SunTrust Investment Services Disciplined for Unit Investment Trust Activities.

SunTrust Investment Services brokers, as I understand it, sit in banks. They wait for bank clients to come in and try to sell them securities. Generally, these clients are not experienced investors who are seeking out a stockbroker, active trading or margin accounts. They are customers who remember when CDs paid 5% per year and thought that was low.

In these low interest rate markets, it is not unusual for the average CD buyer to become a “yield hog” and look for something that is paying more than the 1 – 3% the bank is offering. These clients, for the most part, only look at current yield and don’t consider that the underlying value will fluctuate. Bank brokers have disclosures that they are required to make, but the customers frequently just don’t pay attention to them.

FINRA just ordered SunTrust Investment Services to pay $1.44 million in fines and disgorgement for unsuitable, mostly short-term, transactions in Unit Investment Trusts, Closed-End Funds and Mutual Funds. (when you click on the link, you will need to go to the last pages of the FINRA newsletter.) FINRA found that two brokers in the Maryland area were short-term trading these “packaged products” which was unsuitable.

The “packaged products” are not short-term vehicles. FINRA has pointed this out before. Branch Managers are supposed to pick this up. They are supposed to look for “red flags” indicating possible violations. In this case, the manager ignored the red flags and was suspended as a principal for six months and fined $10,000. One of the two brokers has been barred from the industry. The other broker still has charges pending.

The irony of this whole story is that these transactions last took place in 2006 and FINRA’s disciplinary system just ruled. So four years later, when one broker is gone, the manager suspended and the other broker still fighting, SunTrust pays a big penalty (for me, anyway) and moves on. That’s the cost of doing business. Will it change the way SunTrust does business, one would hope it would. But the systems were in place already and the warnings were ignored. Maybe next time?

That’s the view of one lawyer from Jupiter, Palm Beach County, Florida. I’m Marc Dobin

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