Suing Your Broker After the Crash

When the stock market corrects again it will be the seventh or eighth time that it has since I began working on Wall Street in the mid-1970s. Corrections are always studied and talked about after they occur.  Corrections really need to be identified before they occur because they  always result in losses in accounts of smaller, retail investors. And they always result in a spike in litigation by those customers who wish to blame their brokers for their losses.

One of the reasons that the number of customer claims will go up is that in a rising market customers have fewer losses. That does not mean that the broker’s conduct was correct, just that it did not cost the customers money or that they could not see the losses or bad conduct until the market went down.

In the normal course, customers that have disputes with their stockbroker do not end up in court. Almost all of the cases are resolved by a panel of arbitrators at FINRA. It is a lot quicker and cheaper and in the vast majority of the cases, the customer walks away with a check for at least a portion of the amount lost.

Securities arbitration was the one consistent part of my professional practice. I worked on my first claim while still in law school. I represented mostly the brokerage industry for the first 15 years that I was in practice and mostly customers for the last 25 years. In all I represented a party or served as an arbitrator in almost 1500 cases. Some were unique and interesting; most were fairly mundane.

There are a few hundred lawyers around the country who specialize in securities arbitration representing customers.  Arbitration is intended to be simple enough that any customer can file and prosecute a claim themselves. But in every case the brokerage firm is going to be represented by a good lawyer and put on a competent defense. Even if you have the most mundane claim you need proper representation.

I have worked closely with about 2 dozen customer representatives over the years and like any other profession, some were better than others.  The best have all spent some time working in house for large brokerage firms.  They understand how the firms operate, what records the firms need to keep, how brokers are actually supervised and what defenses the firms are likely to have.

Do not be afraid to hire a representative that is not an attorney.  My fellow lawyers refuse to acknowledge that a retired branch office manager can often question the conduct of a broker better than anyone else.  For most of the claims that I handled I worked with a team that included both a lawyer and a non-lawyer who had worked in the industry for many years.  The latter was invaluable to every successful outcome.

Many lawyers think that securities arbitration is about the law, which it is not, nor has it ever been.  Arbitrators are not judges. They are not required to know the law, follow the law or to read legal briefs. Arbitrators are fact finders. They want to know who did what and why.  Too many lawyers approach securities arbitration as if they are presenting the case in court. It is the single biggest mistake and the single biggest reason why customers lose these claims.

Beginning in the late 1980s there began to be a lot of product related claims where the investment was itself defective.  Prudential Securities for example put out several billion dollars worth of public and private limited partnerships. Some were defective because the disclosures were not accurate or the due diligence was shoddy; others because the advertising and representations minimized the risks or projected returns that were unsupportable.

Over the years I have seen real estate funds where one appraisal of the property was sent to the bank and a second, higher appraisal went to the investors. I have seen “North American” bond funds full of bonds issued by South American companies and funds and ETFs full of derivatives that no investor could understand. Those claims are relatively easy to win. But it does help if you have a clear understanding of what the proper disclosures should have been.

There are always claims that stem from an individual broker’s bad conduct. Sometimes a broker will place an order without calling the customer for permission first. That is clearly against the rules and a customer is entitled to be compensated for any loss that occurs. If it happens it is easy to prove as the telephone records and the order are both time-stamped. Either the phone call preceded the order or it did not.

Sometimes a broker will help a customer trade an account or recommend a lot of buys and sells in a short period of time. Trading is not the same thing as investing.  Most traders, because they are making a lot of trades are concerned about how much commission they are paying on each one. That is why most traders gravitate to one of the low commission discount firms.  When you see a trader paying high commissions per trade and making a lot of trades it is usually a problem.

When the market comes down again, some of the losses will be the result of bad products and bad brokers.  However, most of the losses that the customers will suffer will be the result of staying in the market too long.  They will not be the victims of fraud but of simple negligence, as the claims will be based upon violations of the brokerage industry’s suitability rule.

The suitability rule is something that stockbrokers and their supervisors deal with every day. Notwithstanding, lawyers representing customers seem to have a hard time explaining it and how it is violated to arbitration panels.

Simply stated the suitability rule requires that a broker have a reasonable basis every time they make a recommendation to a customer to either, buy, sell or hold onto a security.   As it is written the rule sets forth a course of conduct for stockbrokers and requires them to get pertinent information about the client’s financial situation and tolerance for risk.

The typical defense is that the customer checked the box on the new account form that said he was willing to accept some risk or was willing to accept something other than conservative, income producing investments. This customer-centric view gives defense lawyers a lot of latitude to confuse arbitrators and will befuddle a lot of claimants when they file claims after the next crash. The proper way to view the suitability rule is to focus on the investment and the recommendation, not the customer.

In the normal course the only reason for a broker to recommend that a customer purchase any security is because the broker believes that the price of that security will appreciate in value. When they think the price will appreciate no further, they should recommend that the customer sell the position and move on to something else. The broker does not have to be correct, but he must have a reasonable basis for his belief.

Brokers and investors all over the world have for decades used the same methods to determine which securities will appreciate and which will not. It is called fundamental securities analysis and it is taught in every major business school.  Most of the large firms have cadres of analysts who write research reports based upon this type of analysis. Most of those reports set forth the analysts’ opinion of a target price for the security they are reviewing.

Deviating from that analysis will always get the brokerage firms in trouble.

That is what happened in the aftermath of the crash in 2000-2001.  Many of the claims from that era were the result of conflicted research reports. The firms were competing to fund tech companies and were funding companies that had few assets other than intellectual property and fewer customers if any.

I had several prominent research analysts on the witness stand who basically explained to arbitrators that they had to make up new ways of analysis because the internet was so new. That was BS, of course, and those “new” formulas were never disclosed to the investors or for that matter, never the subject of an article in any peer-reviewed journal.

Markets never go straight up for as long as this one has without a correction. I think that a lot of people seriously believe that a market correction or a crash is coming sooner rather than later. It may happen next week, next month or next year but it will happen.  I can say that because there is a lot of empirical data to support that position.

For example: 1) price/earnings ratios of many large cap stocks are at the high end of their ranges and when that happens prices come down until they are closer to the middle of the range; 2) employment is very high meaning wages should go up impacting the profits of many companies; 3) interest rates are rising which will cause people to take the profits that they have made in stocks over the last few years and convert them to safer, interest paying instruments; 4) rising interest rates also curtail borrowing, spending and growth; 5) an international tariff/trade war came on the markets suddenly and its impact has yet to be shown; 6) the global economy is not that good which should decrease consumption and prices; 7) oil prices keep rising and gas prices along with it because of international political uncertainty which adds to the cost of everything that moves by truck, which is virtually everything; 8) there is a lot of bad debt in the marketplace (again) including student debt, sub-prime auto loans and no-income verification HELOCs; 9) real estate prices are very high in a lot of markets and in many markets the “time on the market” for home sales is getting longer; and, 10) the increased volatility of late is itself never a good sign for the market because investors like certainty and stability.

None of this means that the market will necessarily go down but all of it needs to be considered. And that is really the point.  Many so-called market professionals urge people to just stay in the market no matter what. They claim that they cannot be expected to call the top of the market. They argue that the market will always come back, so what does it matter if you take some losses now.

Any investor who has made money during this long bull market should want to protect those gains. Any broker who is smart enough to advise clients when to buy a security, should be smart enough to tell them when to sell it.  Any advisor who keeps their clients fully invested when there are indications that a correction may be imminent is going to get sued and frankly deserves it.

The brokerage industry has always had a prejudice that suggests that customer should always be fully invested.  Brokers who work on a commission basis are always instructed that any customer with cash to invest should invest. Likewise, as the industry has morphed away from commissioned brokers to fee-based investment advisors, those advisors want to justify those fees by having a portfolio to manage not just an account holding a lot of cash.

Registered investment advisors are likely to be especially targeted by customers seeking to recover losses they suffer for a number of reasons. Many are small shops that do not employ a large stable of research analysts.  Many advisors just buy funds and ETFs and allocate them in a haphazard way because they really do not understand how asset allocation actually works. This is especially true of robo-advisors that are not programmed to do any analysis at all or to ever hold a significant amount of cash in their customers’ accounts.

All investment advisors including robo-advisors are held to the highest standard of care, that of a fiduciary. Any fiduciary’s first duty is to protect the assets that have been entrusted to their care. Any customer of a stockbroker or investment advisor should have a reasonable expectation that the profits they have earned will be protected.

I am posting this article on the evening before the US mid-term elections and on the day that the US re-imposed economic sanctions on Iran. Both may have significant effects on what will happen in the stock market in the next few months and beyond. Analysts may differ on what they believe those effects will be. But that is not an excuse to do no analysis at all.

The markets are driven by numbers and any broker or advisor who believes that they can offer advice without looking at those numbers has no business calling themselves a professional.  To the contrary, any advisor who tells you to stay in the market because no one can know when it will stop going up or that it will come back if it goes down is just playing you for a fool.

