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FINRA Highlights Risks of Complex Financial Products

In a speech given at the SIFMA Complex Products Forum in New York City on October 29, 2014, Susan F. Axelrod, Executive Vice President of FINRA’s Regulatory Operations, once again emphasized the regulatory concerns over the influx of money into riskier products as investors continued to search for income on their assets, assets that were becoming more complex and moving further out on the risk curve in the quest for yield.

With current yields on money market funds remaining near zero, Ms. Axelrod noted that FINRA continues to see assets moving into complex financial products and longer-duration or high-yield bond products as the average daily trades in investment-grade corporate bonds by retail investors have declined each year, while average daily trades in junk bonds continue to increase.

Among the issues that are at the forefront of regulatory concerns are whether investors are sufficiently prepared for rising interest rates and whether they fully understand how the value of their investments may change when the Federal Reserve Bank begins to raise interest rates as well as whether market professionals and their systems are prepared to maintain orderly trade amid a possible increase – potentially significant increase – in trading-environment volatility?

FINRA and other regulators remain especially concerned that investors are taking on risks that they either don’t understand or cannot afford – especially with respect to interest rate-sensitive products, as well as structured products that embed fixed income securities or fixed income features.

One of the structured retail products of particular concern is “steepeners” which are principal-protected, longer-term notes that generally have fixed-to-floating coupons, with an initial, attractive rate followed by floating rates based on the spread between long- and short-term interest rates. The higher the spread, the steeper the yield curve. Issuers are adding a “trigger” linked to an equity index. The trigger serves as a downside buffer but once the buffer is breached, the investor could potentially lose principal.

”Range accrual notes” are another popular structured retail product which offer potentially attractive yields that are linked to the performance of one or more market reference points, such as the S&P 500 Index or three-month LIBOR. The coupon on the range accrual is determined by the extent to which the reference point value stays in a fixed range during a given period. The greater the percentage of time it meets the criterion, the higher the coupon payment to the investor. Historically, these products offered full principal protection, but as with “steepeners,” FINRA is seeing increased issuance of range accrual notes with principal at risk.

A third product that continues to cause regulatory concern is alternative mutual funds, or Alt Funds, which are marketed to investors as a way to invest in complex, actively managed strategies that will perform in any number of market environments, but may be sold by financial advisors who do not understand the underlying strategies or holdings.

The fourth product highlighted by Ms. Axelrod in her comments was unconstrained bond funds which, given the the complexity of the funds’ strategies, may make it difficult for investors and registered representatives to understand how the funds may perform in various market conditions and may complicate representatives’ suitability determinations.

Finally, FINRA remains concerned about the products that primarily invest in floating-rate bank loans which, due to their high yields and the floating rate, are products that invest in leveraged loans that may be attractive to investors chasing yield and looking to protect their portfolios from rising interest rates. Despite the lower interest-rate risk, these loans carry significant credit and call risk. These loans are also relatively illiquid, trade over the counter and can be difficult to value.

As noted by Ms. Axelrod, complex products continue to present a number of challenges to firms, brokers and clients. In this environment, firms that are going to make complex products available to customers have a duty to make sure investors fully understand how the products operate and the risks of each product which begins with brokers having a full understanding of the products they sell and receiving training on the features of the product as well as their firm’s own suitability guidelines for the products.

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