and Merrill Lynch (MER). With 13,300 brokers, 4.3 million customers, and 6,500 offices, it is the biggest broker-dealer in rural America.
Yet even as LPL has grown, so has the number of censures it, and its brokers have been faced with numerous allegations, including securities fraud, selling unsuitable investments to unsophisticated investors, and speculative trading in client accounts. Just in the last 18 months, regulators in Massachusetts, Illinois, Oregon, Montana, and Pennsylvania have imposed penalties on LPL for inadequate broker supervision.
LPL’s recent fast growth can in part be attributed to the 2008 economic crisis, which caused many investors to flee from more prominent brokerage firms and into the arms of independent broker-dealers. Brokers at firms such as LPL are not employees but contractors that are able to earn a huge percentage of the fees and commissions. The supposed advantage for investors is that independent broker-dealers don’t have their own investment products that they are trying to foist onto customers.
However, some analysts believe that the bigger commissions that LPL has to pay its brokers means that the firm has less cash for compliance and is more prone to draw in brokers wanting to get around the rules. Evidence of possible problems from this independent broker system can be found in Montana, where 31 LPL brokers were named in eight securities complaints in the past five years. According to the state, almost half of the LPL brokers there are registered there as their own supervisors. In Washington State, authorities filed a case against LPL last year because a broker allegedly sold nontraded real estate investment trusts to dozens of older investors.
Fast-Growing Brokerage Firm Often Tangles With Regulators, New York Times, March 21, 2013
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