July 29, 2011
FINRA Fines SunTrust $5 Million for ARS Practices
The FINRA recently announced that it fined SunTrust Robinson Humphrey, Inc. (SunTrust RH) and SunTrust Investment Services, Inc. (SunTrust IS) for violations related to the sale of auction rate securities (ARS). SunTrust RH, which underwrote the ARS, was fined $4.6 million for failing to adequately disclose the increased risk that auctions could fail, sharing material non-public information, using sales material that did not adequately disclose the risks associated with ARS, and having inadequate supervisory procedures and training concerning the sales and marketing of ARS. SunTrust IS was fined $400,000 for having deficient ARS sales material, procedures and training.
FINRA found that beginning in late summer 2007, SunTrust RH became aware of stresses in the ARS market that raised the risk that auctions might fail. At the same time, SunTrust RH was told by its parent, SunTrust Bank, to reduce its use of the bank's capital and began to examine whether it had the financial capability in the event of a major market disruption to support all ARS in which it acted as the sole or lead broker-dealer. As these stresses increased, the firm failed to adequately disclose the increased risk to its sales representatives while encouraging them to sell SunTrust RH-led ARS issues in order to reduce the firm's inventory. As a result, certain SunTrust RH sales representatives continued to sell these ARS as safe and liquid. In February 2008, SunTrust RH stopped supporting ARS auctions, knowing that those auctions would fail and the ARS would become illiquid.
In addition, both SunTrust RH and SunTrust IS used advertising and marketing materials that were not fair and balanced, and did not provide a sound basis for evaluating all the facts about purchasing ARS. Specifically, the materials did not contain adequate disclosure of all the risks of ARS, including adequately disclosing the risk that ARS auctions could fail, rendering the investments illiquid for substantial periods of time. Both firms failed to maintain adequate supervisory procedures and training concerning their sales and marketing of ARS.
This action concludes the agreements in principle with FINRA that were previously announced in Sept. 2008 and withdrawn in May 2009. SunTrust RH and SunTrust IS voluntarily repurchased approximately $381 million and $262 million of ARS, respectively, from their customers after FINRA began its investigation. In addition, as part of the settlements, the firms will participate in a special FINRA-administered arbitration program for eligible investors to resolve investor claims for consequential damages.
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