The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has announced that it has fined HSBC Securities (USA) Inc. $375,000 for recommending unsuitable sales of inverse floating rate Collateralized Mortgage Obligations (CMOs) to retail customers. HSBC failed to adequately supervise the suitability of the CMO sales and fully explain the risks of an inverse floating rate or other risky CMO investment to its customers.
FINRA's investigation found that HSBC recommended the sale of CMOs, including inverse floating rate CMOs, to its retail customers. As a result of HSBC not implementing an adequate supervisory system and procedures relating to the sale of inverse floating rate CMOs to retail customers, six of its brokers made 43 unsuitable sales of inverse floaters to retail customers who were unsophisticated investors and not suited for high-risk investments. In addition, HSBC's procedures required a supervisor's pre-approval of any sale in excess of $100,000; FINRA found that 25 of the 43 CMO sales were in amounts exceeding $100,000 and that in five of these instances, customers lost money in their inverse floating rate CMO investments. HSBC has paid these customers full restitution totaling $320,000.
"Firms must adequately train their brokers on all of the products that they are selling and must reasonably supervise them to ensure that every security recommended is suitable for the particular customer," said James S. Shorris, FINRA executive vice president and acting chief of enforcement. "The losses incurred by HSBC's customers likely would have been avoided had the firm sufficiently trained its brokers on the suitability and risks of inverse floating rate CMOs and reasonably supervised their brokers to ensure that they were making suitable recommendations."
A CMO is a fixed-income security that pools mortgages and issues tranches with various characteristics and risks. CMOs make principal payments throughout the life of the security with the maturity date being the last date by which all of the principal must be returned. The timing of the return of principal payments can vary depending on interest rate changes.
One of the more risky CMO tranches is the inverse floater, a type of tranche that pays an adjustable rate of interest that moves in the opposite direction from movements of an interest rate index, such as LIBOR. Since 1993, FINRA has advised firms that inverse floating rate CMOs "are only suitable for sophisticated investors with a high-risk profile."
FINRA found that HSBC did not provide its brokers with sufficient guidance and training regarding the risks and suitability of CMOs. In particular, the firm did not inform its registered representatives that inverse floaters were only suitable for sophisticated investors with a high-risk profile. In addition, the firm did not provide its registered representatives with information regarding the risks associated with the specific inverse floaters that were available to be sold.
FINRA also found that HSBC failed to comply with a FINRA rule, adopted in November 2003, which requires firms to offer certain educational materials before the sale of a CMO to any person, other than an institutional investor. The educational materials must include, among other things, the characteristics and risks of CMOs, in general, and the specific characteristics and risks associated with the different tranches of a CMO.
During the relevant time period, HSBC did not advise its registered persons that they were required to offer written educational material to their customers before they sold them CMOs. Although HSBC provided its brokers with a CMO brochure, the brokers did not offer the brochure to every CMO investor, nor did they know that they were required to give the materials to all potential CMO investors before selling them a CMO. Moreover, the brochures did not comply with FINRA's content standards. In particular, the brochure failed to discuss inverse floaters and failed to include a section on risks associated with purchasing CMOs.
In concluding this settlement, HSBC neither admitted nor denied the charges, but consented to the entry of FINRA's findings.
For more information, visit www.finra.org.