FINRA Fines Wells Fargo $2 Million for Unsuitable Sales of Reverse Convertibles to Elderly Customers and Failure to Provide Breakpoints on UIT Sales
Firm Agrees to Pay Restitution to Affected Customers
WASHINGTON — The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced today that it has fined Wells Fargo Investments, LLC, $2 million for unsuitable sales of reverse convertible securities through one broker to 21 customers, and for failing to provide sales charge discounts on Unit Investment Trust (UIT) transactions to eligible customers. As part of the settlement, the firm is required to pay restitution to customers who did not receive UIT sales charge discounts and to provide restitution to certain customers found to have unsuitable reverse convertible transactions.
FINRA also filed a complaint against Alfred Chi Chen, the former Wells Fargo registered representative who recommended and sold the unsuitable reverse convertibles, and made unauthorized trades in several customer accounts, including accounts of deceased customers.
Brad Bennett, FINRA Executive Vice President and Chief of Enforcement, said, "Wells Fargo failed to review reverse convertible transactions to ensure they were suitable and also did not provide sales charge discounts to eligible customers purchasing unit investment trusts, both serious failings that harmed investors."
Reverse convertibles are interest-bearing notes in which repayment of principal is tied to the performance of an underlying asset, such as a stock or basket of stocks. Depending on the specific terms of the reverse convertible, an investor risks sustaining a loss if the value of the underlying asset falls below a certain level at maturity or during the term of the reverse convertible.
FINRA found that Chen recommended hundreds of unsuitable reverse convertible investments to 21 clients, most of whom were elderly and/or had limited investment experience and low risk tolerance. As of June 2008, Chen had 172 accounts that held reverse convertibles, with 148 of those accounts having concentrations greater than 50 percent of their total account holdings, and 46 having concentrations greater than 90 percent. Fifteen of the 21 customers were over 80 years old. The reverse convertible transactions exposed these customers to risk inconsistent with their investment profiles, and resulted in overly concentrated reverse convertible positions in their accounts.
FINRA also found that Wells Fargo failed to provide certain eligible customers with breakpoint and rollover and exchange discounts in their sales of UITs because the firm had insufficient systems and procedures to monitor for unsuitable reverse convertible sales and to ensure that UIT customers received discounts for which they were entitled.
UITs offer sales charge discounts on purchases that exceed certain thresholds ("breakpoints") or involve redemption or termination proceeds from another UIT during the initial offering period. Between January 2006 and July 2008, Wells Fargo failed to provide certain eligible customers with these "breakpoint" and "rollover and exchange" discounts.
In concluding these settlements, Wells Fargo neither admitted nor denied the charges, but consented to the entry of FINRA's findings.
FINRA's investigation was conducted by Sandra Del Buono, Jeffrey Pariser, Justin Chretien and Jessica Hopper.
Under FINRA rules, a firm or individual named in a complaint can file a response and request a hearing before a FINRA disciplinary panel. Possible remedies include a fine, censure, suspension or bar from the securities industry; disgorgement of gains associated with the violations; and payment of restitution. The issuance of a disciplinary complaint represents the initiation of a formal proceeding by FINRA in which findings as to the allegations in the complaint have not been made and does not represent a decision as to any of the allegations contained in the complaint. Because this complaint is unadjudicated, interested persons may wish to contact the respondent before drawing any conclusions regarding the allegations in the complaint.
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 2010, members of the public used this service to conduct 17.2 million reviews of broker or firm records. Investors can access BrokerCheck online 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 non-governmental 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 and enforcing 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 registered firms. For more information, please visit our website at www.finra.org.