The auction rate securities mess is heating up for Charles Schwab. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is expected to soon file a lawsuit against San Francisco-based Schwab over issues related to the company’s marketing and sales of auction rate securities (ARS) to retail and institutional investors. Cuomo announced last month that he intended to take legal action against the brokerage unless it agreed to an ARS settlement and a buy-program to repurchase the auction rate securities from clients.
Since no deal has materialized, Cuomo will likely proceed with a civil fraud lawsuit against Schwab, according to an Aug. 17 story in the Wall Street Journal. As part of the lawsuit, Cuomo will present transcripts of recorded conversations between Schwab brokers and its clients, revealing how the auction rate securities were misrepresented by Schwab.
In one exchange between a Schwab broker and a client, the customer says: “You know, I’m not trying to make a ton of money. I just want to play it safe.” The broker responds: “The hardest part of this auction is getting into it. That is the tough part. Getting out is easy as just selling.”
Auction rate securities are considered long-term debt instruments that act as a short-term investment because of the manner in which they are resold. Interest rates on the products are reset at weekly or monthly auctions. When the market for auction rate securities collapsed in February 2008, thousands of retail and institutional investors became stuck with an illiquid investment.
Faced with potential lawsuits from state and federal securities regulators, a number of Wall Street firms that underwrote auction rate securities, including Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, UBS and J.P. Morgan Chase, agreed to buy back more than $60 billion of the instruments from customers.
Several retail brokerages, however, opted not to participate in the buy-back programs. Specifically, some “distributors” of auction rate securities continue to leave their clients with no solution to the financial losses they’ve suffered because of ARS investments.
When the market for auction-rate securities collapsed last year, Schwab’s clients were stuck with $789 million of the securities.
Schwab’s hold-out to avoid any type of settlement with regulators comes on the heels of recent agreements by two retail brokers to buy back millions of dollars in auction rate securities from clients. In July, Fidelity Investments and TD Ameritrade both agreed to repurchase $756 million of the securities from customers.
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