FINRA Reports on Robo-Advisors

A year ago FINRA and the SEC issued a joint investor alert regarding robo-investment advisors and other automated tools that offer advice to investors. The alert clearly suggested that investors should be wary because an automated tool may rely on incorrect economic assumptions.

That warning has dissuaded just about no one. Robo-advisors are a fad that is growing exponentially.  Mainstream brokerage firms have acquired existing robo-advisor firms and launched their own robo-platforms.

I have written several articles where I explained why robo-advisors cannot work. In addition to the fact that they may rely on incorrect assumptions, they are also not connected to the real world in any way.  While most investors are concerned with slowing growth in China, the changing price of oil and the continuing rise in interest rates, robo-advisors concern themselves with none of these.  Robo-advisors do not look at what is happening in the broad economy or what is likely to happen.

FINRA has just published a new report on digital investment advice that demonstrates just how poorly robo-advisors perform.  The report asks a great many important questions about the use of robo-investment advisors but answers none.

You can view the report here. .

The report defines the investing process in six steps; customer profiling, asset allocation, portfolio selection, trade execution, portfolio re-balancing, tax-loss harvesting and portfolio analysis. I don’t quibble with these steps, however, it is how the robo-advisors execute them that is the problem.

The report notes that there is a wide disparity between the platforms regarding the amount of information that they acquire about a prospective customer.  I wasn’t actually troubled by this. The brokerage industry knows how to open an account and obtain enough information to ascertain a customer’s investment objectives and risk tolerance.  It is a task that the industry performs every day.

Where the report was most enlightening was in its side by side comparison of the portfolios that seven robo-advisors would have constructed for a hypothetical 27 year old who was investing for retirement. The disparities are enormous. The amount of equities purchased ranged from 51% to 90%; the amount of foreign issues from 22% to 48%. One portfolio contained 5% in gold and precious metals; another 14% in commodities. The rest had no investments in either category.

Presumably these allocations would not change over the next 40 years as the customer added to the account every year. The FINRA report defines re-balancing as maintaining the target allocation.  I would assume that risk tolerance declines with age, but the FINRA report makes no mention of how that money would be invested in the future.  Even if the allocations were static, the end result would vary greatly platform to platform.

So what, you say? The end result of a 40-year investment portfolio is going to vary greatly if you compare the portfolios prepared by live advisors as well.  True, but the difference is that live advisors are looking at the real world and absorbing real information.  The algorithm that is at the core of a robo-advisor, once set, may never be modified and never looks at real world events.

I have read a lot of articles about robo-advisors.  Few actually try to evaluate the algorithms of one versus another. The FINRA report suggests that member firms need to effectively govern and supervise the algorithms that they use. An algorithm is a mathematical formula. Exactly how does the investment committee at a brokerage firm supervise it?

The FINRA report gives passing acknowledgement that many of the robo-advisors are based in Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) and gives a shout-out to Prof. Harry Markowitz who first proposed it and later won the Nobel Prize.  I went back and re-read Prof. Markowitz’ article that was published in 1952.  The math was over my head.

Markowitz was a theoretical mathematician who applied his theory to economics, specifically to investment portfolio construction. He theorized that investors would want to maximize their investment returns while at the same time minimizing their risks.

He accomplishes this by theorizing that a diverse portfolio of non-correlated assets will perform better than a portfolio of concentrated assets.  He creates a series of mathematical formulas (algorithms) to show that it is possible.

As a practical matter it is the idea that the various assets in the portfolio are not correlated to each other that is at the core. As oil prices come down for example, we know that it has a negative effect on the profit of oil companies but a positive effect on the profits of airlines and trucking companies. Higher interest rates are good for banks, but not so good for home builders.

Now go back and look at the categories of equities that make up the robo-advisor portfolios; large, mid sized and small cap domestic securities, developing and emerging foreign markets.  How are these non-correlated?  Haven’t builders, large and small in all countries been helped by low interest rates? Aren’t airlines of all sizes in all countries going to be negatively affected if oil prices shoot back up?

