Articles Posted in Municipal Securities Offerings

Four years after Puerto Rico brought to market what became its biggest and final issuance of junk bonds, a 600-page report by disputes and investigative international law firm Kobre & Kim suggests that Banco Popular de Puerto Rico (BPPR) could potentially be held liable for losses related to the issuance. The findings are part of the efforts of the U.S. territory’s Financial Oversight and Management Board to look into what caused the island’s current financial crisis. To date, Puerto Rico remains in over $120 billion in debt as a result of bond issuances and pension liabilities. Thousands of investors continue to file Puerto Rico bond fraud and closed-end bond fund claims to recover their losses sustained when the securities plunged in value in 2013.

According to Kobe & Kim’s findings, while initially both Citigroup (C) and Banco Popular cautioned against yet another junk bond issuance in the wake of the financial challenges Puerto Rico was facing at the time, Banco Popular became part of the syndicate of banks that participated in the $3.5B issuance, profiting in the process. The report indicates, while making clear that the findings are not legal advice, that Banco Popular could potentially be held liable for claim and repayments related to Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy process. Kobe & Kim’s findings are primarily related to a memo that Citigroup and Banco Popular sent to then-Government Development Bank President David Chafey, which included that they did not think the bond issuance was a good idea.

Still, both banks proposed providing instant liquidity backed by taxes in return for the Puerto Rico government approving a balanced budget law, an additional financial control law, and a supervisory group with members appointed by the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve. Citigroup eventually opted not to take part in the bond issuance.

A new restructuring agreement has been reached between the Power Utility Company of Puerto Rico, referred to locally as PREPA, and its creditors on how to restructure $8.9 billion in Puerto Rico debt.The deal, which must still be approved by the federally appointed oversight board, comes before the May 1 deadline that the US territory must meet to arrive at such settlements with creditors. After May 1, members of the US-government appointed federal oversight board would have the authority to effect a quasi-bankruptcy process and make creditors agree to deals that likely would not favor creditors.

Of the about $70 billion of municipal debt that Puerto Rico owes, roughly $9 billion involves PREPA. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello issued a statement noting that if approved, the agreement between PREPA and bondholders could save $2.2 billion in debt servicing expenses for five years while lowering customer electric bills by $90/year during the same period.

Under the original agreement, PREPA bondholders were to trade their bonds for new securities while receiving a 15% discount. With this new agreement, creditors would take the same reduction but maturities would be extended to 2047. Additionally, under the new deals, the requirement of an investment grade rating to close the deal would be eliminated. Insurers, such as Assured Guaranty and MBIA Inc., also consented to another $300 million in deferral of principal during the first six years.

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FINRA Suspends Broker For Accepting $105K in Gifts

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc. has suspended a former Merrill Lynch broker, Adam C. Smith, from the securities industry for a year. The former Merrill Lynch broker, who was fired from the firm, will pay a $10K fine.

According to the self-regulatory organization, while at Merrill Lynch, Smith and his wife accepted $26K in checks from a couple whom he represented. The money was to help fund the education of Smith’s children. When one of the clients passed away, the remaining spouse gifted Smith and his wife another $53K, again to pay for their kids’ education. Smith received $26K from other clients.

Although he is settling, the ex-Merrill Lynch broker is not denying or admitting to FINRA’s findings.

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The Puerto Rico government has defaulted on more debt payments that were due to bondholders. The U.S. Territory did not meet the February 1, 2017 due date on $312 million in principal plus interest. The default includes Puerto Rico General Obligation bonds that are supposed to be constitutionally protected.

The Puerto Rican Government Development Bank owes $279 million of the defaulted debt. A spokesperson for Puerto Rico’s Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, however, said that the Commonwealth paid $295 million of interest, which was due on some of the debt.

Puerto Rico owes $70 billion of debt and the island has been embroiled in financial troubles for over three years. The territory has struggled to pay back the debt it owes, defaulting more than once on payments that were due. Last weekend, Puerto Rico’s federal oversight board voted to extend the stay placed on litigation against the island for debt payments that have been missed. The stay was supposed to lift on February 15, 2017. Now that date is May 1, 2017.

The island’s new governor, Ricardo Rosselló, was also granted an extension for when he has to turn in a fiscal blueprint, mapping out how Puerto Rico plans to restore its fiscal health. He now has until February 28, 2017.

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According to sources, an announcement is expected this week regarding the sale of UBS Puerto Rico’s (UBS-PR) mutual funds operations to BlackRock Asset Management (BLK). The move, say sources, is part of the Swiss giant’s strategy to exit the island.