 

 

DreamFunded – Crowdfunding the Dream – Poorly

One of my pet peeves about the crowdfunding industry is that the so-called professionals take Pollyanna views of bad acts and bad actors. They ignore felons and felonies. When someone screws over investors, they make excuses or worse, simply ignore it.

When the SEC brought its very first action against a crowdfunded offering, Ascenergy, I wrote an article about it. I called out how the lack of due diligence would be a problem for the industry. That was in 2015.  A lot of people told me then that the crowdfunding industry would get its act together.

In 2016 when FINRA brought its first action closing down crowdfunding portal UFunding, I wrote an article pointing out the need for better compliance for crowdfunding portals. The crowdfunding industry gave a concerted yawn.

I have written several articles about companies that were raising money on crowdfunding platforms that looked and smelled like scams.  No one else seems willing to do so. The idea of protecting investors from scams and scam artists seems to be an anathema to the crowdfunding industry.

So I really was not that surprised when someone sent me a disciplinary complaint that FINRA had lodged against one of the better known Reg. CF crowdfunding portals last April.  Even though the industry publications had published every press release and puff piece about this portal while it was operating, I could not find even a mention of the FINRA complaint in the crowdfunding media, let alone a serious discussion about what this platform had done wrong. Perhaps I missed it.

It is not like FINRA’s complaint was not noteworthy. The portal, DreamFunded, was owned by Manny Fernandez a serial angel investor, CNBC celebrity, White House invitee and noted author who has appeared on many TV shows and podcasts and in article after article about crowdfunding. If you are going to run any business having a celebrity out front is usually an asset.  But that does not mean that a celebrity can run the business.

Mr. Fernandez was able to assemble a large group of well credentialed advisors for his portal, some of whom were angels and VCs, but all of whom apparently lacked experience in the business that the portal was set up to do, sell securities to investors.  No competent securities attorney was involved even though selling securities is a highly regulated business.

The crowdfunding industry is supposed to follow those regulations but quite often does not.  FINRA’s complaint against DreamFunded and Mr. Fernandez lays out a road map exactly on how not to run a crowdfunding portal. And, again, the industry has ignored it.

At the heart of the complaint is the fact that companies that were selling securities on the platform were lying to investors or making unsupported claims about their business. That is securities fraud, plain and simple.  Every crowdfunding platform or portal is supposed to take steps to see that it does not happen.  DreamFunded listed fraudulent offerings on its portal even when the fraud was obvious. And worse, Fernandez affirmatively told lies to investors himself to help at least one of those companies scam investors.

DreamFunded operated as a funding portal beginning in July 2016, shortly after Reg. CF became effective, until November 2017 when FINRA apparently began to ask questions about its operation. During that time, it managed to list only 15 companies. How many of those offerings actually raised the funds they were seeking is not disclosed. FINRA takes specific issue with three of the offerings.

The first was a social networking company that had no assets, revenue, or operating history.  Notwithstanding, it claimed a $1 million valuation without providing any support or basis for that valuation. Valuation of pre-revenue start-ups is a significant problem in crowdfunding but you will not find a discussion about it at any of the industry conferences.

The company also claimed that it was in a “$9B market,” that it could achieve a “$900MM+ market cap” and that it projected 100 million active users by its fifth year of operation.  The company claimed that its exit strategy was to be acquired at a sales target of $500 million, which would provide a significant return to investors. The company then listed numerous well-established internet and technology companies as potential “strategic acquisition partners” with no basis or support for doing so.

The company closed its offering early without notifying investors as it was required to do.   “DreamFunded, through Fernandez, transferred the investor funds raised through DreamFunded’s portal to the personal checking account of the company’s CEO. Communications from the CEO available to DreamFunded and Fernandez at that time indicated that the relevant checking account had a negative account balance and was being charged overdraft fees.” No competent securities lawyer would have allowed that to happen but apparently consulting with an attorney who understood this business was not in Mr. Fernandez’ playbook.

The second of those offerings involved a health and wellness company, which claimed assets of less than $5,000 and prior-year (2016) revenue of $12,250. Elsewhere it also claimed assets of $2.3 million, which it attributed almost entirely to an online content library, though it provided no support or basis for this valuation.

Moreover, the company’s “business plan” projected 2017 revenue of $500,000 and 2018 revenue of $2 million but provided no basis or support for these projections.  According to FINRA, the company made unrealistic comparisons between itself and established companies and falsely implied that it was endorsed by a leading entertainment and lifestyle celebrity.

DreamFunded stated on its website that it followed the Angel Capital Association’s “strict due diligence guidelines,” the purpose of which was to “mitigate investment risk by gaining an understanding of a company and its market.” DreamFunded also claimed that the firm’s “due diligence and deal flow screening team screened each company that applied to be featured on the DreamFunded platform.”

DreamFunded and Fernandez did not follow the Angel Capital Association’s due diligence guidelines. Likewise, DreamFunded did not have a due diligence and deal flow screening team. Its claims of due diligence and deal flow screening were false and unwarranted and were designed to mislead investors into a false sense of security regarding the level of due diligence conducted with respect to the offerings featured on the DreamFunded portal.

There is a horrible lack of real due diligence in the crowdfunding industry but that is really not the problem here.  In plain English, the problem here, in my opinion, is Mr. Fernandez’ lack of honesty and integrity. The problem is that Mr. Fernandez apparently has a problem telling investors the truth.

Fernandez was a guest on a cable television network program that purported to match inventors with investors. On the program, Fernandez claimed to have invested $1 million for 30 percent ownership in a third company which subsequently conducted an offering through DreamFunded’s funding portal. Fernandez had not, in fact, made any investment in the company. His statement that he had made an investment was a lie and it seems that it was intended to help that company successfully complete its offering on the platform.

Despite the fact that he lied to investors, I am confident that Fernandez could have settled this complaint with FINRA and would have been permitted to continue to operate DreamFunded provided he cleaned up his act. There are larger FINRA member firms which have done far worse that FINRA has fined but whose memberships they have not revoked.  But Mr. Fernandez’ duplicity did not end with lying to investors, it looks like he lied to FINRA as well.

From the FINRA complaint:

“On January 5 and January 19, 2018, DreamFunded and Fernandez provided limited document productions in response to only a subset of the requests contained in the Rule 8210 request. For example, they did not produce financial records, bank account statements and investor agreements responsive to the request. Without such documents, FINRA staff was unable to fully investigate whether Fernandez and/or DreamFunded violated additional rules in connection with their fundraising efforts conducted ostensibly on behalf of DreamFunded. 

The January 19 production was accompanied by a doctor’s note representing that Fernandez was ill and unable to work between January 17 and January 20, 2018. In light of the doctor’s note, FINRA staff granted DreamFunded and Fernandez yet another extension of time, until January 29, 2018, to provide a complete response to the Rule 8210 request.

On January 25, 2018, new counsel informed FINRA staff that he too would no longer be representing DreamFunded or Fernandez. The following day, Fernandez sent FINRA staff a second doctor’s note, this one dated January 23, 2018, which stated that Fernandez would be unable to resume a normal workload until February 5, 2018. The note did not identify any illness that Fernandez was suffering from or otherwise specify the reason for his alleged inability to work. Moreover, during the time period when Fernandez claimed he was incapacitated, his social media posts indicate that he traveled out of town to enjoy, among other things, a film festival in Salt Lake City and a concert in Las Vegas.”

In truth, Mr. Fernandez did not want to maintain his membership in FINRA.  At the first whiff of the investigation he filed the paperwork to withdraw his membership and just walked away.

What he left behind were perhaps thousands of investors who were defrauded and a number of start-ups and small companies that may be sued by those investors.  These are investors who gave crowdfunding a try and who are unlikely to give it a try again. As I said, the crowdfunding industry has refused to condemn this fraud and in my opinion is shooting itself in the foot by ignoring it.

Operating a crowdfunding platform can be a very lucrative business. There is no shortage of small companies looking for funding. Several of the Reg. CF portals charge 7% of the money that a company raises and take a carried interest in the companies which can be very valuable if one actually takes off.  I can tell you from experience that a good portal should be able to raise $2-$3 million a month or more.  Paired with a Reg. D platform side by side, a good team could demonstrate that the JOBS Act can deliver everything it promised.

I have actually worked in the securities industry; this is my home turf.  If I had a backer, I would open a crowdfunding portal tomorrow because a well run portal can make a lot of money. (This is a serious request. I am actually looking for a backer who wants to make more than reasonable ROI. Send me an e-mail if you want to fund a crowdfunding portal run by a serious team of professionals.)

As for Mr. Fernandez, like a lot of people who failed at crowdfunding he has apparently moved on to greener pastures. He currently speaks at crypto currency conferences and undoubtedly holding himself out as a financial “professional”.