MPT necessarily looks at the effect that interest rates and commodity prices have on portfolio securities. I realize that those 5 categories of equities, large, medium and small cap, developed and emerging markets have become standard in some quarters but in a global economy they are less and less non-correlated.  That correlation is even higher if you use baskets of securities (ETFs) because some number of the securities in every basket will be affected by changes in macro market conditions.

Markowitz’ formulas are based upon what he believed investors should want; good returns with less risk. The “efficient frontier” that evolved from his equations is a point on a graph, not a place on a map.  It is a hypothetical goal.

The algorithms that support the robo-advisors are the same, hypothetical. They do not look at the real world, nor are they concerned with it.  They just tell you, if you do X, Y should happen.  That might be true is the world were stagnant, but it isn’t.

One difference between Markowitz and the new generation of algorithm writers is that Markowitz published his equations in a peer reviewed journal. The robo-advisors will never let anyone see what is behind the curtain.

The fact that FINRA can demonstrate the wide disparity between the portfolios that various algorithms would create makes shopping for a robo-advisor all the more necessary while at the same time demonstrating that it is an impossible task.

If you hire a human investment advisor you can sit down and talk to them first. You can ask them what they know and what they think. You can ask them about the markets and about the future. Chances are because they deal with a lot of people they have heard the same questions before and have had an opportunity to consider their answers.

Robo-advisors are a fad. They are popular because they are cheaper. They are sold by disparaging human investment advisors who some people think cannot do any better than average. That begs the question that I have asked before: why would anyone want to hire an average investment advisor?



Raining on Crowdfundings’ Parade

If you follow my blog, you know that I am very much in favor of the crowdfunding market place developing and succeeding. However, I need to throw a bucket of cold water over the exuberance that the industry exhibits. I want to inject some much needed reality and perspective into the discussion.  I want to ask some of the hard questions that people do not seem willing to ask. I want to de-bunk some of the major claims that form the foundation of the crowdfunding industry and to set the record straight.

There has been an enormous amount of hype around equity crowdfunding. In mid-May, the last of the JOBS Act sections will take full effect allowing a registration process for equity offering up to $50 million. This section allows mom and pop investors to invest in start-ups and smaller companies, albeit for only a limited amount of money.

Up until now equity crowdfunding (buying shares of stock in small companies and start-ups on crowdfunding websites) has been limited primarily to wealthier, accredited investors.  The equity investments that are being offered on crowdfunding platforms are among the most risky investments available.  Should small investors actually be encouraged to take these risks with their hard-earned money?

The crowdfunding industry expects that these small investors will fund a multitude of new companies and that this new source of capital will greatly boost the industry’s income. It is the income that the industry will earn, not the profits that investors will make that drives the hype.

It is not difficult for a crowdfunding platform to generate a seven-figure annual income for its owners.  Crowdfunding platforms can actually net more profit per dollar raised than a traditional investment bank because they perform a fraction of the work and provide few of the valuable services that a company needs to make a successful offering.

The crowdfunding industry is remarkably cavalier about investors’ money. Nothing about equity crowdfunding respects investors or cares whether investors get a fair shake, let alone a legitimate opportunity to make a profit for the substantial risk that they are taking.  The crowdfunding industry is focused on itself and upon companies that want to raise money. The investors are an afterthought.

What, exactly, does a crowdfunding platform do to help a company seeking funds to succeed? Before the offering not much; after the offering, even less.

Every investor in every market has the same goal; they invest their money to make money. In crowdfunding that has not happened and there is nothing on the horizon that suggests that it will happen.  This is not just about the lack of liquidity for crowdfunded offerings; it is about the fact that most crowdfunded businesses fail.

So let me start with the simple declarative sentence that should counterbalance much of the hype: if you invest in shares of a start-up on a crowdfunding website, it is very, very doubtful that you will ever see your money again.

