The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations has put out an alert reminding broker-dealers about what their supervisory and due diligence duties are when it comes to underwriting municipal securities offerings. According to the examination staff, there are financial firms that are not maintaining enough written evidence to show that they are in compliance with their responsibilities as they related to supervision and due diligence. OCIE Director Carlo di Florio stressed how sufficient due diligence when determining the operational and financial condition of municipalities and states before selling their securities, is key to investor protection.
The SEC has also issued an Investor Bulletin to provide individual investors with key information about municipal bonds. Its Office of Investor Education and Advocacy wants to make sure investors know that the risks involved include:
Call risk: the possibility that an issuer will have to pay back a bond before it matures, which can occur if interest rates drop.
Credit risk: The chance that financial problems may result for the bond issuer, making it challenging or impossible to pay back principal and interest in full.
Interest rate risk: Should US interest rates go up, investors with a low fixed-rate municipal bond who try to sell the bond prior to maturity might lose money.
Inflation risk: Inflation can lower buying power, which can prove harmful for investors that are getting a fixed income rate.
Liquidity risk: In the event that an investor is unable to find an active market for the municipal bond, this could stop them from selling or buying when they want to or getting a certain bond price.
As a municipal bond buyer, an investor is lending money to the bond issuer (usually a state, city, county, or other government entity) in return for the promise of regular interest payments and the return of principal. The maturity date of a municipal bond, which is when the bond issuer would pay back the principal, might be years-especially for long-term bonds. Short-term bonds have a maturity date of one to three years.
In other stockbroker fraud news, Citigroup Inc. (C) subsidiary Citi International Financial Services LLC has agreed to pay almost $1.25 million in restitution and fines to settle claims by FINRA that it charged excessive markups and markdowns on corporate and agency bond transactions between July 2007 and September 2010. The SRO says that the markdowns and markups ranged from 2.73% to over 10% and were too much if you factor in the market’s condition during that time period, how much it actually cost to complete the transactions, and the services that the clients were actually provided. FINRA also claims Citi International failed to exercise “reasonable diligence” to ensure that clients were billed the most favorable price possible. To settle the SRO’s claims, Citi International will pay about $648,000 in restitution, plus interest, and a $600,000 fine.
Also, a man falsely claiming to be an investment advisor has pleaded guilty to securities fraud. Telson Okhio, president of the purported financial firm Ohio Group Holdings Inc., has pleaded guilty to wire fraud over a financial scam that defrauded one Hawaiian investor of about $1 million.
Okhio solicited $5 million from the investor while claiming that the money would be invested in the foreign currency exchange market using a $100 million trading platform. He said the investment was risk-free and would earn 200% during the first month. Okhio is accused of immediately taking $1 million of the investor’s money and placing the funds in his personal account. He faces up to 20 years behind bars.
Investor Bulletin: Municipal Bonds, SEC.gov
Individual Posing as Investment Advisor Pleads Guilty to Wire Fraud Charges, FBI, March 16, 2012
FINRA Fines Citi International Financial $600,000 and Orders Restitution of $648,000 for Excessive Markups and Markdowns, FINRA, March 19, 2012
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