Although many of the thousands of cases investors in Puerto Rico bonds and closed-end funds have brought over the last five years have focused on UBS Financial Services Incorporated of Puerto Rico (“UBS-PR”), other brokerage firms in the Commonwealth engaged in the same wrongful sales practices. One such firm that has also been the subject of many new FINRA arbitrations and other lawsuits is Santander Securities, LLC (“Santander”), a division of Banco Santander Puerto Rico. The large number of cases against Santander are not a surprise given the public information about Santander. For example, Bloomberg reports that between the ends of 2012 and 2013, Santander marketed and sold over $280 million in Puerto Rico municipal bonds and close-end funds while reportedly selling its own holdings of these same securities.
Santander also has a regulatory history that suggests ongoing problems with the Puerto Rico operations for the bank. For example, in 2011, Santander settled allegations from FINRA of deficiencies in Santander’s structured product business, including those involving the sale of reverse-convertible securities to Puerto Rican retail customers when such investments were often unsuitable for them. FINRA also accused the brokerage firm of inadequate supervision of structured product sales. Santander agreed to pay a $2 million fine for these alleged deficiencies. More recently, in 2015, FINRA fined Santander $2 million and ordered restitution to Santander customers of an additional $4.3 million for Santander’s sales practices related to Puerto Rico bonds and closed-end funds. In particular, FINRA found that Santander’s supervisory system did not accurately reflect the risk of Puerto Rico investments in the period leading up to the collapse of the Puerto Rico market in 2013 and 2014. However, Santander was aware of the increased risk, and according to FINRA, instead of informing its clients of these increased risks, used that knowledge to sell its entire inventory of Puerto Rico investments by the end of October 2013, and thus missing much of the losses Santander’s own clients suffered.
In other Puerto Rico news, the 1st Circuit court of invalidated the PROMESA board which provides oversight for restructuring local debt. After the board placed Puerto Rico in a bankruptcy like process, many hedge funds and institutional corporate investors were unhappy as their investments were now in jeopardy. These entities filed a constitutional challenge to the way the board was appointed and eventually won on appeal. The ruling was not much of a win however, as the 1st Circuit refused to invalidate the board’s prior actions, which included placing Puerto Rico in the bankruptcy like proceedings, even though they invalidated the board itself.