According to the SEC, the common refrain is that 9 out of 10 start-ups fail, but an equally interesting statistic from one post-mortem analysis is that 70 percent of failed start-ups die within 20 months after their last financing and have raised an average of $11 million.  In other words, not only are these investments highly risky, they also fail quickly.

That statistic is for the larger start-ups funded by institutions and professional venture capital funds.  Smaller start-ups funded on crowdfunding sites cannot expect to do better and most likely will do worse. These are companies that frequently cannot attract venture capital, which is why they come to ordinary investors on crowdfunding websites in the first place.

Unless something is done about this enormous failure rate, equity crowdfunding is not a sustainable model. While this is just my opinion, it is supported by basic math and economics.

If Wall Street brings an IPO to market raising $50 million, the company issuing its shares gets the money that it can use to create new products and new jobs.  Almost immediately, the investors can sell the stock for more or less and re-invest the same money into another IPO.

The same $50 million might fund a handful of smaller businesses on crowdfunding platforms but the great bulk of those funds cannot be recycled into new businesses because the investment are illiquid and most initial businesses will fail.  It is not even fair to say that the crowdfunded offerings create new jobs when the companies and the jobs are usually gone within 2 years.

Assuming that equity crowdfunding grows to where it can raise $500 billion in a given year, the bulk of that money will be lost so another $500 billion in new money will need to enter the market the next year for new companies to get funded.  For how many years is that likely to occur?

This model is unsustainable if for no other reason than investors will not keep going into their pockets again and again if they only lose.  Long term, equity crowdfunding can only be successful if the businesses that it is funding succeed. Right now very few people in the crowdfunding industry are focused on that fact.

The vast majority of the key players and “experts” in the crowdfunding arena have little or no experience in the mainstream financial markets.  Most have no history of dealing with investors even though investors supply the capital upon which the entire crowdfunding market depends.

One of the common excuses that the crowdfunding industry makes is that the current problems are the result of “growing pains” because the industry is still in its infancy. Many people in the crowdfunding industry believe that crowdfunding began with the JOBS Act (2012) and is governed solely by it. Actually, equity crowdfunding has been around for more than 20 years, more than enough time to get its act together.

The first direct to the public stock offering (DPO) done via the internet is generally credited to the Spring Street Brewing Company which successfully raised about $1.5 million in 1995. It was ground breaking at the time, because no underwriter (Wall Street firm and those pesky salespeople) was involved in selling the stock.  No video accompanied the offering as I do not believe that the internet supported video in those days.

The offering was done under the watchful eye of a forward thinking SEC.  Many of the crowdfunding “experts” that you might hire today are not aware of this offering or the serious discussions about DPOs that were engaged in by many regulators and market professionals at the time.  Tell an expert that offerings can be done without a video and they will look at you as if you said the Chicago Cubs just won the World Series.

By 2000, the SEC had already brought a hand full of enforcement actions against other firms that had sold stock via the internet because investors were being defrauded. Wall Street was not interested in DPOs then or now. Scam artists jumped right in. Those scams are the likely reason that the anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws are specifically incorporated into every JOBS Act offering.

When an “expert” tells you that the paperwork for a JOBS Act offering is less cumbersome than a regular public offering; they should also tell you that companies still need to disclose all of the material facts to potential investors, no matter what the forms suggest or how cumbersome the disclosures might be.  They should also tell you that the video that accompanies the offering must be in compliance as well.

Every equity offering made on a crowdfunding platform should have the disclosure THIS IS A SPECULATIVE INVESTMENT. INVESTORS CAN EXPECT TO LOSE ALL OF THE MONEY THAT THEY INVEST, in bold, on the first page.  It is the same type of disclosure that is routinely made to accredited investors in the REG. D, private placement market.

The SEC has already brought its first enforcement action against a company funded under the JOBS Act, Ascenergy.  The SEC went out of its way to spell out that the company’s website was a part of the offering. That certainly would apply to any video that accompanied any equity offering.  Most of the people selling videos to the crowdfunding industry are unaware of the Ascenergy case and do not appreciate that the videos they create to support a crowdfunded equity offering need to comply with the law.  That applies to social media campaigns and “tweets” as well.

