On August 26, 2014, FINRA announced that it had fined Citigroup Global Markets Inc. $1.85 million for failing to provide best execution in approximately 22,000 customer transactions involving non-convertible preferred securities, and for related supervisory deficiencies for more than three years. FINRA also ordered Citigroup to pay more than $638,000 in restitution, plus interest, to affected customers.
In any customer transaction, a firm or its registered persons must use reasonable diligence to ensure that the purchase or sale price to the customer is as favorable as possible under current market conditions. FINRA found that one of Citigroup’s trading desks employed a manual pricing methodology for non-convertible preferred securities that did not appropriately incorporate the National Best Bid and Offer (NBBO) for those securities. As a result, Citigroup priced more than 14,800 customer transactions inferior to the NBBO. In addition, Citigroup priced more than 7,200 customer transactions inferior to the NBBO because the firm’s proprietary BondsDirect order execution system (BondsDirect) used a faulty pricing logic that only incorporated the primary listing exchange’s quotation for each non-convertible preferred security. As securities trade on multiple exchanges, Citigroup missed the prospect of a better price for that security on an exchange other than its primary listing exchange.
FINRA also found that Citigroup’s supervisory system and written supervisory procedures for best execution in non-convertible preferred securities were deficient. Citigroup failed to perform any review of customer transactions in non-convertible preferred securities executed on BondsDirect or manually by the trading desk to ensure compliance with the firm’s best execution obligations. The firm failed to conduct these supervisory reviews even though it had received several inquiry letters from FINRA staff. Moreover, while many of the transactions in question were identified on FINRA’s best execution report cards, the firm only attempted to access its best execution report cards once during the relevant period.
In concluding this settlement, Citigroup neither admitted nor denied the charges, but consented to the entry of FINRA’s findings.
On August 14, 2014, the SEC announced that they had charged New York based brokerage firm Linkbrokers Derivatives LLC for unlawfully taking secret profits of more than $18 million from customers by adding hidden markups and markdowns to their trades.
According to the SEC’s order instituting administrative proceedings, certain representatives on Linkbrokers’ cash equity desk defrauded customers by purporting to charge them very low commission fees, but in reality extracting fees that in some cases were more than 1,000 percent greater than represented. These brokers hid the true size of the fees they were collecting by misrepresenting the price at which they had bought or sold securities on behalf of their customers. The scheme was difficult for customers to detect because the brokers charged the markups and markdowns during times of market volatility in order to conceal the false prices they were reporting to customers.
Linkbrokers has agreed to pay $14 million to settle the SEC’s charges. The SEC previously charged four former brokers on the cash equities desk at Linkbrokers, and three of them later agreed to settle those charges by consenting to judgments ordering more than $4 million in disgorgement plus interest.
According to the SEC’s order instituting a settled administrative proceeding against Linkbrokers, the scheme occurred from at least 2005 to February 2009 and involved more than 36,000 transactions. The surreptitiously embedded markups and markdowns ranged from a few dollars to $228,000. Linkbrokers secured additional illicit profits by stealing a portion of customers’ trades. When customers placed limit orders seeking to purchase or sell shares at a specified maximum or minimum price, the brokers filled the orders at the customers’ limit price but withheld that information from the customers. Instead, they monitored the movement in the price of the securities and purchased or sold portions of these positions back to the market, keeping the profit for the firm. The brokers then falsely reported to the customers that they could not fill the order at the limit price.
The SEC’s order, to which Linkbrokers consented without admitting or denying the findings, found that the firm violated Section 15(c)(1) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and requires Linkbrokers to pay $14 million in disgorgement. Linkbrokers ceased acting as a broker-dealer in April 2013 and will withdraw its registration.
On August 1, 2014, the SEC announced that it has obtained a final judgment in federal court requiring a Richmond, Virginia based financial services holding company, a subsidiary brokerage firm, and their CEO to pay nearly $70 million as the outcome of a trial that found them liable for fraud.
The SEC’s complaint filed against AIC Inc., Community Bankers Securities LLC, and Nicholas D. Skaltsounis alleged that they conducted an offering fraud while selling AIC promissory notes and stock to numerous investors across multiple states, many of whom were elderly or unsophisticated brokerage customers. They misrepresented and omitted material information about the investments when pitching them to investors, including the safety and risk associated with the investments, the rates of return, and how the proceeds would be used by AIC. In reality, AIC and its subsidiaries were never profitable, and Skaltsounis and the companies used money raised from new investors to pay back principal and returns to existing investors.
The court imposed permanent injunctions against AIC, Community Bankers Securities, and Skaltsounis for future violations of Sections 5(a), 5(c), and 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933 as well as Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5.