The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced today, September 25, 2017, that it has sanctioned Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC approximately $13 million for UIT violations by its advisors and for failing to supervise its advisors’ short-term trades of unit investment trusts (UITs).
A UIT is an investment vehicle similar to a mutual fund but with some key differences. It is an investment company that offers units in a portfolio of securities; however, unlike a mutual fund, it terminates on a specific maturity date. UITs impose a variety of charges, including a deferred sales charge and a creation and development fee, that can total approximately 3.95 percent for a typical 24-month UIT. This can be a significant cost. A registered representative, or advisor, who repeatedly recommends that a customer sell a UIT position before the maturity date and then “rolls over” those funds into a new UIT, an action that can also be described as “churning,” causes the customer to incur increased and unnecessary sale charges over time.
FINRA found such actions in thousands of customer accounts. FINRA further found that Morgan Stanley failed to adequately supervise advisor sales of UITs by providing insufficient guidance to supervisors regarding how they should review such transactions to detect improper short-term UIT trading, failing to implement an adequate system to detect and deter such abuse, and failing to provide for supervisory review of rollovers prior to execution. Morgan Stanley also failed to conduct training for advisors specific to these UIT issues.
Susan Schroeder of FINRA said, “Due to the long-term nature of UITs, their structure, and upfront costs, short-term trading of UITs may be improper and raises suitability concerns. Firms must adequately supervise representatives’ sales of UITs –including providing sufficient training –and have in place a system to detect potentially unsuitable short-term UIT rollovers.”
In assessing sanctions, FINRA has recognized Morgan Stanley’s cooperation in having initiated a firmwide investigation that included, among other things, interviewing more than 65 firm personnel and the retention of an outside consultant to conduct a statistical analysis of UIT rollovers at the firm; identified customers affected and establishing a plan to provide remediation to those customers; and provided substantial assistance to FINRA in its investigation.