Many people seem to believe that investors (the crowd) are expected to investigate the offerings themselves. It was never realistic to believe that investors could evaluate a new issue. That is what many people wanted but it is not what the JOBS Act and the SEC regulations delivered.

The JOBS Act places a great deal of the fraud avoidance responsibilities on the crowdfunding platforms. The Ascenergy case called out 4 crowdfunding platforms by name. You would certainly think that these firms have a target on their backs not to repeat their deficient performance.

There is a remarkable absence of trained compliance personnel at the crowdfunding platforms. I spoke with 2 lawyers at one of the larger Crowdfunding platforms a few weeks ago. They were certainly bright attorneys. They had previously worked at law firms and at regulators and had no specific training in investment banking.  There is a big difference between understanding federal securities law and evaluating specific transactions, marketing materials and accompanying social media campaigns for compliance.

I have a particular issue with securities attorneys who are spreading the crowdfunding hype.  Some actually recommend specific platforms and specific offerings. Putting your law firms’ reputation behind a securities offering was always considered a problem.  If you do not believe me, you might want to check with your professional liability carrier.

There are several securities attorneys who are selling technology-based services to the crowdfunding industry.  I started out as a young lawyer with a secretary who took my dictation in shorthand, so nobody has to sell me on the idea that technology can help reduce the costs of practicing law.

The cost of preparing a securities offering or running a crowdfunding platform is important, but should never be the driving issue. Qualified and experienced securities lawyers are still essential to the process of selling equity. Offering securities to public investors incorrectly can be very, very expensive to all concerned.

A few of the crowdfunding platforms carefully vet each offering before they list them.  These platforms reject more offerings than they accept which has to cost them a lot of money.  It is against these platforms that the rest of the industry will be ultimately judged by investors, regulators and class action juries.

Small businesses were funded before crowdfunding. Many entrepreneurs saved up or worked two jobs to get their nest egg to open the business of their dreams.  Others tapped family and friends for seed capital. The Small Business Administration has funded millions of businesses and continues to do so.  Angel investor funds are often made up of groups of smaller investors and are more prolific than ever before.

A good business could often find capital if the entrepreneur tried hard enough and surrounded himself with the right advisors. Better mousetraps get funded and will continue to get funded with or without crowdfunding.  There is nothing “essential” about this new industry.

I spend a lot of my time reviewing pitch books and speaking with founders of companies who are seeking investors. A great many start-ups are not worthy of funding. A great business idea is not the same as a great business.  A great many people with good ideas do not understand what it takes to run a successful business.

Most small equity crowdfunding campaigns fail to raise the minimum amount of capital that they seek.  This inefficiency also suggests that equity crowdfunding is not a sustainable model. In part it is because the owners read a book or two or listen to crowdfunding experts who have no actual expertise. It is also because many entrepreneurs do not want to spend what it takes to do it right.

Traditional underwriters raise the amount of money that they set out to raise virtually every time.  That is the Holy Grail of equity crowdfunding which the industry does not come close to achieving. It is usually because the company raising the money is not willing to spend what it takes to sell their offering to investors.  They fantasize that if they just put the offering onto a platform and send out a few e-mails or tweets, investors will come running with checks.

While no one can guarantee success of a crowdfunded offering that is raising equity for a start-up or small business, there is one group that I have watched that clearly understands how to bring a significant amount of investors’ to each offering that they present.  I suspect that they charge a little more because they obviously do a better job.

I have already had this discussion with several people who are preeminent in the crowdfunding industry and whose best response has been, sadly, that the crowdfunding industry will eventually work things out.  In the meantime, the industry is working things out using money from many thousands of small investors.  The industry is tooting its own horn over its success in being able to separate those investors from their money knowing that the vast majority of those investors will get nothing in return.

The simple truth is that if you have a few hundred extra dollars in your pocket and would like to help a small business succeed, you can go to a local restaurant, order a meal and a bottle of wine and know that the owner will be very happy to have your patronage.  The odds are that the owner stands on his/her feet for many hours a day for 6 and maybe even 7 days a week.