The crowdfunding industry is busy lobbying Congress asking it to change the rules to make it easier for more small investors to participate in this marketplace. Perish the thought that they should spend any time or effort cleaning their own house first. Lobbying for more investors without real compliance with the existing rules and protecting the investors they already have is really a waste of time.

Chasing the Unicorn

About a year ago I got a fairly unusual phone call.  The caller told me he had been an early employee of a company that had started up about 8 years earlier.  He loved the work and the camaraderie of the core group.  He was upset that the company had been sold for several hundred million dollars because the team had always told themselves that the company would become a unicorn; a start-up valued at over $1 billion.  He told me his share of the sale was “only” about $25 million and he wanted to start up a new company so that he could reach that unicorn status.

I have a very different value system than this gentleman. In my mind, if I get to the point where I have $25 million in one place, my first thought would be about walking into the local food bank with a large check.  Values and valuations are what make people chase unicorns.

Unicorns, in case you need to be told, are not real.  When someone says that a business has a “value” of $1 billion or more, it is not real either. It is an accounting trick that is used by Venture Capital (VC) firms to pat themselves on the back.

VC’s are the key to your valuation becoming a unicorn.  You will need multiple financing rounds at ever increasing valuations to get there.

The idea is that if you sell 20% of your company to a VC in Round A for $5 million, then your company’s Unicorn value is $25 million (5x $ 5 million). Of course, assuming it had no other assets, for accounting purposes its book value is closer to the $5 million that you just raised.

If you burn through that $5 million and then sell another 10% of the company for $20 million you have a book value of that $20 million and a Unicorn value of $200 million (10x $20 million). By the “C” round it is usual for the VCs to push the Unicorn value up into the hundreds of millions or higher even if all the company has is the cash it just raised.

What may surprise you is that VCs often have an understanding between themselves: you invest in the “C” round of a firm I am already invested in and I will invest in the “C “round of one of the companies that you have already invested in. That way, the valuation of the early rounds that each is holding will show a paper profit, making the VCs’ investors very happy.

There is another value that accountants assign to companies that may help to illustrate the problem; replacement value.  It is the cost of starting a competing company from scratch.

The best example might be Uber which has a Unicorn value of $65 billion. The company is essentially an app and a lot of independent drivers. I am confident that anyone could develop a competing app for less than $10 million. If they pay their drivers a little more per ride Uber’s drivers will jump ship.  If you start slowly and run the company lean, you could actually make a profit which is something Uber cannot seem to do.  But you will never be a Unicorn.

Remember that the Unicorn value has nothing to do with running your business profitably.  It is all about VCs and their perception of you. What they care about most is that you tell a great story that will make them look good.

If you are interested here are 12 steps to help you achieve Unicorn status:

1)  Never approach a VC directly. Always find someone who can introduce you to a VC.  The founder of another company that the VC has funded is best.  In a pinch the VC’s frat brother will do.

2) Learn to pitch the VC correctly. Never use words like bottom line or profitable. Focus on growth and market share.  Tell the VC why every human being on earth will buy what you are selling every day.

3) Never, ever wear a necktie to pitch to a VC.  It is a sign of disrespect. Always wear a wrinkled tee-shirt or a hoodie. It is fine if there is dog hair on it, but never cat hair. Your company’s logo on the shirt is best. If it is a tech company a picture of Alan Turing will work. Use a picture of Michael Palin if it is a consumer goods company.  In a pinch you can have your college logo on the tee shirt as long as it is Stamford, MIT or NYU.  If you went to a state university, default to Michael Palin.

4)  Never discuss competitors with a VC even if your main competitor is a Fortune 500 company. Remind the VC that you have no competition because you are light-years ahead of everyone else and that if you had competition you would crush it.  If the VC is really concerned about this; tell them that in the worst case, if some competitor comes out of the woodwork that you can’t crush, the VC can always give you enough money to buy it.  After funding, always respond that you are closer to market with your product which is demonstrably better than the competitors, even if your product is way behind schedule and will cost more and do less.

5) Once you are funded, focus on selling your product even if it is not ready for market or for that matter does not exist. Sign “strategic partnerships” with other start-ups or with existing companies in need of a shot in the arm from new tech.  Remember, promising a product roll-out or a delivery date is just a promise.  It is like telling your kids that you will start spending more time at home.

6) Good “PR” is everything. Start talking about your IPO very early on.  Appear at conferences on panels with other start-up superstars. Do a Ted Talk.Tweet a lot. Support popular causes like saving trees or creating a gluten free America with a big check and a big press release. Remember that it is the VC’s money that you are giving away, so be generous.

7) Create a corporate culture that fits your personality even if you are a schmuck. Do not be afraid to yell and scream or call employees at 3AM with questions you could ask the next morning or just to brainstorm on something you know is not important. Employees will not love or respect you, so fear is everything.

8) Treat the company insiders, the bros you need, to stock options with long vesting schedules, just in case they decide to jump ship.  Make them sign ironclad NDAs. Do not be afraid to stab them in the back. They would do the same to you in a heartbeat.

9) Treat everyone else at the company like they do not matter, which they don’t. Make them work long hours for minimal pay. Remember that a cappuccino machine in the employee lounge is cheaper than good healthcare insurance. Promise them bonuses when the company goes public. Always remind them that the company is a team effort and you could not do it without them. If they complain tell them that they do not share your vision for the company and should move on. If they will not move on, replace them. Nobody likes complainers.

10) Remember that rules and regulations do not apply to you. That includes rules about wages and hours, discrimination in hiring and conduct in the workplace. You do not need to apply for a permit if you want to modify your office space or any other type of permit to operate your business. Rules and permits are for legacy companies. Do not test your products for safety or your data storage for hackability. That is what insurance is for.

11)  If you get called before Congress to testify make sure that you look at them with disgust.  Tell them that they are old and do not understand new technology or your business model. You can admit that you made mistakes and promise to do better in the future. It does not matter.  By “do better in the future” they will understand that you will make a fat campaign contribution the next time they run for office.

12) Change your LinkedIn profile to “Visionary”.

And remember that unicorns are for children. If you are still chasing them it means that you have yet to grow up.

 

Fixing CalPERS

Although it rarely comes up in mainstream financial media there is an enormous problem in the US with underfunded public pension funds. Unless this problem is addressed, it will have a serious impact on millions of pensioners and on the overall economy. Politicians will inevitably cut benefits which they will perceive is the only avenue open to them.

The California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) is by far the largest pension fund at $326 billion. CalPERS provides pension and medical benefits for approximately 1.9 million state and municipal employees and retired employees in California.

CalPERS’ investment record can be described as lousy. By January 2009 before the financial markets had even bottomed out, its assets had declined in value by almost 30% from the preceding year and a half.  A lot of people saw the bubble rising before 2008. What was CalPERS thinking?

At that time the fund had about 65% of the dollars needed to pay the benefits it was obligated to pay. By June 2016 it was funded at almost 77%.  The fund posted an 11.2% return for 2016-2017 and is projecting an 8.7% return for its fiscal year 2017-2018.  Still, today it estimates that it is back to having $70 for every $100 it will eventually pay out. This is in the midst of a raging bull market when the DJIA more than doubled.

The fund needs to do a lot better if it is going to keep up with the pension demands of an increasing number of retirees who are living longer and increased medical and pharmaceutical costs for its aging population. Understanding why this happened is the first step to fixing it.

I do not want to mince words. The problem is that CalPERS is managed by a bloated bureaucracy of state employees and overseen by a board made up of largely incompetent political hacks.  In many ways just hiring professional managers would go a long way to solving the problems.  (No I do not expect this article will lead to a lucrative consulting contract. Telling the truth rarely does.)

Part of the problem can be attributed to the diversification policy being used. You cannot invest over $300 billion in just a handful of stocks but diversification for the sake of diversification is not the answer either.

In its last annual report, the fund reported that it held more than 1 million shares each of Chevron and Disney. Both are solid, blue chip, dividend paying California based companies.  No one would suggest either is a bad long term investment.

At the same time the fund owns hundreds of other equities, some well know and many not so well known.  Most pay no dividends. In more than a few cases the fund held only a few thousand shares of some of these companies. For a fund this size to own 5000 shares of small companies hoping that their price will increase $5 or $10 it is not worth the cost of a cadre of analysts to follow them.

CalPERS employs about 400 analysts all of whom are state employees and most will get a pension when they retire.  While they are not the most expensive analysts in the world (and they do not have to be) neither are they Wall Street’s best and brightest.

The portfolio also contains bonds issued by foreign companies and foreign governments.  There is nothing wrong with that, per se, but do we really need CalPERS to employ analysts to follow the economies of Chile, Germany and France?

