The Securities and Exchange Commission froze the assets of R. Allen Stanford’s financial empire almost two years ago. But authorities are still figuring out whether investors can get compensated for some of their losses.
The S.E.C. is pushing for investors who bought more than $7.2 billion in allegedly bogus certificates of deposit from Mr. Stanford’s Antiguan bank to be treated as brokerage customers by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation. If that happens, clients could get at least some of their money back.
|SIPC provides a measure of protection for customers when a broker becomes insolvent, paying up to $500,000 per customer that includes $250,000 in cash. The program, which is not intended to provide insurance against fraud, only covers the brokerage firm’s customers and not those who dealt with an affiliate, like an offshore bank, that is not qualified to participate in the program.
Mr. Stanford’s financial empire included a brokerage firm, called the Stanford Group Company, which promoted the C.D.’s to investors by promising above-market returns. The actual issuer of the C.D.’s, however, was his Antiguan bank, Stanford International Bank. The entity was not a broker-dealer and so it fell outside of the protections afforded by SIPC.
In a letter sent in August 2009 to the trustee appointed to gather assets for Mr. Stanford’s investors, SIPC denied that it was required to provide any coverage because the C.D.’s were bought from the offshore bank, even though the brokerage arm marketed them. The agency explained that the Stanford Group Company was merely an “introducing” broker that was not responsible for maintaining any securities on behalf of customers. As such, the agency was not responsible when the Antiguan bank collapsed and the C.D.’s became worthless.
The S.E.C. took a different position last week. In an analysis of the case, the S.E.C. told SIPC that it was putting form over substance by focusing solely on which of the various entities controlled by Mr. Stanford had issued the C.D.’s. Under the S.E.C.’s rationale, Mr. Stanford ignored those legal niceties and treated the various companies as one source of money for his alleged Ponzi scheme, taking money from each as if it were his personal piggy bank. “Credible evidence shows that Stanford structured the various entities in his financial empire,” according the S.E.C. “for the principal, if not sole, purpose of carrying out a single fraudulent Ponzi scheme.”
The S.E.C. asserted in its analysis that SIPC should cover investors. In effect, the agency said Mr. Stanford effectively stole from customers of the brokerage firm by selling worthless C.D.’s, much like the Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Bernard L. Madoff in which fictitious securities totaling $64 billion were credited to client accounts when it collapsed.
But the S.E.C. also makes it clear that any calculation of victim claims should not be based on the purported value of the C.D.’s reflected on the account statements provided by Stanford International Bank, but instead only the actual amount invested. Not surprisingly, this is the same position taken by the trustee appointed to liquidate Mr. Madoff’s firm, Irving H. Picard, and SIPC in dealing with investors in that Ponzi scheme.
The S.E.C. urged SIPC to initiate a liquidation proceeding like the one undertaken by Mr. Picard, including the appointment of a trustee to weigh claims from investors. This is more than just a request, however, because the S.E.C. has supervisory authority over SIPC. The last line of its analysis was a rather unsubtle hint to compensate investors:
“In a further exercise of its discretion, the Commission has authorized its staff to file in district court an application under Section 11(b) of [Securities Investor Protection Act] to compel SIPC to initiate a liquidation proceeding in the event SIPC refuses to do so.”
If SIPC does liquidate Mr. Stanford’s brokerage operation, not all investors may benefit, as some victims of Mr. Madoff are discovering.
Mr. Picard successfully argued in the federal bankruptcy court that those who withdrew more from their accounts with Mr. Madoff than they invested – the so-called “net winners” – are subject to clawback suits to repay their profits and have no claim for losses. The “net winners” issue was argued before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in March, and a decision is likely to come in the near future.
It is not clear whether there were any “net winners” among Mr. Stanford’s investors. But there is a good possibility that some investors closed their accounts and took profits before the scheme collapsed. Any investors who profited on the C.D.’s from the Antiguan bank could face a similar situation to the “net winners” targeted by Mr. Picard.
I expect there to be similar clawback suits filed if SIPC does accede to the S.E.C.’s request. Given how contentious the Mr. Picard’s lawsuits against “net winners” have been, we can expect more of the same if SIPC liquidates Mr. Stanford’s brokerage firm.
The S.E.C.’s announcement had another salutary effect. Just a day before it issued its analysis, Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, placed a hold on the nominations of two commissioners to the S.E.C. until it announced its position on whether the investors were protected by SIPC.
The hold on the nominations has been removed, and everyone – except perhaps SIPC – is a bit happier. But when Mr. Stanford’s investors will receive some compensation for their losses is still unclear because a liquidation is only the start of the process, as the Madoff case shows.