On June 4, 2020, FINRA issued a press release detailing wrongdoing in the handling of mutual funds by Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc and the resulting settlement. FINRA found that Merrill Lynch did not have an adequate system for ensuring that customers received mutual fund sales charge waivers and fee rebates. Customers were entitled to these funds through rights of reinstatement offered by mutual fund companies. Mutual fund companies often offer customers waivers on up-front sales charges when they repurchase shares of either the same fund that they invested in before, or another fund in the same family. Merrill Lynch customers paid approximately $6 million in improper sales charges and fees between April 2011 and April 2017. The firm relied on a rudimentary alert system to determine whether or not a customer was owed waivers/rebates, but it was nowhere near adequate.
The up-front sales charges which Merrill Lynch customers were improperly charged for typically go to Merrill Lynch’s brokers, who have an incentive to charge customers as much as they can. In this instance, FINRA lauded Merrill Lynch for its openness in its investigation, but this does not always happen. As a result of its violations, Merrill Lynch agreed to a censure and approximately $7.25 million in restitution plus interest.
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