Suggestion No. 1:  CalPERS could consolidate its portfolio a little, do away with smaller positions and foreign offerings and lay off a few analysts. There are individuals teaching economics and finance on the faculties of UCLA, Berkley and other state schools who are already employed by the state and who already get a state pension.  A blue ribbon panel composed of some of these individuals to help CalPERS see where the economy and the markets are going might help CalPERS avoid a substantial loss when the markets get ready to correct again (like now).

But that is just a start.

CalPERS seems to have a love /hate relationship with hedge funds and private equity managers.  In 2014 it announced that was going to begin severing relationships with its private equity and hedge funds, citing the high cost associated with these private managers. At the time these funds represented about 10% of its total portfolio — including $4 billion of hedge funds and $31 billion of private equity.

A year later, CalPERS disclosed that it still paid $700 million in performance fees to private equity firms and that it had paid a whopping $3.4 billion in fees since 1990. CalPERS justified the fees by pointing to the $34 billion in profits it made from these funds in the same period. Despite its promise to cut down on private equity funds, the fund was still invested in more than 280 funds at the end June 2015. In its most recent annual report, CalPERS cites the private equity funds as the most profitable segment of its portfolio.

Suggestion No.2 If CalPERS is considering investing a few hundred million dollars in a private equity fund, shouldn’t the fees be negotiable? Perhaps the legislature should step in and cap the fees that can be paid to a hedge fund or private equity manager.  No one can suggest that any private equity firm is going to say no to an investment of that size and the savings would go right to CalPERS’ bottom line.

Perhaps nothing points to the foolish way in which CalPERS invests its money than its history of real estate blunders. CalPERS invested almost $1 billion with home developer Lennar and lost most of it when Lennar went bankrupt. It invested and lost $500 million in Stuyvesant Town, a complex of 56 buildings with 11,000 rental units near the East River in Manhattan.  CalPERS response to this loss was to get back into the NYC real estate market and invest more than $300 million in 787 Fifth Avenue, reported to be the most expensive office building in Manhattan at the time.  Does CalPERS really need to invest in NYC real estate?

Suggestion No, 3.  There is a significant shortage of affordable housing in California. In Silicon Valley there are stories of police and firefighters living in RVs and trailers and school teachers living in their cars. Many of those people pay into CalPERS. CalPERS should consider funding at least 100,000 units (and perhaps a lot more) of affordable housing around the state. That will not really put a dent in the problem but it would be an excellent start.

In addition to the benefit from the construction jobs and the housing for people who need it, it should be obvious that people without a permanent place to live do not buy furniture and appliances.  Creating these permanent communities would certainly boost the sales tax revenue that the counties and municipalities are collecting. A population boost of 5-10,000 people in some smaller counties might create the need to hire more teachers and police who would pay into the CalPERS fund for decades.

More importantly, CalPERS could hold the mortgages on these properties and collect 5% and possibly more on its investment for 25-30 years.  I would think this is a more attractive investment than a bond issued by a foreign corporation even if the bond is rated triple AAA.  It certainly makes more sense than investing in high end office buildings whose tenants will move out when the market tanks.  Low end affordable housing is not sexy but the tenants tend to pay the rent in good markets and bad.

CalPERS also provides medical benefits for about 1.6 million current and retired state and municipal employees.  CalPERS does not break out the costs but it is obvious the skyrocketing costs for prescription drugs must be substantial and probably growing faster than the any other outlay.

Suggestion No.4. Instead of buying generic drugs for plan members, buy a generic drug manufacturer. CalPERS certainly has the money to own or joint venture with an FDA approved manufacturer to produce a lot of the pills it doles out every month.  One or two manufacturing facilities could make 10 or more of the top 20 generic prescriptions and mail them directly to plan beneficiaries who need them. This cuts out the manufacturer’s profit and the profit of at least one middleman. If one half of its plan participants get one prescription per month at a savings of $10 it could bring close to $100 million per year to CalPERS’ bottom line and that is probably conservative. I suspect that Kaiser or one of the other healthcare plans might be willing to take excess production or jump on the chance to invest as well.

People are always telling me that my blog articles expose problems and scams but that I rarely offer solutions or suggestions. At least when I expose a scam some people might not invest and thus not get hurt. The odds of anyone at CalPERS actually reading this are very slim, but who knows, it might actually resonate with someone who matters.

 

BrightCOIN- The Legally Compliant ICO?

I recently read an article citing a study that concluded that as many as 81% of initial coin offerings (ICOs) are scams. Several people contested that number but it cannot be too far off. If you have more than a cursory interest in crypto currency and ICOs it is hard to miss all of the discussion about ICO scams and what to do about them.

There is a general consensus among many in the ICO community that the ICOs need to stop kidding themselves that they are not securities and begin to seriously comply with US securities laws.  In crypto industry parlance, there is an expectation that ICOs have begun to evolve into STOs (securities token offerings).

A company issuing a securities token will need to register the offering with the SEC or seek an exemption from registration such as Regulation D.  Most STOs will be sold under Reg. D,in part because the SEC has yet to approve a registered offering and does not seem to be in any hurry to do so. US securities laws require that investors be given full disclosure of the facts that they need to make an intelligent decision whether or not to invest.

Around the same time, I came across a discussion on LinkedIn about an ICO for a company called BrightCOIN. The company is raising between $1 and $40 million to expand its tech platform which enables companies to launch their ICO in a “legally compliant” manner.

I read the white paper which is anything but legally complaint and I said so on LinkedIn. This got some brush back by the company’s CEO who commented, among other things that the company had a great lawyer who had helped prepare the white paper.  The CEO claims to be a Y Combinator alumnus with several successful start-ups under his belt. So, of course, he should have an excellent lawyer.

I offered to explain why I thought that lawyer needed to go back to law school and the CEO scheduled two appointments with me so the lawyer could tell me that he was right and I was wrong. They cancelled both appointments at the last minute.

The ICO for BrightCOIN is intended to be a Reg. D offering. I would have thought that since it was selling a service and a platform where other companies can make “legally compliant” offerings, BrightCOIN would have taken pains to make its own offering “legally complaint”. They missed by a mile.

The BrightCOIN offering document is in what is now being called a “white paper format”.  If you look at a lot of ICOs, a great many use this format. I do not know where it originated, but it does not generally make the disclosures that are required for a Reg. D offering in the format that the SEC expects. Using this format is an invitation to the SEC, state regulators and class action lawyers to come after you.

A Reg.D offering is also called a private placement and the offering document is called a private placement memorandum (PPM). There is a reason that most PPMs look alike. Back in the 1980s and 1990s regulators in several states required hands on review of every offering. I personally spent hours on the phone with the staff at these various state agencies going over specific language in Reg. D offerings. They usually wanted additional disclaimers; more risk disclosures; the words “this is a speculative investment” in the cover page in bold.

Congress eventually took away the states’ ability to comment on these offerings; but a lot of lawyers, including me, appreciate that much of what they wanted amounted to good practice. Disclosures are made for the benefit of the company that is raising the money. They are a prophylactic against legal action claiming fraud and misrepresentation.

BrightCOIN calls itself the Kickstarter for ICOs.  It is essentially a crowdfunding platform for ICOs including those private placements offered under Reg. D and registered offerings filed under Reg. A+.  BrightCOIN charges no upfront fees and will provide everything that a company needs to prepare and launch an ICO including “audited documentation”.

Of course Kickstarter does not handle any securities offerings. They operate in the world of “rewards based crowdfunding”, not securities crowdfunding, so the comparison to Kickstarter that BrightCOIN makes in its ICO white paper is meaningless.

Elsewhere BrightCOIN claims that it will become the “next Goldman Sachs” and compares itself to Goldman, Merrill Lynch and JP Morgan.  The white paper included the logos for those companies, all of which I suspect are trademarked.

Did Merrill Lynch give permission for its trademark to be used in this offering? Does Goldman Sachs even know that BrightCOIN exists?  Is there any way to read this hyperbole and not consider it to be misleading?

BrightCOIN claims that its tech platform is valuable because an entrepreneur considering launching their own Reg. A+ or Reg. D offering in the form of a token might spend as much as $500,000 to have the tech built.  By “tech” it appears to be speaking about the crowdfunding platform that they are offering.

The last time I saw a bid to build a crowdfunding platform from scratch (November 2017) the cost was $50,000 and that had some unique CRM capabilities built in. I made a few calls and to add a token capability to that would cost no more than another $50,000 and probably a lot less. Where BrightCOIN gets that $500,000 number is anyone’s guess.

In any event there is no reason to create the crowdfunding technology from scratch. If you want to open your own crowdfunding platform there are several companies that offer white label products for a small upfront fee and even smaller monthly charge. At least one that I know of comes with AML/KYC capability attached.

For any offering of securities to be “compliant” it must present information in such a way that it is balanced to point that it is not misleading. The BrightCOIN white paper is full of interesting and unsubstantiated hyperbole.