To date, investors have filed nearly $1 billion in securities arbitration claims against UBS Puerto Rico alleging fraud and other wrongdoing in the sale of the funds. The broker-dealer recently consented to pay a fine of $5.2 million over fund improprieties. The settlement, reached with the Commonwealth’s Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions, included $1.7 million in restitution to 34 local low net-worth residents who had invested in Puerto Rico closed-end bond funds that were sold by UBS.

One investor was not happy with the settlement and some of the terms and individuals involved, which have not been disclosed. He is now suing the regulator. Last week, Martínez-Umpierre asked a local court to order the release of the confidential documents used to arrive at the settlement. He wants to find out how the 34 investors who will be getting restitution were chosen and how much they lost. Investors who have filed Financial Industry Regulatory Authority arbitration claims against UBS are not eligible for compensation either.

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Jo White wants significant reforms made to the bond market. Speaking at the Economic Club of New York, White spoke about how trading in these fixed income markets are “highly decentralized.”

She expressed concern that technology was being used in these markets to make this decentralized approach to trading more beneficial for market intermediaries.

According to Reuters, White’s speech is a sign that the SEC is at last making an effort to implement recommendations it made in 2012 about the $3.7 million municipal securities market. The regulator is launching an initiative that would mandate that alternative trading systems and other electronic dealer networks make available to the public their best prices for municipal bonds and corporate bonds. This should give smaller retail investors, and not just certain select parties, pre-trading price data.

MSRB Makes Defining Fiduciary Duty Central to Developing Municipal Advisor Regulatory System

Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board says that in coming up with a regulatory system for municipal advisors it’s number one priority is to get clear about the statutory fiduciary duty that these entities would owe to their local and state government clients. The MSRB’s board of directors has asked staff to create a rule proposal that would give guidance on the fiduciary obligation that municipalities have to municipal entities.

Following the release of the fiduciary duty proposal for comments, there also will be proposals about rules addressing possible pay-to-play activities in the industry, municipal advisory firms’ supervisory requirements, limits on gratuities and gifts to those who work for municipal securities issuers and other participants in the market, and solicitor duties. Along with the proposals, the MSRB plans to create a professional qualifications program geared for municipal advisors and perform outreach and education initiatives.

The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations has put out an alert reminding broker-dealers about what their supervisory and due diligence duties are when it comes to underwriting municipal securities offerings. According to the examination staff, there are financial firms that are not maintaining enough written evidence to show that they are in compliance with their responsibilities as they related to supervision and due diligence. OCIE Director Carlo di Florio stressed how sufficient due diligence when determining the operational and financial condition of municipalities and states before selling their securities, is key to investor protection.

The SEC has also issued an Investor Bulletin to provide individual investors with key information about municipal bonds. Its Office of Investor Education and Advocacy wants to make sure investors know that the risks involved include:

Call risk: the possibility that an issuer will have to pay back a bond before it matures, which can occur if interest rates drop.

Credit risk: The chance that financial problems may result for the bond issuer, making it challenging or impossible to pay back principal and interest in full.

Interest rate risk: Should US interest rates go up, investors with a low fixed-rate municipal bond who try to sell the bond prior to maturity might lose money.

Inflation risk: Inflation can lower buying power, which can prove harmful for investors that are getting a fixed income rate.

Liquidity risk: In the event that an investor is unable to find an active market for the municipal bond, this could stop them from selling or buying when they want to or getting a certain bond price.

As a municipal bond buyer, an investor is lending money to the bond issuer (usually a state, city, county, or other government entity) in return for the promise of regular interest payments and the return of principal. The maturity date of a municipal bond, which is when the bond issuer would pay back the principal, might be years-especially for long-term bonds. Short-term bonds have a maturity date of one to three years.

In other stockbroker fraud news, Citigroup Inc. (C) subsidiary Citi International Financial Services LLC has agreed to pay almost $1.25 million in restitution and fines to settle claims by FINRA that it charged excessive markups and markdowns on corporate and agency bond transactions between July 2007 and September 2010. The SRO says that the markdowns and markups ranged from 2.73% to over 10% and were too much if you factor in the market’s condition during that time period, how much it actually cost to complete the transactions, and the services that the clients were actually provided. FINRA also claims Citi International failed to exercise “reasonable diligence” to ensure that clients were billed the most favorable price possible. To settle the SRO’s claims, Citi International will pay about $648,000 in restitution, plus interest, and a $600,000 fine.

Also, a man falsely claiming to be an investment advisor has pleaded guilty to securities fraud. Telson Okhio, president of the purported financial firm Ohio Group Holdings Inc., has pleaded guilty to wire fraud over a financial scam that defrauded one Hawaiian investor of about $1 million.

