Now that the Wall Street global settlement (the biggest fine in Wall Street’s history) is official, brokers might be inclined to heave a sigh of relief. Don’t. While the settlement will have a lasting impact on the brokerage industry, brokers have been unscathed by the Spitzer investigations—so far.
Brad Maione, press officer for New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, says that, for now anyway, the investigation is not focusing on brokers. "The initial investigation is addressing mostly investment analysts," Maione told Registered Rep. "It is too early to say whether there will be any brokers targeted [by Spitzer’s office], but the focus is definitely on research." Jack Grubman, the Salomon Smith Barney analyst, will pay $15 million, and be permanently barred from the industry; Henry Blodget, the Merrill Lynch boy wonder, will pay $4 million in fines and is also barred. Mary Meeker, of Morgan Stanley, was not fined at all.
But rank-and-file brokers (who were maligned by Charles Schwab & Co. in its infamous "lipstick-on-the-pig" commercials) were not implicated in the conflict-of-interest scandals. In fact, brokers’ emails to analysts (asking them to explain why, why they were still recommending various stinkers) that was admitted into evidence portrays them as victims, too.
That’s not to say that individual brokers will never be targeted by Spitzer investigators. Spitzer’s office is releasing the results of its investigation on its Web site, http://www.oag.state.ny.us/ . The documents (numbering in the thousands of pages) are said to be painstaking in their details of countless transgressions and "crass disregard" to what SEC chairman William Donaldson called "the concept of research." As the investigations’ particulars trickle out in upcoming weeks, the entire brokerage industry is likely to take a serious public relations hit, perhaps even harder than it has already taken. So even though brokers haven’t been specifically targeted (yet), be prepared for some rough weeks.
"This evidence that is coming out will be used in tens of thousands of private arbitrations," says Charles Parker, a securities lawyer at Hill, Parker & Roberson in Houston. "Even though the brokers were relying on research like anyone else, clients rely on the brokers, and this only hurts them. In the long-term, the changes should be reassuring, but in the short term, it’s going to be tough."
The settlement, announced at a press conference at the SEC offices in Washington, will collect more than $1.4 billion in fines from nine major Wall Street firms. Most of those details were announced in December. The fines will also allot $80 million toward an "Investor Education Fund."
The firms named in the settlement were: Bear Stearns, Credit Suisse First Boston, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, UBS Warburg, U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray and, of course, Citigroup’s Salmon Smith Barney, which was hit the hardest by the Feds, paying $400 million itself in fines and penalties. It also has to make a "public statement of restitution." The settlement also requires firms to further separate its investment banking from its research.
As Spitzer put it in his news conference, "This is not the end. This is very much the beginning for those who acted improperly. The process will be cumbersome and lengthy, but it will be worthwhile."