Around the world, it appears that 10% of the funds that have been invested in ICOs have been hacked. BrightCOIN claims its platform is “100% hack proof”.  I have spoken with large, mainstream financial institutions that spend a lot of money making their platforms “hack-resistant” but I do not know a single attorney who would put the phrase “100% hack proof” in a securities offering document.  The truth is no one knows if a platform is hack proof until it happens.

The white paper discusses how BrightCOIN can be used to “tokenize” assets like real estate making those assets more accessible to small investors who will be able to trade those tokens on a global basis. The white paper notes (in bold type) that there are over $200 trillion worth of assets that can be tokenized.  In the context it is presented, that statement is akin to me saying that there are 1 million single women in California implying that I will always have a date on Saturday night.

BrightCOIN claims their platform is fully functional and that they are already in business. Do they disclose how many offerings they have done and how much money those offerings have raised? They do not. They also claim that they offer consulting services to help a company prepare and market its ICO. Do they identify the people who perform these services? No.

BrightCOIN estimates that it may be able to list and sell 20 ICOs per month and might be able to take in $6.5 million per month in “success fees” if it does. The lawyer who they claim prepared this offering and who was supposed to call me and explain it to me should have told them that unless the platform is a licensed broker/dealer “success fees” are forbidden.  No where does the white paper suggest that BrightCOIN intends to become a licensed broker/dealer.

People always ask me how is it that I can spot these scams when other people cannot.  In most cases, like here, they do not pass the simple “smell test”. The founder, in my opinion, should simply stop this offering until it is actually compliant. If not people at Y Combinator should pull him aside and ask that he stop using their name.

In my opinion, the attorney, if he actually wrote this offering, which I doubt, should go back to chasing ambulances.  When you prepare an offering of securities, it is expected that people will call up and ask some questions as part of their due diligence investigation. Any attorney, who agrees to field those questions, cancels two phone calls and makes no attempt to reschedule them, should refund the client’s money.

The entire ICO market has been one con after another. Telling investors the truth is not that difficult but it seems to be the one thing that the ICOs just cannot seem to do.

 

Crowdfunding Successfully

Over the last 3 years’ equity crowdfunding has evolved into a fairly easy and inexpensive way to fund a business. More and more businesses, including start-ups, are attracting millions of dollars from investors without having to deal with Wall Street stockbrokers who charge hefty commissions or venture capitalists who want a hefty portion of their company.

I speak with companies every week that are considering crowdfunding as a way of finding investors.  The questions they asked a year ago centered on what crowdfunding is and how does it work. Today the questions are much more practical. They want to know how to get it done and how much it will cost.

One of the great mistakes that people make when they consider seeking outside investors is failing to consider the investment they are offering from an investor’s point of view. Investors expect that you are going to use their money to make more money.  Investors want a return on their investment and they expect some of the money that you make to find its way back into their pockets.

It is very important that you structure your offering to maximize the probability that investors will actually get the return you are promising. It is equally important that you clearly tell them what you are going to do to get there.

Structuring the offering correctly is a balancing act between an investment that will stand out from the pack and be attractive to investors and one that does not promise too much of the company’s profits that would stifle its growth or cause cash-flow difficulties. You can have a great little company with a great product and a huge upside but that does not mean you can attract investors if the offering itself and the return they will get is not attractive to them.

You can use crowdfunding to sell debt or equity in your company.  If you chose debt you get to set the terms and the interest rate. You get to decide whether the debt will be convertible to equity later on and if so when and on what terms. You can also sell common stock, preferred stock, convertible preferred or preferred stock that is callable. In many cases you can keep the financing off of your balance sheet by using a revenue sharing model or licensing your IP.

To structure an offering correctly you need to understand the company’s financial situation, cash flow and anticipated growth both of revenue and expenses.  You also need a good understanding of your competitors and how they approached their financing and the market if you are going to be competitive.

Serious investors look at your spread sheet first. They expect that you will be able to support the projections you are making with real facts and rational assumptions. If you are using investors’ funds to expand your business or introduce a new product into the market, you should have a good idea of what that market looks like, how you intend to reach it and what your competitors are doing.

Unless you have a finance professional on your staff or on your board of directors, you will need someone to help you structure and correctly set the terms of your offering. Very few of the crowdfunding platforms offer this type of advice, but that does not mean that you do not need it. The failure to understand finance is the root cause of the absurd valuations that are everywhere in crowdfunding and are a primary reason that serious investors will not look at your offering.

If you do not have a finance professional to help you, and the platform does not provide this type of advice, by default it is going to come down to the lawyer who is helping you prepare the offering paperwork. I have this discussion with clients almost every time I prepare an offering for crowdfunding.  If you are thinking about using a template to create the legal documents for your offering instead of a lawyer who can give you good advice you are likely to create an offering into which no one wants to invest.

Contrary to what any platform tells you very few platforms have a large audience of loyal investors ready willing and able to write you a check. I work with one platform that caters to institutional investors. Their investors are loyal because the platform is very picky about the companies that it will allow to list. Serious investors want this type of pre-vetting. Serious entrepreneurs want this type of investor.

Some of the worst advice you will get about raising money through crowdfunding is that you can use social media to build a community of potential investors or that crowdfunding for investors is a way to build your brand and solicit new customers at the same time. This actually makes no sense at all.

Customers and investors have divergent interests. Customers want you to sell them your product at the lowest price. They are consumers and think like consumers. Investors on the other hand want you to maximize your profits. They want you to sell your product for as much as the market will bear.

There are a significant number of people in the crowdfunding community who believe that the whole purpose of the JOBS Act is to allow small investors to invest in new companies. Both Regulation A+ and Regulation CF which were promulgated under the JOBS Act specifically allow for small investors.  Both are expensive and cumbersome. In my mind neither is worth the effort.

If you want to raise $1 million using Reg. A+ or Reg. CF you might expect an average investment of $250. That means you will need to reach 4000 investors. To obtain an investment from 4000 investors, your marketing campaign might need to reach 1,000,000 distinct prospects.

If you use Regulation D and make your offering to only accredited investors, you might set your minimum investment at $25,000. That way you need only 40 investors or less to raise the entire $1,000,000 and may need to reach out to only 10,000 prospects to do so.

I have worked with several of the marketing firms that specialize in equity crowdfunding. Some are more expensive than others. I always recommend spending your money on creating a good offering and a good presentation and not spending it on trying to reach 1,000,000 people or more

There are a lot of different crowdfunding platforms. Some specialize in funding real estate, some in solar projects and alternative energy projects. Sometimes a company can benefit by being on one of the larger, national platforms; often a local platform will work just as well.

There is technology available today that allows a company to set up its offering on its own website. You can set it up with what is essentially a drop box where the prospective investors can look at your offering and supporting documents. If an investor wants to invest, it will present the appropriate documents, accept his/her signature, verify the investor’s identity and qualifications and place the funds into an escrow account until the offering is completed.

You lose the advertising that a platform would do but you may gain from the fact that your offering is not competing with a dozen others all looking for investors. The fact that this technology is available has driven down the cost of listing on a platform.

Overall, if you want to raise between $1 and $5 million for your business using equity crowdfunding, legal and marketing costs and platform fees should run in the neighborhood of $50,000 more or less. Legal fees are usually the same but marketing costs increase with the number of investors you are trying to reach. Compared to the 10% fee that a stock brokerage firm would get, you can see why crowdfunding is becoming more and more popular.

 

Crime and Crypto Currency

Many people seem to think that crypto currency is a legitimate response to the “evils” visited upon the world by banks, Wall Street and other intermediaries.  They see the mainstream world of finance as corrupt and predatory. Many of these same people are confident that a decentralized system of crypto currency will be more transparent and therefore will reduce the bad acts and eliminate the bad actors.

The same old scams that these crypto enthusiasts hate are playing out in the crypto market every day.  It is actually easier to scam people in the crypto market because both the players and the investors are remarkably naïve.

There has always been crime and criminals in the financial markets.  Some of the same scams have played out over and over for more than 100 years.  The perpetrators and the technology change but at their core many of the scams are the same. The scams succeed because the one fact that never changes is that investors can be both greedy and stupid.  But that fact does not excuse anyone who lies to investors or takes advantage of investors’ stupidity.

Regulation came to the capital markets in the first decade of the last century in the form of “blue sky” laws that were passed by various states.  They were called blue sky laws because they sought to put an end to “speculative schemes which have no more basis than so many feet of blue sky”.  Or more succinctly “to stop the sale of stock in fly-by-night concerns, visionary oil wells, distant gold mines and other fraudulent exploitations.”  Those laws still exist today and were enveloped in a series of federal anti-fraud laws in the 1930s.

I invite you to read the white papers for ten Initial Coin offerings (ICOs). Pick any ten at random. What you will find are the same “fly-by-night” companies that claim that they are going to disrupt this or that multibillion-dollar industry without so much as a bookkeeper on staff.   Almost every white paper I read clearly violates both state and federal law because they do not make full and accurate disclosures. That is why US regulators are perpetually busy issuing injunctions to stop ICOs in their tracks.

