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.