If you are not hungry and have a few extra dollars you know that there is a food bank not far from you no matter where in the US you are that will appreciate your money as much any crowdfunding entrepreneur, probably more so.  I would argue that a food bank donation gives an excellent return on your money in the form of inner satisfaction.

I expect some blow-back from this article, especially that last paragraph.  If anyone would like to debate me on this subject, publicly, I would be happy to appear at any conference. I would expect the topic of the discussion to be “what is the financial benefit of crowdfunding for the crowdfunding investors?”  I know that it is a buzz kill but that is the point.

I have been criticized, repeatedly, because of my negativity toward crowdfunding.  I am not negative about crowdfunding. I just get angry and frustrated by the experts who think they know what they are doing but don’t.  If you do not want me to call out your foolish behavior, stop acting like fools.

Several dozen crowdfunding portals have lined-up to become FINRA members and offer equity offerings to ordinary investors. I am not particularly looking for a job, but I would be happy to sit down with any crowdfunding platform that is actually interested in only offering good investments to investors. I would think that it is the least that they should want to do.

In the next few years a lot of people will be lured into crowdfunding by the hype and will lose their money. It does not usually happen with offerings made by Wall Street firms. It does not need to happen on crowdfunding platforms either.

FINRA Arbitration- Where Winning Is Not Everything

The Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association (PIABA) has issued a troubling report to the effect that customers who receive monetary awards in FINRA arbitration forums frequently cannot collect.

Using data from 2013, PIABA demonstrated that more than $62 million in awards made to public customers by FINRA arbitrators in that year went unpaid. That amounts to 1 out of 3 cases where investors went through the arbitration process and won, or nearly $1 of every $4 awarded to investors in all of the arbitration hearings that took place that year.

This is a problem that has been ongoing for many years. FINRA has done little over that time to keep track of unpaid awards and has been reluctant to take any remedial steps. In theory, an award made to a customer by a FINRA panel is due within 30 days. After that it becomes a charge against the firm’s net capital and may lead to disciplinary charges and the firm’s expulsion from FINRA. The latter, of course, hinders collection rather than helping it.

Obviously it is the larger awards rather than the smaller ones that do not get paid. Just as obviously, if the customer dealt with one of the larger firms such as, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley or Charles Schwab, even a large arbitration award is rarely going to be a problem.

Because it is the smaller firms that often opt to go out of business rather than pay a substantial award, PIABA has offered a number of potential solutions including an increase in the minimum requirement for net capital, mandatory liability insurance, broadened SIPC coverage and an industry-wide pool to cover unpaid awards.

I cannot see Merrill Lynch and the larger firms agreeing to fund a pool to cover customers at other firms that they would just as soon have as their own.  And just to be clear, most error and omissions policies carried by FINRA firms specifically exclude actions based upon fraud.

The $62 million in unpaid awards for 2013 is skewed by a single $19 million award that went unpaid and which illustrates the actual problem. The firm that did not pay the award, Western Financial Planning (WFP) actually had insurance, just not enough for its business model.

WFP did not decide to close up shop after the large arbitration award or because of it. It was put out of business by the SEC. A receiver was appointed and assets were managed and sold. Not enough was recovered to pay general creditors like the recipients of the arbitration awards (there were more than a few).

The record does however reflect that WFP sold private placements almost exclusively. Several of the private placements were large Ponzi schemes that resulted in billions of dollars of customer losses causing dozens of small FINRA member firms to close their doors. The only reason that these Ponzi schemes were sold to anyone is that the FINRA firms who sold them did not even attempt to conduct legitimate due diligence investigations to detect the fraud.

Years ago I worked for a law firm that was preparing both public and private real estate offerings. We carried professional liability insurance. The cost was scaled to the dollar amount of offerings that we prepared each year. The more money raised by offerings we prepared, the greater amount of coverage we needed and the premium we were charged went up.

