Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Concerns have been expressed that municipal securities would be the next big headline fraud, as retail investors engage in the perennial search for safety with higher returns than CDs. Today FINRA announced initiatives to survey retail sales practices in the municipal securities market, promote investor protection in that market and give retail investors online tools and information that will help them make informed investment decisions when trading in that market.
FINRA investigators currently are conducting sweeps to gather information in three distinct areas. One broad sweep is looking at industry sales and supervisory practices with respect to sales of municipal bonds to retail investors. Firms are being asked to provide FINRA with detailed data on a range of retail muni bond transactions during the first quarter of this year. The requested information includes sales data, marketing data, pricing data and procedures, disclosure practices, customer complaints and supervisory procedures and practices.
A second, more targeted sweep is examining potential conflicts, disclosure practices and marketing by firms underwriting municipal securities involving swaps and derivatives for small municipalities. These highly complex instruments typically allow municipalities to finance debt with lower variable interest rates than they would receive through a fixed offering, but involve significant interest rate and repayment acceleration risks through the swap contracts - something that has recently caused much-publicized financial distress for municipalities such as Jefferson County, AL, and the Erie, PA, School District. A third, narrowly targeted sweep is seeking information from firms that engaged in retail sales of certain so-called municipal Gas Bonds that were underwritten and guaranteed by the now-defunct Lehman Brothers and quickly became distressed.
Also as part of its municipal bond initiative, FINRA today issued a Regulatory Notice to securities firms and brokers reminding them of their ongoing obligation to disclose material information to customers - including changes in the financial condition of the issuing municipality - as well as their obligations regarding suitability of recommendations to customers and supervision of the firm's municipal securities activities. At the same time, to help the investing public better understand and mitigate the risks of investing in municipal bonds, FINRA today issued an Investor Alert called Municipal Bonds — Staying on the Safe Side of the Street in Rough Times, as well as an online Muni Bond Check List, which provides a step-by-step guide to help investors avoid the most common pitfalls of muni bond investing.