The Securities and Exchange Commission charged Charles Schwab Investment Management and Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. on Tuesday with making misleading statements regarding the Schwab YieldPlus Fund and failing to establish, maintain and enforce policies and procedures to prevent the misuse of material, nonpublic information.
In addition, the SEC charged Charles Schwab Investment Management and Schwab Investments with deviating from the YieldPlus fund's concentration policy without obtaining the required shareholder approval. The SEC also filed a complaint in federal court against CSIM’s former chief investment officer for fixed income Kimon Daifotis as well as Schwab official Randall Merk, who is an executive vice president at CS&Co. and was president of CSIM and a trustee of the YieldPlus and other Schwab funds. The SEC alleges that Daifotis and Merk committed fraud and other securities law violations in connection with the offer, sale and management of the YieldPlus Fund.
CSIM and CS&Co. agreed to pay more than $118 million to settle the SEC's charges. The SEC's case continues against the executives.
The YieldPlus Fund is an ultra-short bond fund that, at its peak in 2007, had $13.5 billion in assets and more than 200,000 accounts, making it the largest ultra-short bond fund in the category. The fund suffered a significant decline during the credit crisis of 2007 and 2008. Its assets fell from $13.5 billion to $1.8 billion during an eight-month period due to redemptions and declining asset values.
According to an administrative order issued by the SEC against the Schwab entities and the SEC's related complaints against the entities and the two executives filed in federal court in San Francisco, they failed to inform investors adequately about the risks of investing in the YieldPlus Fund. For example, they described the fund as a cash alternative that had only slightly higher risk than a money market fund. The statements were misleading because the fund was more than slightly riskier than money market funds, and the Schwab entities and Merk and Daifotis did not adequately inform investors about the differences between YieldPlus and money market funds.
The SEC found that the YieldPlus Fund deviated from its concentration policy when it invested more than 25 percent of fund assets in private-issuer mortgage-backed securities (MBS). Mutual funds and other registered investment companies are required to state certain investment policies in their SEC filings, including a policy regarding concentration of investments. Once established, a fund may not deviate from its concentration policy without shareholder approval. Schwab's bond funds, including the YieldPlus Fund and the Total Bond Market Fund, had a policy of not concentrating more than 25 percent of assets in any one industry, including private-issuer MBS. The funds violated this policy, and the Investment Company Act, by investing approximately 50 percent of the assets of the YieldPlus Fund and more than 25 percent of the Total Bond Fund's assets in private-issuer MBS without obtaining shareholder approval.
According to the SEC's order and complaints, the YieldPlus Fund's NAV began to decline and many investors redeemed their holdings as the credit crisis unfolded in mid-2007. Unlike a money market fund, few of the fund's assets were scheduled to mature within the next several months. As a result, the fund had to sell assets in a depressed market to raise cash.
While the YieldPlus Fund's NAV declined, CSIM, CS&Co., Merk, and Daifotis held conference calls, issued written materials, and had other communications with investors that contained a number of material misstatements and omissions concerning the fund. For example, in two conference calls, Daifotis made false and misleading statements that the fund was experiencing "very, very, very slight" and "minimal" investor redemptions. In fact, Daifotis knew that YieldPlus had experienced more than $1.2 billion in redemptions during the two weeks prior to the calls, which caused YieldPlus to sell more than $2.1 billion of its securities. Similarly, Merk authored, reviewed and approved misleading statements about the fund, such as a false claim that the fund had a "short maturity structure" that "mitigated much of the price erosion" experienced by its peers.
The SEC also found that CSIM and CS&Co. did not have policies and procedures reasonably designed — given the nature of their businesses — to prevent the misuse of material, nonpublic information about the fund. For example, they did not have specific policies and procedures governing redemptions by portfolio managers who advised Schwab funds of funds, and did not have appropriate information barriers concerning nonpublic and potentially material information about the fund. As a result, several Schwab-related funds and individuals were free to redeem their own investments in YieldPlus during the fund's decline.
Without admitting or denying the findings in the SEC's order or the allegations in the SEC's complaint, CSIM and CS&Co. agreed to pay a total of $118,944,996, including $52,327,149 in disgorgement of fees by CSIM, a $52,327,149 penalty against CSIM, a $5 million penalty against CS&Co., and pre-judgment interest of $9,290,698. Some of CSIM's disgorgement may be deemed satisfied up to a maximum of $26,944,996 for payments made within the next 60 days to settle related investigations by FINRA or state securities regulators.
The SEC seeks to have the payments placed in a Fair Fund for distribution to harmed investors, and the related recoveries by other regulators, such as FINRA, may be contributed to the Fair Fund. The payments and any Fair Fund are subject to approval by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
CSIM, CS&Co. and Schwab Investments also consented to an SEC order requiring them to cease and desist from committing or causing future violations of the federal securities laws. The SEC order also requires them to comply with certain undertakings, including correction of all disclosures regarding the funds' concentration policy. In addition, the Commission censured CSIM and CS&Co., and required them to retain an independent consultant to review and make recommendations about their policies and procedures to prevent the misuse of material, nonpublic information.
In a statement, Schwab said, "Schwab has worked closely with these parties to bring this matter to a constructive conclusion, and believes that resolving it in this way is in the best interests of the company, its stockholders, and clients who experienced losses in the YieldPlus Fund as a result of the global financial crisis."
"Schwab would never seek to profit at the expense of its clients. We regret that fund shareholders lost money in YieldPlus. Indeed, Charles R. Schwab, the company’s founder and chairman, was one of the largest investors in the fund. The decline in the YieldPlus fund was the result of an unprecedented and unforeseeable credit crisis and market collapse. Until the credit crisis, the YieldPlus Fund was consistently one of the top performing funds in its category for eight years and held a Morningstar 5-star rating from December 2004 through September 2007."
"Schwab has acted in good faith by working with the SEC and FINRA to address their concerns as well as by resolving most client claims including entering into a substantial settlement of a federal class action lawsuit. We are pleased that the bulk of associated payments will go directly to YieldPlus shareholders, further reducing the impact of the credit crisis on them. Ultimately, our goal is to move forward and maintain our focus on our core purpose of providing individuals with the help they need to meet their investment objectives."
"To provide future protection for individual investors from similar market crises, the company hopes that greater focus and attention will ultimately be given to the investment banks that created mortgage-backed securities and the ratings agencies that legitimized them with triple-A ratings, which have so far largely escaped scrutiny and accountability."
"Charles Schwab Investment Management, a registered investment advisor, Charles Schwab & Co., Inc., a broker-dealer, and Schwab Investments, a Massachusetts business trust that issued the YieldPlus Fund shares, entered into the settlement without admitting or denying the allegations in the order. The settlement entered into with the SEC is subject to approval by a U.S. District Court."
"The company is aware that the SEC has brought complaints today against two individuals associated with the firm, and its understanding is that each of those individuals intends to pursue a vigorous defense fully contesting the allegations."
"As part of the settlement agreements, the company has agreed to pay a total of $119 million to the SEC, FINRA and Illinois regulators. The company expects to include an after tax charge of $97 million in its fourth quarter financial results relating to these settlements."
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