In many cases the ICOs are trying to convince themselves that they are not offering securities so they do not have to make the required disclosures.  In some of these cases it is because accurate disclosures would sink the offering.  It is hard to find even simple disclosures like “there are other, larger and better financed companies in this market with whom we will have to compete”.

In other cases, the companies claim to be domiciled in other countries and are not subject to US laws.  I get several e-mails a week soliciting my investment in an ICO domiciled in another country.  Of course if you are soliciting investment from US citizens, then US law applies.

The ICO industry does not acknowledge that it needs to play by the rules. It calls the rules old fashioned and out of date for the modern global economy.  But those rules still apply and failure to follow them is often criminal conduct.

An ICO is an off-shoot of equity crowdfunding or direct to investor financing that uses the internet rather than a brokerage firm to reach potential investors.  Equity crowdfunding was billed as an inexpensive way for small companies to have access to investors.

In the mainstream markets a brokerage firm will conduct a due diligence investigation of the company seeking financing.  The purpose of a due diligence investigation is to have a professional verify the information that is being given to potential investors. This protects investors from the most obvious scoundrels.

With a few exceptions the crowdfunding industry never bought into the idea of due diligence and many of the worst crowdfunding platforms and crowdfunding “advisors” make no serious attempt to verify whether any of the information given to investors is in fact true. The worst of the crowdfunding platforms and advisors have seamlessly moved into the ICO market.

The ICO community suggests that investors conduct their own due diligence investigations.  How, exactly, does a small investor thinking about investing in an IC0 which claims to have a new complex technology and a management team spread over 5 countries “investigate” the offering? Did the management actually graduate from the schools they claim and work at the companies they list? Are the advisors that are listed actually participating? Does the tech violate someone else’s patent? Is the potential market really as big as they say it is? Who are the competitors and how are they positioned in the market?

The ICO market is a market where telling investors the truth is the exception rather than the rule.  In my thinking, every person who sells tokens in an ICO without telling investors all the material facts is a criminal.  And that describes the bulk of the ICO market and ICO advisors.

After the tech market collapsed in 2001 it was revealed that many of the research analysts at the large Wall Street firms had conflicts of interest. Keeping the large tech companies happy meant a lot of investment banking fees for the firms. That is just what the analysts did; they said nice things about the long term growth prospects of companies that were a step away from bankruptcy.  This type of behavior is also clearly illegal.

It is absurdly easy to purchase a good rating for an ICO. Advisors on one of the largest ICO rating platforms, ICO Bench, sell good ratings to any ICO that wants to pay for one.  A pay-for-play rating violates many laws.  Many people in the ICO industry are aware of the practice and keep their mouths shut. In my mind, any rating by ICO Bench is a scam and ICOs that use an advisor affiliated with ICO Bench should be avoided at all costs.

I recently read an article by Jordan Belfort whose antics were portrayed as the Wolf of Wall Street.  Belfort is no fan of crypto currency but he is an expert on pump and dump schemes. What he sees when he looks at an ICO is a lot of insiders and advisors getting a lot of cheap tokens before the public gets any. The insiders then loudly hype the company and dump their tokens on the unsuspecting public. It is exactly the same method that Belfort used and he landed in jail for doing it.

If you follow the Bitcoin trading market it is impossible to avoid repeated allegations of market manipulation. Crypto enthusiasts are always writing articles claiming that the price moved up or down because some “whale” took a large position or dumped one.  No one knows for certain because the crypto currency world is anything but transparent. Many of these people write articles claiming that some large investor has “blessed” crypto currency or is making a sizeable investment. They repeat every unsubstantiated positive rumor while ignoring the reality that the rumor they spread last month never came true.

That there is real crime in the crypto world is evidenced by theft and money laundering.  More than $1 billion has apparently been stolen from electronic wallets and crypto exchanges.  Banks spend a small fortune on technology to keep their accounts un-hackable. The crypto world which is based in technology cannot seem to get its act together.

Likewise, governments all over the world are constantly reporting that money laundering by drug cartels, human traffickers and the like are a significant problem. The FBI recently reported that they have 130 active investigations concerning money laundering and crypto currency. Governments in other countries have many more investigations under way.

In response, the crypto world always says that a lot more money is laundered through banks than with crypto. That logic is very similar to saying that you can get food poisoning at any restaurant, so why should we make our employees wash their hands.  Again banks spend a lot of money on anti-money laundering protocols even if they are not perfect.  Most of the crypto exchanges spend little or nothing.

Organized crime has been active on Wall Street for decades. The NY State Attorney General did a study back in the 1990s that concluded that organized crime was operating smaller brokerage firms that were foisting pump and dump schemes to unsuspecting investors.

A few weeks back someone sent me the prospectus for an ICO that had filed for registration as a Reg. A offering.  The company is just a lawyer who is going to raise $50 million and then hire developers to create Blockchain based projects for this industry or that.

It was a vanilla offering, more akin to a shell than a company; the kind of shell commonly used for pumps and dump schemes. The lawyer has actually represented small brokerage firms that have been accused of pump and dump schemes and also people associated with organized crime families. How do I know?  I “googled” the lawyer’s name and that is what I found.  So why would a lawyer who has ties to organized crime register a shell?  If you do not know the obvious answer, you have no business calling yourself a crypto “expert”.

Everyone I speak with in the crypto world is confident that it will continue to expand and that more and more investors will be drawn to it.  But that will remain a myth unless and until investors are always told the truth about ICOs and their secondary markets. It will remain a myth until the honest people in the industry are prepared to start publishing articles about advisors listed on ICO Bench and other ICO charlatans and stop inviting them to speak at conference after conference.  It will remain a myth until the platforms spend what it takes to become as secure as banks, so that the tokens they hold for investors cannot be stolen and the trading platforms can identify and refuse to deal with the drug dealers and human traffickers.

Do I think any of this will happen? Not a chance. Within hours of the time I publish this article I will begin to get e-mails from people who will tell me that either 1) the regulations or protocols I seek will act to centralize a market that is supposed to be decentralized; or 2) decentralization and Blockchain will fix all these problems; or 3) I am too old to understand modern technology or the “new” world of finance. In the meantime the crypto market will continue to be a cesspool of criminals and criminal acts; the very conduct its backers detest in the mainstream markets.

 

Defining Investors’ Best Interests

In the spring of 2016 the US Department of Labor (DOL) issued new rules which sought to change the landscape for investments held in retirement accounts.  The DOL sought to extend the rules governing how large pension plans and 401(k) accounts were managed to every IRA account held by individuals.

The regulations were a thousand pages long, the result of 6 years of discussion and millions of dollars of lobbying by various players in the financial services industry.  To no one’s surprise that lobbying paid off and the final rule was a watered down version of prior drafts that had actually excluded some of the riskiest investments from all retirement accounts.

The final rules also allowed brokerage firms to create exemptions if the rules did not fit specific individual accounts that were called “best interest of the investor” exemptions. The current administration in Washington and several courts have stopped these rules from being implemented.  The discussion of what investments and investment strategies are in the “best interest of investors” continues.

At no point along the way did the regulators, industry or consumer groups ask investors what they thought would be in the best interest of their retirement accounts. Had anyone done so, they would have been told that investors would be very happy if their retirement account was worth more today than it was a year ago and worth more in one year than it is today.

Before you scream “impossible” I think you should consider that even though no one can win every year, it is important that you at least try.  If you clear your head of all the BS that you hear about the stock market and investment advice and start at the basics, you will see it is not as difficult as many people think.

The primary reason that anyone ever buys a stock is because they believe that the price of that stock will go up.  When the price does go up to where you think it will go no higher you sell the shares.  You may not be right every time but you can certainly be right most of the time and you should be happy with that.

Selecting investments takes time, effort and skill.  The large brokerage firms and investments banks will usually have a fairly large research department and the best ones seek out and hire the best analysts in each industry. In order to “cover the market” a firm may have analysts that will be analyzing companies from 15 different industries if not more.  An analyst with expertise in the automotive industry might not understand the banking industry and neither might be able to understand the value of drugs that the large pharmaceutical companies have in the development pipeline.

The truth is that no one firm has the best analysts in every industry.  That is one reason large institutions frequently deal with multiple firms so they have access to research reports prepared by the analysts they think are the best in each industry.

Beginning in the mid-1990s a lot of stockbrokers began to abandon the traditional business model and the large firms and transformed themselves into self employed Registered Investment Advisors. This was a result of their commission income being under attack from discount brokerage firms that charged much less. It was not unusual for a customer to have an account at one of the wire houses to get access to the research, buy 100 shares through that firm and 900 shares of that stock through their account at a discount firm.

