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FINRA Fines Come Quickly After Warnings

Hal M. Bundrick

NEW YORK ( MainStreet)-- The warning was recent and punishment came quickly. FINRA slammed two firms today with a total of $2.15 million in fines for losses incurred from "unsuitable sales of floating rate bank loan funds."

FINRA Chairman and CEO Richard G. Ketchum tipped his hand that floating rate funds were on his radar in a speech at the self-regulatory authority's recent annual conference.

$3 million in restitution to customers was also levied against the offending firms: Wells Fargo (WFC - Get Report) and Bank of America/Merrill Lynch (BAC - Get Report).

Wells Fargo was ordered to pay a $1.25 million fine and reimburse another $2 million in losses to 239 clients. Merrill Lynch has been slapped with a $900,000 fine as well as reimbursements totaling $1.1 million in losses to 214 customers.

Investors have been piling into floating-rate funds this year, which are baskets of secured senior loans made to firms with below investment-grade credit. In addition to significant credit risks, the funds are thinly traded and often illiquid. As interest rates rise, many of the loans are also callable.

In a statement announcing the fines, FINRA found that Wells Fargo and Bank of America/Merrill Lynch brokers "recommended concentrated purchases of floating-rate bank loan funds to customers whose risk tolerance, investment objectives, and financial conditions were inconsistent with the risks and features of floating-rate loan funds."

FINRA also noted that the customers were seeking to preserve principal, or had conservative risk tolerances.

The agency "also found that the firms failed to train their sales forces regarding the unique risks and characteristics of the funds and failed to reasonably supervise the sales of floating-rate bank loan funds."

"As investors continue to look for yield in a low-interest-rate environment, these actions should serve as a reminder that brokers and their firms need to ensure that investment recommendations are consistent with customers' investment objectives and risk tolerances," said Brad Bennett, FINRA's vice president and chief of enforcement. "Wells Fargo and Bank of America allowed their brokers to sell floating-rate bank loan funds to investors for whom the positions were unsuitable, resulting in significant losses to many customers."

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