The insurance company sent a representative to our offices. He handed out a multi-page detailed list of documents. “We hope you never have to call upon us to defend you”, he said, “but if you do, this is list of documents about the issue that we would hope to find in your files.” Anyone who thinks that a due diligence investigation is anything other than a way for the issuers, lawyers and brokers to CYA does not understand it.

FINRA has a realistic requirement for due diligence investigations of private offerings that requires member firms to independently verify all of the representations being given to investors.  I had several due diligence officers from smaller firms on the witness stand after the 2008 real estate crash. Almost all just took what the issuer was telling them as gospel. None conducted an independent investigation. You could rarely find a title report or title insurance in their files. None had attended the closing for the property where adjustments are frequently made.

The next crash will assuredly result in arbitrations based upon losses from oil and gas private placements. Where the argument can be made that an office building is an office building, due diligence in the oil and gas industry is very different.

Over the years, I worked on offerings for shallow oil wells in Pennsylvania, deep wells in West Texas, gas wells in Louisiana and at least one shale oil project in Colorado. The due diligence investigation required to verify the facts can differ project by project and state by state. One of the few things that they have in common is they can require multiple experts to conduct an adequate investigation which can obviously run up the cost.

The chance of a small FINRA firm doing an adequate due diligence investigation of an oil and gas offering is slim. I am available as a consulting expert witness for both arbitrations and class actions and I expect that I will be busy.

The problem of unpaid arbitration awards is very much centered in the Reg. D private offering market. It is from investments in the Reg. D market that customers take the huge losses that are the subject of many FINRA arbitrations. Many of the largest Ponzi schemes are sold through private offerings for no other reason than crooks do not want government scrutiny on their offerings.

These offerings are most often sold to retail customers by small firms that specialize in private offerings because the commission on each sale may be many times what it would be on a sale of a similar dollar amount of British Petroleum or ExxonMobil. A broker selling $1 million worth of private placements might take home as much as $90,000 in commissions.

In a registered offering, due diligence is performed by the lead underwriter on behalf of the other firms in the selling group. The issuer pays the lead underwriter for the due diligence process up front before the issue comes to market. In the Reg. D market, each member of the selling group frequently performs their own due diligence and is reimbursed after the fact based upon a fixed percentage of the monies that each firm raises.

This business model where the firms do not get paid for due diligence if they reject the offering and then only get paid based upon how much of an offering that they sell is at the root of the problem. For a large firm doing registered offerings due diligence is a profit center with positive cash flow. For small firms in the Reg. D market it can be an out of pocket cost with questionable reimbursement. Therein lays the problem and the solution.

FINRA might consider requiring a lead underwriter for all Reg. D offerings that mimics the investment banking function for registered offerings. As this is a potentially very profitable enterprise, it is reasonable to believe that some firms would be happy to step up. These firms and only these firms would need enhanced insurance coverage which would be folded into their cost of operations and reflected in the fees that they charge the issuers.

Asking each of the small firms selling Reg. D offerings to purchase insurance against offering statement fraud and adding to the cost of what is already an unprofitable part of their business is not going to gain traction at FINRA. A way to shift the risk profitably to a well compensated lead underwriter might do the trick.

The benefit of loss avoidance in the financial markets which is certainly part of FINRA’s charter should take precedence over insuring recovery costs for the few people who deal with the wrong firms.  It should surprise no one that many people in the brokerage industry do not particularly care for lawyers who make their livings filing customer arbitration claims. The PIABA study, while important, is not likely to stir the industry into action.

Arbitration claims based upon the sale of these offerings to unsuitable customers will still occur, but the aggregate losses will be far less and the number of Ponzi schemes foisted upon the public will likely be dramatically reduced. That is good for everyone.

I do have sympathy for the frustration suffered by the PIABA lawyers but the issue of collection is not limited to securities claims or arbitrations. Thousands of people are injured every year by uninsured drunk drivers .I would argue that it would be easier to substantially reduce the number of Ponzi schemes offered through FINRA firms than getting all the drunk drivers off the road.