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Investments

Customers Unaware that Broker was Churning Their Accounts

October 25, 2019

by Howard Haykin

 

In culinary circles, ‘churning’ is … the process of shaking up cream or whole milk to make butter, usually using a butter churn.

 

In financial services, ‘churning’ is … the practice where a broker conducts excessive trading in a customer’s account mainly to generate commissions. Churning is unethical and illegal, and can result in enormous loses – which often can never be recovered.

 

 

CASE IN POINT.    “Edward B.” was a broker with less than 4 years’ experience when he joined Craig Scott Capital, a broker-dealer that was later expelled for, among other things, putting company profits ahead of customer interests. While he was with Craig Scott, Edward B. traded all his customer accounts the same way, regardless of their investment objective, risk tolerance, age or stated financial condition – executing a constant stream of buy and sell orders, and applying enormous fees and hidden commission charges to each trade. Over 3 years and 3 months, Edward B.’s customers lost nearly $3 million, while he and Craig Scott earned almost $650,000 in commissions and fees. 

 

One customer, “EK,” lost most of his $350,000 in life savings. EK, who was 65 years old when he opened the account, had limited investment experience and this was his first time using a ‘full-service broker’. As a result, EK gave Edward B. full control over his account, relying on the broker for investment recommendations and advice.
 
Over the next 17 months, Edward B. executed 115 trades, including purchases and sales of investments that only a handful of investors know or even understand – exchange traded notes named ‘VIX Short-Term Futures ETNs’ and ’VelocityShares 3X Long Gold UTNs’.
 
All told, EK’s account paid out almost $190,000 in fees and commissions and sustained $242,000 in losses

 

 

CUSTOMER TAKE AWAYS.    Edward B.’s customers could have avoided their losses had they taken any of the following actions:

 

  • Not opened an account with Edward B. or with Craig Scott Capital after checking out their questionable disciplinary records on BrokerCheck, at FINRA.org.
  • Not given Edward B. or any other broker “Discretionary Authority” over their brokerage accounts – i.e., permission to buy and sell securities in the account without first obtaining the customer's consent for each trade.
  • Invested in publicly traded index funds that hold a diversified basket of stocks.
  • Employed a reputable broker or investment advisor that charges a fixed annual fee for managing customers’ portfolios – typically available only to investors with sizable net worth.
  • Used a friend, relative or trusted third person to serve as a “financial watchdog” who can help oversee the activities of the broker or investment advisor.

 

[Click on FINRA AWC #2015044823502 for more examples of churning in customer accounts.]