Golf

Active RIAs Keep Pitching Off-Market REITs & Unregistered 'Stuff'

Golf

As we've written countless times before, investors need to work with advisors who put their interests first, not visa-versa. Typically, that means realizing how different brokers act as opposed to registered investment advisors, particularly independent RIAs.

But now comes a potentially troublesome sign. A firm commonly reported to be the largest independent broker-dealer in the country, LPL Financial, is back in the headlines. It has agreed to pay civil fines that could total more than $26 million, according to the North American Securities Administrators Association.

Perhaps even more significantly, LPL has agreed to repurchase from investors (with interest) "certain securities" sold to them since October 2006, notes the NASAA. No estimate is being given about how much these new penalties and reimbursements to clients will tack onto the firm's final bill.

Separately, securities regulators in Utah are moving to slap $2.25 million worth of fines on LPL, Cetera Advisor Networks and CUSO Financial Services, according to InvestmentNews. The charges include "misleading" sales and advertising to credit union clients involved in each firm's networking practices, the news publication reports.

Even before these most recent incidents, LPL's estimated expenses for regulatory and legal-related matters reportedly fell somewhere between $75 million and $116 million over the past several years, depending on which source is considered. 

Another nagging issue: No matter how many millions of dollars such disgorgements wind up costing LPL, this latest "agreement" includes no mention of any plans to limit distribution of less transparent and actively managed non-registered investment products. 

Along the same lines, the firm isn't providing specifics about which investments tripped an investigation. But as InvestmentNews' veteran reporter Bruce Kelly warns, a wide range of different securities need to go through the SEC's registration process -- from illiquid private placements to even some forms of municipal bonds.

Also worth noting, Financial Planning magazine is reporting that this latest agreement is similar to one struck in 2015 in which LPL agreed to pay more than $1 million for sales of non-traded REITs.

Whether it's private-pooled equity, venture capital, non-traded REITs or even individual municipal bonds, none of these are products that IFA's advisors will recommend.

Still, this story begs more discussion of an unsavory fact that taints advisors and brokers alike pushing active investment strategies. Although it can be categorized as a b-d, LPL works with thousands of advisors at indie RIAs. The most recent industry surveys from market researchers like Cerulli Associates and the Aite Group paint a picture of an overwhelming majority of indie advisors still using active portfolio managers. So while LPL's corporate tentacles are deeply entrenched in the RIA field, this latest acknowledgement of its compliance misdeeds raises a bigger red flag for many investors.

To put it bluntly, IFA continues to be concerned that many of LPL's affiliated advisors aren't alone in trying to peddle off-market investment products. These non-regulated securities are so opaque that it makes knowing how much investors are really gaining -- let alone how much they're paying -- a huge conundrum. While saying it will conduct a "top-to-bottom" review of its compliance practices, we aren't seeing any inclination by LPL or its hordes of active advisors to completely stop such fallacious sales practices.

As such, we'll continue to act on behalf of investors who demand to be treated by investment professionals in a true fiduciary manner. That means using passive investments with full transparency and providing the greatest amount of relevant market data available at any given time. After all, we're here to manage our clients' wealth for the long-run -- not pitch non-traded and unregistered "stuff" to unsuspecting investors.