WASHINGTON — The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced today that it has fined Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc. $8 million for failing to waive mutual fund sales charges for certain charities and retirement accounts. FINRA also ordered Merrill Lynch to pay $24.4 million in restitution to affected customers, in addition to $64.8 million the firm has already repaid to disadvantaged investors.
Mutual funds offer several classes of shares, each with different sales charges and fees. Typically, Class A shares have lower fees than Class B and C shares, but charge customers an initial sales charge. Many mutual funds waive their upfront sales charges for retirement accounts and some waive these charges for charities.
Most of the mutual funds available on Merrill Lynch's retail platform offered such waivers to retirement plan accounts and disclosed those waivers in their prospectuses. However, at various times since at least January 2006, Merrill Lynch did not waive the sales charges for affected customers when it offered Class A shares. As a result, approximately 41,000 small business retirement plan accounts, and approximately 6,800 charities and 403(b) retirement accounts available to ministers and employees of public schools, either paid sales charges when purchasing Class A shares, or purchased other share classes that unnecessarily subjected them to higher ongoing fees and expenses. Merrill Lynch learned in 2006 that its small business retirement plan customers were overpaying, but continued to sell them more costly shares and failed to report the issue to FINRA for more than five years.
Brad Bennett, FINRA's Executive Vice President and Chief of Enforcement, said, "Merrill Lynch failed to offer available waivers to customers, including small business retirement accounts and charitable organizations. FINRA's commitment to investor protection is highlighted by the significant restitution component of this settlement, which reinforces that investors must be able to trust that their brokerage firm will offer the lowest-cost share classes available to them. When firms fail to do so, we will take appropriate action."
Merrill Lynch's written supervisory procedures provided little information or guidance on mutual fund sales charge waivers. Even after the firm learned that it was not providing sales charge waivers to eligible accounts, Merrill Lynch relied on its financial advisors to waive the charges, but failed to adequately supervise the sale of these products or properly train or notify its financial advisors about lower-cost alternatives.
In concluding this settlement, Merrill Lynch neither admitted nor denied the charges, but consented to the entry of FINRA's findings.
FINRA's investigation was conducted by the Departments of Enforcement and Member Regulation.
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 2013, members of the public used this service to conduct 16.5 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.