After the tech wreck in 2001 it became clear than many of the “best” analysts covering the tech industry were conflicted.  They were following companies that were grossly overpriced but which were bringing in large underwriting and investment banking fees, so the firms found ways to “value” companies with no revenue claiming it was appropriate for them to do so.

The result is that many of the newly minted investment advisors were willing to leave the research analysts behind. They convinced themselves and their customers that they could be portfolio managers even though they lacked the most basic tools to do so.

This led to the rise of asset allocation using mutual funds and ETFs. The argument was that the losses from the tech crash arose because people had too much of their portfolio in tech stocks. Diversify your portfolio became the new mantra of the market. Buy large baskets of stocks and you will never have to worry again. 

Asset allocation had been around since the 1950s. The purpose of a diversified portfolio is to reduce overall portfolio risk.  If one or two market sectors do poorly, your losses would be balanced by those sectors that would profit.

As applied it is often an attempt to mitigate all risks which it cannot do. If you are trying to manage risk without defining what that risk is, asset allocation will never be the optimal method for any investor.

Asset allocation did not work very well in 2008-2009 as the sectors that were most affected and took the largest losses, banking and real estate touched virtually every other market sector. The losses, especially in the home value portion of investors’ net worth reduced consumer spending, led to increased unemployment and just about all portfolios took some losses.

All of that has apparently been forgotten in the ensuing bull market. Forgotten is the idea that asset allocation does not work in all markets. Forgotten is the idea that loading up a portfolio with mutual funds or ETFs full of stocks is a recipe for disaster unless you have some good reason to believe that market will continue to rise.

Advisors, because they had no good research to support their portfolio selections, told investors that they did not need research.  The rise of robo-investment advisors is indicative of how foolish the investment world has and will become.

Investors are now told that they should invest based upon their age as if an investor’s age had anything to do with how the market will perform.  Younger investors are directed to select portfolios with more stocks because they had the time to could “make up the losses” if losses occurred.

No robo-advisor suggests that it would be better to not take the losses in the first place.  None suggests that the basic tenets of the “investment pyramid” which would have younger investors build a solid base of more conservative investments first might be more appropriate.

Most importantly no robo-advisor seems to think it is important to tell investors when they should sell.  That advice is as important as any advice to buy anything because no stock and certainly no market can go up forever.

At the end of the day, the discussion about what is in the “best interests of investors” boiled down to a discussion of cost.  Investment advice has become commoditized and therefore the argument goes, consumers should be charged the cheapest price.  This is one of the largest crocks of BS that has ever been foisted on investors.

Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, the largest pension plans, endowments and serious professional investors all rely upon research and analysis to make investment decisions.  The best analysts earn 7- figure salaries because they are the best.  All that smart money pays dearly for advice. At the same time, regulators and others are telling individual investors that it is their best interest to get the cheapest advice or none at all.

If the person offering you investment advice is suggesting stocks, bonds,mutual funds or ETFs without some reasoned opinion about what those investments will be worth in 90 or 180 days, that advice is useless and you should not pay anything for it.  If they tell you that they construct portfolios that use an algorithm, ask them if the algorithm is aware that the US government is imposing new tariffs on imports or that the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates.

The SEC, DOL and other regulators would do investors a favor if they required those giving investment advice to always share with their customers why they bought and why they sold every position.   A little transparency is always in investors’ best interests.

When I was diagnosed with cancer I wanted the best doctors, not the cheapest. When a neighbor or friend called me in search of a lawyer because their kid was picked up on a DUI, I declined to handle the representation because it was not my field of law and they really needed a specialist. And guess what, specialists cost more.

People need investment advice because bad investment advice or no advice will severely impact their retirement and they should be willing to pay more not less for good advice.  Good investment advice will always be in the investors’ best interest. The discussion really needs to stop with that.

 

Annuities and Senior Citizens

Given that I write a lot about foolish investments and investment scams, several colleagues questioned why I have never written about variable annuities. I know a little more about annuities than a lot of people.  When I was a young lawyer I worked at EF Hutton at the time it was first bringing “universal life insurance” to market. Universal life or “investment life insurance” was the precursor to modern annuity contracts.

There is already quite a lot that has been written by regulators and consumer groups about what is wrong with selling variable annuities to senior citizens. Variable annuities are intended to be long-term investments, usually 10 to 15 years or more. They have a lot of up-front fees that can take a long time to re-coup.  Selling investments that take a long time to break-even to senior citizens is always a problem.

At the same time, variable annuity sales to seniors are growing every year. The reason for this is that a variable annuity sale will pay the salesperson a very high commission; higher than the commission on almost any other financial product.

The commission on a variable annuity contract may be 7% or 10% or more of the amount that you invest. If you buy a million-dollar policy, the salesperson who sells it to you may earn a commission of $70,000 or more. For comparison if you invest $1,000,000 into a series of no-load mutual funds or ETFs at a discount brokerage firm the total commission may be less than $100.

Variable annuities are the only kind of investment which requires the salesperson to have both a license to sell insurance and a license to sell securities. Theoretically that should mean that they are better trained than many brokers. That does not necessarily mean that they are supervised more carefully.

A variable annuity salesperson is often licensed by a brokerage firm owned and operated by an insurance company. The intent is often to facilitate the sales, not provide an extra layer of compliance. Insurance companies rarely lose money and variable annuities are some of the most profitable products they sell.

Variable annuities are often complicated and difficult to compare. No two annuity contracts are exactly alike. Even annuity contracts with the same name offered by the same company can contain different riders that substantially change the terms and benefits.

The salesperson with whom you speak will only be able to sell you an annuity contract issued by one of the few companies with whom they are licensed. If you want to shop around for an annuity you may need to contact several different salespeople.

With a variable annuity your money will be invested in a series of mutual funds or sub-accounts that are managed by the insurance company.  The insurance company may offer a range of investment options. The investment options for a variable annuity are typically mutual funds that invest in stocks, bonds, money market instruments or some combination of the three. The track record of the fund managers is not always easy to find or evaluate.

The value of your investment as a variable annuity owner will vary depending on the performance of the investment options that you choose. If your intention is to allocate and re-balance your portfolio within the annuity you should understand that it will be difficult to do so properly. The funds will not necessarily correlate well with each other and may not balance against each other in such a way as to substantially reduce market risks.  The person who sells you the annuity might not be able to offer you good advice on how to allocate the portfolio now or when to re-balance it.

You will pay a management fee for each mutual fund. As with all mutual funds, fees will reduce returns. The “expense ratio” of each fund should be disclosed to you. Over 10 or 20 years those fees can add up to a substantial amount of money. Your portfolio will need to earn that much more than the market every year for you to match the market’s performance.

The insurance company will also offer to sell you various guarantees which may provide for a minimum return every year even if the market goes down. You will pay for every rider and option that you select. If you add all of the annual fees you will see that variable annuities are a very expensive way to invest.

A common feature of variable annuities is the death benefit. Often the rider will provide that if you die, a person you select as a beneficiary (such as your spouse or child) will receive the greater of: (i) all the money in your account, or (ii) some guaranteed minimum (such as all purchase payments minus prior withdrawals). Other features may include long-term care insurance which pays for home health care or nursing home care if you become seriously ill.

Most variable annuity contracts include an annual mortality and expense (M&E) fee. This charge is equal to a certain percentage of your account value, typically in the range of 1.25% per year. This charge compensates the insurance company for insurance risks it assumes under the annuity contract. Profit from the mortality and expense risk charge is sometimes used to pay the insurer’s costs of selling the variable annuity, such as a commission paid to your financial professional for selling the variable annuity to you. The company may include the fees for any guarantees that you buy or may charge you separately for them.

If you withdraw money from a variable annuity within a certain period after a purchase payment (typically within six to eight years, but sometimes as long as ten years), the insurance company usually will assess a “surrender” charge, which is a type of sales charge. Generally, the surrender charge is a percentage of the amount withdrawn, and declines gradually over a period of several years, known as the “surrender period.”

For example, a 7% charge might apply in the first year after a purchase payment, 6% in the second year, 5% in the third year, and so on until the eighth year, when the surrender charge no longer applies. Often, contracts will allow you to withdraw part of your account value each year – 10% or 15% of your account value, for example – without paying a surrender charge.

Annuities are most often sold as a way of funding your retirement. They do have tax benefits similar to an IRA account so they are rarely purchased with IRA funds.  If you have a large amount of money put away for your retirement outside an IRA, you should consider that the amount you might actually receive annually from a portfolio of dividend paying stocks and bonds might compare favorably once you consider the higher risk that you will have to make up for the annuities annual expenses.

The very first thing I learned about insurance in general (way back at EF Hutton) is that people do not buy insurance, people sell it. Annuities are a high commission item. If you are considering them, get advice from a fee based financial planner first and consider all of your alternatives.