Okhio solicited $5 million from the investor while claiming that the money would be invested in the foreign currency exchange market using a $100 million trading platform. He said the investment was risk-free and would earn 200% during the first month. Okhio is accused of immediately taking $1 million of the investor’s money and placing the funds in his personal account. He faces up to 20 years behind bars.

Investor Bulletin: Municipal Bonds,
Individual Posing as Investment Advisor Pleads Guilty to Wire Fraud Charges, FBI, March 16, 2012

FINRA Fines Citi International Financial $600,000 and Orders Restitution of $648,000 for Excessive Markups and Markdowns, FINRA, March 19, 2012

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Principals of Global Arena Capital Corp. and Berthel, Fisher & Company Financial Services, Inc. Settle FINRA Securities Allegations, Stockbroker Fraud Blog, April 6, 2012

CFTC Says RBC Took Part in Massive Trading Scam to Avail of Tax Benefits, Stockbroker Fraud Blog, April 4, 2012
Wirehouses Struggle to Retain Their Share of the High-Net-Worth-Market, Institutional Investor Securities Blog, April 6, 2012 Continue Reading ›

Four ex- San Diego officials will pay $80,000 in fines to resolve municipal bond charges by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly misleading investors. Never before has the SEC obtained financial penalties against a city’s officials for municipal securities fraud. By agreeing to settle, ex-San Diego City Manager Michael Uberuaga, ex-Deputy City Manager for Finance Patricia Frazier, ex-Auditor and Comptroller Edward Ryan, and ex-City Treasurer Mary Vattimo are not denying or admitting to the charges. There are still charges pending against San Diego’s ex-Assistant Auditor and Comptroller Teresa Webster.

The SEC filed its securities fraud charges against the former city officials in 2008. The officials are accused of knowing that the city of San Diego had purposely underfunded its pension obligations to increase benefits will deferring costs. The SEC also contends that the ex- officials understood that without cuts to city services, employee benefits, or new revenues, it would be difficult to fund future retirement obligations. Yet the former officials allegedly did not let investors know about the serious funding problems and made false and misleading statements in 2002 and 2003.

Regulators contend that when San Diego sold over $260 million in bonds, city officials did not disclose that the pension deficit was expected to hit $2 billion in 2009. According to Rosalind Tyson, the director of the SEC’s Los Angeles Regional Office, municipal officials are obligated to make sure that investors get accurate and full information about the financial condition of an issuer.

Related Web Resources:

Former San Diego officials settle with SEC, The San Diego Union Tribune, October 26, 2010.

Former San Diego Officials to Pay Penalties in SEC Municipal Bond Fraud Case, Asset International October 29, 2010
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Congressman Spencer Bachus (R – Ala) says the Securities and Exchange Commission should have done more to probe alleged wrongdoings in the municipal securities market. Bachus issued a statement noting that the SEC knew as far back as 1997 of a potential “pay to play” scam involving water and sewer bonds in Jefferson County, Alabama, which is now facing the largest municipal bankruptcy in sewer bonds at $4 billion.

Bachus says that back then, Jefferson County Commissioner Bettye Fine Collins had sent the SEC a letter telling them about the municipal bond sales, but no follow up letter was sent to her. The congressman noted that it doesn’t appear to be an uncommon practice for the SEC to fail to use the tools to which it has access to investigation credible allegations.

Bachus said he resubmitted the original packet, along with information from 2007 to the SEC but nothing has been done to address his concerns. He also says that he provided SEC Chairman Christopher Cox with material about Jefferson County’s municipal bond indebtedness. The Commission responded by presenting a White Paper about municipal securities reform. Bacchus also noted new information has come to light indicating an “anti-trust collusion” involving investment advisers who inflated the fees that were “already outrageous.”

Jefferson County got into financial trouble when it changed from fixed rates to adjustable rates and refinanced its sewer bonds before becoming involved in complex interest rate swap agreements to hedge against higher rates. When the rates increased, Jefferson County found that it couldn’t refinance a return to fixed rates.

Last April, the SEC filed a lawsuit against Birmingham, Alabama Mayor Larry Langford, who formerly served as Jefferson County Commission president, for alleged improper payments involving the county’s bond business. While serving in the role of county president, Langford allegedly accepted over $156,000 in undisclosed benefits and cash from Blount Parris & Co. securities chairman William Blount. In exchange, Langford allegedly allowed Blount’s company to take part in all of Jefferson County’s security-based swap agreement transactions and municipal bond offerings and the firm earned over $6.7 million in fees.

Related Web Resources:
Jefferson County, Alabama

US Securities and Exchange Commission
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