Evergreen Investment Management Company, a Wells Fargo unit, has agreed to a $40 million settlement with federal and state regulators over allegations that it misrepresented securities in short-term bond funds. The settlement could be a sign that other fund providers, including Morgan Keegan, Charles Schwab Corp., and Fidelity Investments, may face similar lawsuits. Already bond providers are facing securities fraud lawsuits and arbitration claims from clients that experienced heavy losses from investing in debts that were either high risk or became illiquid.
The Massachusetts Securities Division and the Securities and Exchange Commission had accused Evergreen and one of its affiliates of inflating the value of its Ultra Short Opportunities Fund by up to 17%. The SEC says that this inflated value allowed the fund in 2007 and 2008 to be ranked high compared to other peer funds, when its true value should have placed it closer to the bottom of its class. At the time of the alleged violations, Evergreen was a Wachovia Corp. subsidiary.
With the housing crisis getting worse, Evergreen is accused of not using the information it had access to about mortgage-backed securities when engaging in the valuation process. Evergreen dealt with the fund by adjusting the prices on specific holdings, but only notified a select number of investors about the reasons for the re-pricings, as well as the possibility of adjustments in the future.
The investors that were given this information managed to leave the fund before their shares’ value went down even more. However, the other shareholders that did not receive the preferential information were left at a disadvantage. In June 2008, Evergreen closed the Ultra Short Fund, which, at the time, had $403 million in assets.
By agreeing to settle, Evergreen is not admitting to or disagreeing with the SEC’s findings. As part of the agreement, the Wells Fargo unit will pay $33 million to fund shareholders, $3 million in disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, a $4 million SEC penalty, and $1 million to Massachusetts.