FINRA Also Fines Wells Fargo $1.25 Million and Banc of America $900,000
WASHINGTON — The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced today that it has fined two firms a total of $2.15 million and ordered the firms to pay more than $3 million in restitution to customers for losses incurred from unsuitable sales of floating-rate bank loan funds. FINRA ordered Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC, as successor for Wells Fargo Investments, LLC, to pay a fine of $1.25 million and to reimburse approximately $2 million in losses to 239 customers. FINRA ordered Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated, as successor for Banc of America Investment Services, Inc., to pay a fine of $900,000 and to reimburse approximately $1.1 million in losses to 214 customers.
Floating-rate bank loan funds are mutual funds that generally invest in a portfolio of secured senior loans made to entities whose credit quality is rated below investment-grade. The funds are subject to significant credit risks and can also be illiquid.
FINRA found that Wells Fargo and Banc of America brokers recommended concentrated purchases of floating-rate bank loan funds to customers whose risk tolerance, investment objectives, and financial conditions were inconsistent with the risks and features of floating-rate loan funds. The customers were seeking to preserve principal, or had conservative risk tolerances, and brokers made recommendations to purchase floating-rate loan funds without having reasonable grounds to believe that the purchases were suitable for the customers. FINRA also found that the firms failed to train their sales forces regarding the unique risks and characteristics of the funds, and failed to reasonably supervise the sales of floating-rate bank loan funds.
Brad Bennett, FINRA's Vice President and Chief of Enforcement, said, "As investors continue to look for yield in a low-interest-rate environment, these actions should serve as a reminder that brokers and their firms need to ensure that investment recommendations are consistent with customers' investment objectives and risk tolerances. Wells Fargo and Banc of America allowed their brokers to sell floating-rate bank loan funds to investors for whom the positions were unsuitable, resulting in significant losses to many customers."
In concluding the settlement, Wells Fargo and Banc of America neither admitted nor denied the charges, but consented to the entry of FINRA's findings.
FINRA's investigation was conducted by Thomas Kimbrell and Wendy Velez, under the supervision of Joshua Doolittle and Thomas Lawson.
Investors can obtain more information about, and the disciplinary record of, any FINRA-registered broker or brokerage firm by using FINRA's BrokerCheck. FINRA makes BrokerCheck available at no charge. In 2012, members of the public used this service to conduct 14.6 million reviews of broker or firm records. Investors can access BrokerCheck at www.finra.org/brokercheck or by calling (800) 289-9999. Investors may find copies of this disciplinary action as well as other disciplinary documents in FINRA's Disciplinary Actions Online database.
FINRA, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, is the largest independent regulator for all securities firms doing business in the United States. FINRA is dedicated to investor protection and market integrity through effective and efficient regulation and complementary compliance and technology-based services. FINRA touches virtually every aspect of the securities business – from registering and educating all industry participants to examining securities firms, writing rules, enforcing those rules and the federal securities laws, informing and educating the investing public, providing trade reporting and other industry utilities, and administering the largest dispute resolution forum for investors and firms. For more information, please visit www.finra.org.