LPL Financial LLC is being further dogged by state regulators investigating the sale of nontraded real estate investment trusts and faces a new complaint from the Montana State Auditor's Department focusing on REIT sales to unsophisticated investors, according to a published report.
A story in Friday's New York Times reported that Montana, which brought a case last year against LPL for failing to supervise a broker, is preparing a new case involving multiple brokers. The story also called into question the sophistication of LPL's broader compliance efforts.
Lucas Hamilton, a spokesman for the Montana auditor's department, confirmed the state's concern about LPL brokers. “We do have more complaints” about LPL advisers than others, he said Friday. He declined to comment on any investigation into the firm.
LPL's faulty compliance on REIT sales was first brought to light in December. That's when the Massachusetts Securities Division filed a complaint against the firm, alleging it failed to supervise registered representatives who sold nontraded REITs in violation of both state limitations and the company's rules.
In February, the country's largest independent broker-dealer, with more than 13,000 contractor representatives and advisers, was ordered by Massachusetts to pay up to $2 million in restitution to clients and a fine of $500,000.
Ameriprise Financial Inc. and LPL Financial are the two largest sellers of nontraded REITs, accounting for roughly 20% of the annual $10 billion in sales of such investments.
A problem for LPL is that sales of alternative investments represent a growing stream of revenue for the firm. Commission revenue for alternative investments jumped 25% to $143 million in 2012, up from $114 million a year earlier. While such sales are increasing, regulators are watching how advisers sell those products more closely than ever.
LPL was caught flat-footed by the comments of the Montana regulators in the Times article. “We are not aware of any pending regulatory filings from the state of Montana and in fact, were very surprised to read the comments from the Montana securities staff,” company spokeswoman Betsy Weinberger said.
“LPL Financial views compliance as a mission-critical function,” she said. “Our long-term track record demonstrates the emphasis we place on regulatory compliance and our history of maintaining the highest standards of protection for the investors our advisors serve.”
She added: “We plan to increase our compliance staff by 10% in this year alone.”
In a letter to financial advisers Friday, LPL's national sales manager, Derek Bruton, said the company was disappointed in the Times' article.
“We were disappointed with the disproportionate focus in the article on certain past compliance matters in Montana, as well as the one-year view of disciplinary actions taken against LPL Financial advisers,” Mr. Bruton wrote.
“That specific information falls far short of conveying a fair or accurate picture of the positive long-term track record of LPL Financial, including the firm's record in recent years, which, when compared against other major broker-dealers, ranks very strong,” he wrote.
As a consequence of Massachusetts' investigation into its sale of nontraded REITs, LPL already has made some changes to the oversight of its alternative products, including nontraded REITs.
“In July of 2012, LPL changed its policies and procedures, creating a separate complex-products team to review all alternative investments,” according to the Massachusetts lawsuit.
In a move that shows how wary the firm has become of complex products, LPL this year also has put restrictions on its advisers' sales of leveraged, inverse and monthly reset mutual funds.
LPL's recent rash of compliance problems stem from inadequate oversight of its far-flung group of registered reps and financial advisers, according to the Times' story. State regulators, who operate as local cops on the beat, have long faulted the independent-broker-dealer industry for a shortcoming in overseeing its reps.