Bitcoins, BS and Banking

I do not believe in Bitcoins because the whole idea behind them smacks of alchemy. For centuries, going back to classical Greece, people believed they could turn lead into gold. A great many, otherwise intelligent people spent a lot of time in this pursuit from the Middle Ages into the 20th Century.

In the latter half of the 19th Century people believed that the new Industrial Age would come up with a mechanical contraption to solve every problem. There were people peddling mechanical contraptions which claimed that you could put a lead bar in one end and a gold bar would come out the other. The process or internal workings of the machine were not disclosed and they became known generically as “black boxes”.

Today, thanks to new technology, you can buy a machine, plug it in and every so often it will send a few lines of computer code to an electronic wallet. You can then exchange that code for a lot of cold hard cash.  That is exactly what a Bitcoin is, just computer code that can be replicated by a machine. They may have value today; but sooner or later those lines of computer code are more likely than not, to become worthless.

For these lines of code to retain value people must be willing to buy them after they are manufactured. As the price increases, more and more people will likely start manufacturing them especially if the next generation of machines are more efficient or cost less.  Sooner or later there will be more code in the market than the market wants and the price will drop. That of course is just basic economics.

Basic economics is something that is often absent from any discussion about crypto-currency. It seems that many people who support crypto-currency, who are passionate about it and who are absolutely certain that it will prevail and disrupt the world are people who have technical backgrounds.  Some of those who are most adamant in the defense of crypto-currency have backgrounds in totally unrelated fields. They gained their insight into finance by having a credit card or reading economic theory in magazine or blog articles.

Most economists, including a Nobel Prize winner or two and most people who have worked in finance or banking dismiss crypto-currency as a fad.  On more than one occasion, a negative pronouncement by someone with stature in economics or finance has led to the crypto-enthusiasts mocking economics, economists and anyone who has worked in finance.  More than one has suggested that I and others are just too old to understand the new Blockchain technology that forms the underlying platform for crypto-currency.

Blockchain is essentially a decentralized ledger. It is a method of bookkeeping where each participant to a transaction creates a record of the transaction which is matched and verified with the other participants to the transaction.

When I wanted to learn about Blockchain I spoke with people who are working in Blockchain at large companies and universities in the US and around the world.  What they told me is that we may see Blockchain coming into various industries in the next few years. Initially they expect that it will be used in supply chain and logistics applications.

What I do not hear from these same people is a lot of enthusiasm for Blockchain in the financial sector.  FINRA assembled a panel of Blockchain experts in 2016 that looked at various functions in the financial markets that might be made more efficient by Blockchain. The overall conclusion was that Blockchain development still had a way to go.

There will certainly be decentralized ledgers within various financial companies and for some financial tasks. The entire world of finance is based upon checks and balances, supervision of employees, and repeated audits. Some of that has been automated since the 1970s.

The financial markets need to keep the bad actors out. Decentralization does not do that. If anything it is the opposite.  Blockchain verifies the transactions but not the people behind them.

A decentralized system prides itself on anonymity and anonymity invites bad actors.  If you read what the regulators of the banking and financial markets around the world have published, they continually share two main concerns about crypto-currency; money-laundering and tax avoidance.

Crypto-defenders will argue that far more money is laundered through banks. Banks spend a lot of money trying to curtail money laundering. The crypto-industry spends virtually nothing. The fact that there are other ways to launder money is no excuse for the creation of a new system that makes money laundering easier.

In the past few months banks, bankers, stockbrokers and serious investors have all given the thumbs down to crypto-currency. Recently the large credit card companies announced that their credit cards can no longer be used to purchase crypto-currencies. The largest stock brokerage firms will not purchase crypto-currency as an investment for their customers. Most professional investment advisors realize that they cannot purchase crypto-currency for their clients and satisfy their obligations as fiduciaries.

Part of the reason is that the crypto-currency industry itself cannot decide if crypto-currency is a security, commodity, currency or a whole new asset class. There is so much divergent opinion within the crypto-community that anyone who reads a few dozen articles on the subject is likely to be confused rather than enlightened.

Much of that divergent opinion is caused by the fact that these are legal definitions being interpreted by non-lawyers. I will not apologize for thinking an opinion written by a non-lawyer with a technical background living in Europe, Asia or Australia about how something should be defined under US law should carry little weight.

That does not stop the crypto-community from hanging on the word of every hack with a keyboard who holds himself out as a crypto-expert.  For an industry barely 2 years old, there are enough people holding themselves out as “crypto-experts” to fill Yankee Stadium at least once, perhaps more.

If all was well in crypto-land I would never have heard about Tether. Tether is a crypto-currency that is exchangeable into US currency at a fixed rate.  It claims to have a cash reserve of $2 billion to back up each and every Tether coin that has been issued.  People have questioned whether the owners of Tether really have secured $2 billion and the owners have repeatedly refused to respond with simple proof that the $2 billion is there. In any legitimate industry this question would never have to be asked more than once.

Theft and fraud are rampant in the crypto-currency world.  Electronic wallets are routinely hacked. Estimates run as high as 10% of the money sent to ICOs may have been hacked from the ICO’s wallet and hundreds of millions of dollars have been stolen from the various secondary market exchanges where the crypto-currency is traded.

Fund raising using crypto-currency (ICOs) has reached a fever pitch and has attracted a significant amount of scoundrels. Very few ICOs fund projects that are worthwhile ventures and most cannot be considered worthwhile investments by any stretch of the imagination. Telling the whole truth about the venture being financed is becoming the exception rather than the rule. Following existing laws regarding investment offerings is an anathema to the crypto-industry.

On more than one occasion an ICO has listed someone as an advisor who has never heard of the company or never agreed to be an advisor. I know this to be true because a few months back someone alerted me that my picture had been included in an ICO offering even though I had not given permission for the company to include it. This actually happens way too often.

There was actually one ICO that was so brazen that the people behind it raised a few million dollars and then took down their website leaving only the picture of a phallic symbol. The people who invested in this ICO got the shaft in more ways than one.

What I find most ridiculous about crypto-currency advocates is their overwhelming dislike for banks and their absolute but incorrect belief that crypto-currency and Blockchain will replace banks and send them to the rubbish heap of history.

Some of these people are European based Socialists who have always hated banks, which is their prerogative. But they have unsuccessfully been trying to supplant banks since the French Revolution. Blockchain is not going to help them.

Other people hate banks because they assert, incorrectly, that banks were the cause of the stock market crash in 2008.  I do not know of a single instance of a bank putting a gun to someone’s head and making them take out a loan that they could not afford to repay. The real estate bubble that preceded the crash might better be laid at the feet of the thousands of real estate brokers who encouraged people to buy homes with the foolish notion that real estate always goes up in value.

The most vocal group of bank haters seems to be millennials who have very little experience dealing with banks, but who constantly tell me that they do not trust them. They tell me that banks charge too much and that the world needs better platforms to make payments.

A payment platform like PayPal works quite well and is a big step up from the way banking worked 20 years ago. All it actually does is move money from my bank to a vendor’s bank quickly. Blockchain may make these payments systems better and faster.

I think these advocates will be disappointed to find that banks will ultimately take the best Blockchain has to offer and utilize it in such a way as to fire significant numbers of employees and make more money. Blockchain may actually strengthen the banking industry rather than displace it.

The problem with the idea that crypto-currencies will replace banks is that banks do a lot more than just facilitate payments. The primary function of banks is to aggregate and intermediate capital.  Banks take deposits from a lot of people and use the funds to make loans to small businesses and to make mortgage loans to homeowners.  The consumer side of these transactions can be done with a peer-to-peer approach and an app. You can apply for a small loan or a mortgage from your smart phone, but you are still borrowing from a pool of money held at a bank.

Banks also make large loans. On any given day General Motors or Dow Chemical may float a bond issue to borrow a few hundred million dollars. On the same day the State of New York may float a bond issue to fund a highway or bridge project or new university dormitory. There may be a hundred or more of these large loans and bond financings taking place around the world every day.

It is not likely that these large complicated financings will ever be done with an app on a smart phone.  These bonds are sold to syndicates of commercial banks. This requires that capital be pooled and that large entities have control over those pools of capital. Bank depositors do not decide how the bank invests the money they deposit.

This is the antithesis of the decentralized world envisioned by crypto-enthusiasts. In their world, the crypto-currency is held in electronic wallets over which only the owner has control.  No banks or centralized entity has access to those crypto-funds. There are no banks or similar entities to pool those funds and make the large loans upon which the global economy depends.

Crypto-enthusiasts have no answer to how these large loans might be made in a decentralized financial world. They do not care that banks evolved to where they are because of the need for large loans to fund large companies and large projects.

The US capital market is not a stodgy outdated system screaming for reform. It is a large, dynamic system that handles trillions of dollars of transactions every day. Virtually every transaction settles with every party happy.

It is way past time for the Blockchain industry to leave crypto-currency and the bank-haters behind and to focus on the applications for Blockchain in existing financial institutions and other industries.