On November 3, 2014, the SEC announced that it hadsanctioned 13 firms for violating a rule primarily designed to protect retail investors in the municipal securities market.

All municipal bond offerings include a “minimum denomination” that establishes the smallest amount of the bonds that a dealer firm is allowed to sell an investor in a single transaction.  Municipal issuers often set high minimum denomination amounts for so-called “junk bonds” that have a higher default risk that may make the investments inappropriate for retail investors.  Because retail investors tend to purchase securities in smaller amounts, this minimum denomination standard helps ensure that dealer firms sell high-risk securities only to investors who are capable of making sizeable investments and more prepared to bear the higher risk.

In its surveillance of trading in the municipal bond market, the SEC Enforcement Division’s Municipal Securities and Public Pensions Unit detected improper sales below a $100,000 minimum denomination set in a $3.5 billion offering of junk bonds by the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico earlier this year.  The SEC’s subsequent investigation identified a total of 66 occasions when dealer firms sold the Puerto Rico bonds to investors in amounts below $100,000.  The agency instituted administrative proceedings against the firms behind those improper sales: Charles Schwab & Co., Hapoalim Securities USA, Interactive Brokers LLC, Investment Professionals Inc., J.P. Morgan Securities, Lebenthal & Co., National Securities Corporation, Oppenheimer & Co., Riedl First Securities Co. of Kansas, Stifel Nicolaus & Co., TD Ameritrade, UBS Financial Services, and Wedbush Securities.

The enforcement actions are the SEC’s first under Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB) Rule G-15(f), which establishes the minimum denomination requirement.  Each firm agreed to settle the SEC’s charges and pay penalties ranging from $54,000 to $130,000.

The SEC’s orders against the 13 dealers find that in addition to violating MSRB Rule G-15(f) by executing sales below the minimum denomination, they violated Section 15B(c)(1) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, which prohibits violations of any MSRB rule.  Without admitting or denying the findings, each of the firms agreed to be censured.  They also agreed to review their policies and procedures and make any changes that are necessary to ensure proper compliance with MSRB Rule G-15(f).

It was unclear from the SEC’s announcement whether customers had initiated FINRA arbitrations or any other types of adversarial proceedings.  If you believe that you have suffered losses as a result of improper sales of Puerto Rico bonds, you may contact David A. Weintraub, P.A., 7805 SW 6th Court, Plantation, FL 33324.  By phone:  954.693.7577 or 800.718.1422