A June 11 blog by the Wall Street Journal illustrates a growing trend on Wall Street – the sophisticated investor defense. The premise is simple: If the complex financial products that Wall Street markets and sells go south, it’s the investor’s problem. After all, the products are geared to those who are financially savvy. They should have therefore known the risks involved.
In reality, even the most sophisticated investor may be unaware of the complexities and risks surrounding some of today’s investments. Moreover, even the “average” investor gets burned in these deals, usually through pension funds that participate in the investments.
A recent case involving Merrill Lynch and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) is a perfect example. Merrill Lynch’s CDO deals were sold to institutional and retail investors. In other words, so-called sophisticated and less-than-sophisticated investors were part of the sales pitch. It also apparently was common fare for Merrill Lynch to sell retail investors the lowest-rated CDO slices of the deals.
Investors like the Slomacks ultimately paid the price, according to the WSJ article. The Slomacks invested $2.65 million in several Merrill-issued CDOs, losing all but $16,500. They have since filed an arbitration claim against Merrill Lynch with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).
Another investment firm looking to employ the “sophisticated investor” defense over CDO deals gone bad is Goldman Sachs. For more than a year, Goldman has faced intense questioning by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations about its CDO dealings, while investors contend Goldman used deceptive sales practices to market billions of dollars’ worth of the products. To date, the probes have cost Goldman $25 billion in market capitalization, according to a June 14 article by Reuters.
In April, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a civil fraud lawsuit against Goldman Sachs over a CDO called Abacus 2007. The Abacus transactions were synthetic collateralized debt obligations – financial products that many financial analysts say were largely responsible for the worst collapse in financial markets since the Great Depression.