Any well-diversified investment portfolio should include common stock. Many investors are wary of the prospect of market volatility and require the services of a professional stockbroker to manage their holdings. Honest stockbrokers can recommend and execute trades to grow a client’s portfolio, making themselves a valuable aspect of the client’s investment strategy. An unethical stockbroker can cause substantial harm to the client and his or her net worth.
Stockbrokers and Fraud
Stockbrokers with few scruples may drift into outright fraud. Stockbrokers are employed to analyze market activity using sophisticated trading algorithms tempered with their own experience. The sound judgment and advice offered by stockbrokers is why their clients employ their services instead of investing with a discount brokerage firm and managing their own accounts. As a result, investors tend to trust the advice offered by their stockbrokers.
In rare cases, this advice can be self-serving. Unethical stockbrokers can act against their clients’ interests in a few ways. Since stockbrokers are paid on commission for the trades that they execute, they may recommend what amounts to an excessive trading volume. This conduct, called “churning,” involves recommending and executing large numbers of trades in a short period of time in order to accrue additional broker fees. This conduct is illegal. Not every investment strategy will involve long-term holdings and timing trades to expected market activity is critical,
Stockbrokers can also facilitate a “pump and dump” scheme. In this situation, a stockbroker advises his or her clients to invest in a stock in which he or she has an interest. This causes a rise in the market price of the stock, resulting in a bubble. The broker or a favored third party cashes out, netting a profit. Since the recommendations were not based upon any sound fundamentals, the bubble eventually collapses.
Identifying Stockbroker Fraud
Trading volume is rarely consistent over the long term. Volume will fluctuate with the client’s acceptable level of risk. A stockbroker for a risk-averse may make rare adjustments to blue-chip holdings and otherwise execute few trades. If the client is willing to accept a higher level of risk, the stockbroker may aggressively pursue markets that are more volatile. This can manifest as increased trading volume, which does not necessarily mean that the stockbroker is acting outside the client’s interests.
However, an unusually high volume of trades involving modest returns or even losses should alarm the investor. In these circumstances, the stockbroker may be churning, resulting in any gains for the investor disappearing in brokerage fees. If an investor is comfortable with a moderate or high level of risk and a moderate or high level of volume, he or she should discuss that with the broker before agreeing to such a trading strategy. If the broker begins executing seemingly random trades with little justification, the investor may be a victim of illegal churning.
Identifying a pump and dump scheme can be difficult as well. Small companies may issue stock that can be traded over-the-counter with a service called OTC Link, which is owned by OTC Markets Group, Inc. These small companies often do not provide financial reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission and are listed on the so-called “pink sheets” due to an inability to meet the listing requirements on a large national exchange. Their share prices are usually very low; many are called “penny stocks” for this reason.
The lack of reporting means that little information is available about some of these companies. Furthermore, the relatively small trading volume makes them extremely susceptible to market volatility, resulting in high profits for someone operating a pump and dump scheme. If a stockbroker recommends a company not listed on a major exchange like the New York Stock Exchange, the client should thoroughly research the company and ask the stockbroker for as much information about the issuer as possible.
Penny stocks are also an area of debate in some financial circles. Many small companies produce legitimate income and present real growth opportunities to investors; however, the volatile and unregulated nature of the market makes them risky investments. If the broker aggressively pushes for large investments in a stock not listed on a major exchange, insists upon immediate action, dissuades the client from alternative investments, and has little information available about the issuer, the client should avoid executing the trade, as the broker may be acting outside the client’s interests.
Reporting Stockbroker Fraud
If a victim feels that he or she was the victim of unlawful conduct by a stockbroker, he or she should contact the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Among other things, the SEC regulates stockbrokers. The SEC has recovered over $2.6 billion in fines and penalties for investors through its enforcement actions and it has the power to bar stockbrokers from working in the financial sector, thus ensuring that a malicious stockbroker will not continue to defraud other investors. The SEC may also suspend trading of particular stock due to violations of securities laws.
Contacting an attorney is also prudent if one believes that he or she is the victim of fraud. Fraudulent misrepresentation is a tort involving the misrepresentation of a material fact in order to induce a detrimental reliance by the victim. If an expert misrepresents an opinion to a layperson, such as with a stockbroker extolling the virtues of a company in which he or she has an interest, his or her conduct may qualify as fraudulent. Injured parties should not count on government agencies bringing enforcement actions against white-collar criminals to compensate them for their injuries; settlements are more common than prison terms and massive fines. An experienced attorney can provide victimized investors with sound, practical advice on moving forward with a civil action.
Kelly Dennie is an investor and freelance writer. Page Perry LLC,stock broker fraud attorneys litigates against those brokers who breach their duties which violate legal rights. A broker is obligated to recommend those stocks that are practically believed to be suitable for a given investor with the investor’s investment objectives in mind. The agent must know and include in their investment strategy for the client the client’s level of risk tolerance, monetary condition and needs, tax status, other investments held, and all other pertinent information. Then, agent must act within legal bounds on behalf of the client.
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