On November 30, 2016, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced that it had fined Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. $6.25 million and ordered the firm to pay approximately $780,000 in restitution for inadequately supervising its customers’ use of leverage in their Merrill brokerage accounts.
According to the FINRA press release, Merrill “loan management accounts” (LMAs) are lines of credit that allow the firm’s customers to borrow money from an affiliated bank using the securities held in their brokerage accounts as collateral. FINRA found that from January 2010 through November 2014, Merrill lacked adequate supervisory systems and procedures regarding its customers’ use of proceeds from these LMAs. More specifically, FINRA found that although both Merrill policy and the terms of the non-purpose LMA agreements prohibited customers from using LMA proceeds to buy many types of securities, the firm’s supervisory systems and procedures were not reasonably designed to detect or prevent such use. FINRA further found that during the relevant period, on thousands of occasions, Merrill brokerage accounts collectively bought hundreds of millions of dollars of securities within 14 days after receiving incoming transfers of LMA proceeds.
FINRA separately found that from January 2010 through July 2013, Merrill lacked adequate supervisory systems and procedures to ensure the suitability of transactions in certain Puerto Rican securities, including municipal bonds and closed-end funds, where customers’ holdings were highly concentrated in such securities and highly leveraged through either LMAs or margin. FINRA further found that during the relevant period, 25 leveraged customers with modest net worths and conservative or moderate investment objectives, and with 75 percent or more of their account assets invested in Puerto Rican securities, suffered aggregate losses of nearly $1.2 million as a result of liquidating those securities to meet margin calls. Merrill has already reimbursed some customers and, as part of the settlement, will pay approximately $780,000 in restitution to the remaining 22 customers affected.
If you are an individual or institutional investor who has any concerns about your accounts and/or investments with Merrill Lynch, please contact us for a no-cost and no-obligation evaluation of your specific facts and circumstances. You may have a viable claim for recovery of your investment losses by filing an individual securities arbitration claim with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).