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New study ranks Raymond James among top ten firms for financial adviser misconduct

Raymond James Financial, based in St. Petersburg, was in the top ten of firms with a high rate of adviser misconduct.
Published Mar. 3, 2016

Do you trust your financial adviser? A new report might give you pause.

Some major U.S. financial advisory firms employ a surprisingly high percentage of financial advisers disciplined for misconduct that ranges from putting clients in unsuitable investments to trading on client accounts without permission.

Among the top ten firms with the highest misconduct rates are St. Petersburg's Raymond James Financial, as well as such prominent industry names as Oppenheimer, Wells Fargo Advisers (not to be confused with Wells Fargo Securities) and UBS Financial Services. Oppenheimer employs the greatest concentration with 19.6 percent of its advisers disciplined for misconduct. At Wells Fargo Advisers, 15.3 percent of advisers faced discipline, with UBS at 15.14 percent.

Raymond James ranked 8th highest with 13.74 percent. Industrywide, 7 percent of financial advisers have been disciplined for misconduct.

Asked to respond on this matter, Raymond James on Wednesday declined comment.

Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs are among the firms with the lowest rates of misconduct, with rates at both closer to 1 percent. And Wells Fargo Securities had a misconduct rate of just 1.7 percent, despite the similarity of its name with the high-misconduct firm of Wells Fargo Advisers.

These findings appear in one of the first large-scale studies documenting misconduct among financial advisers. "The Market for Financial Adviser Misconduct" analysis, issued late last month, is the work of business professors at the University of Minnesota and University of Chicago business schools.

"We find evidence suggesting that some firms specialize in misconduct," the researchers write. "Such firms are more tolerant of misconduct, hiring advisers with unscrupulous records. These firms also hire advisers who engage in misconduct to a lesser degree."

News reports on the latest research findings on misconduct cited strong reactions.

"This is eye-opening and suggests not only that some firms have a high tolerance for misconduct on the part of their employees, but that their very business model is to attract the broker who can generate high revenue at the cost of repetitive disciplinary violations," John Coffee, a professor at Columbia Law School in New York, told Bloomberg. "FINRA needs to focus on this."

FINRA, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, is Wall Street's self-regulatory organization and the primary industry overseer of disputes between financial firms and their customers. FINRA also operates a database called BrokerCheck that lets consumers check on the disciplinary record of any registered financial adviser.

The university researchers found that many financial firms did not ignore misconduct. About half of advisers found to have committed misconduct are fired. However, the researchers also found that 44 percent of advisers who leave a job due to misconduct are hired by another firm within a year.

Many fired advisers end up moving to firms that have higher rates of misconduct than their previous employer did. The result? Over time, that migration concentrates previously disciplined advisers working for a handful of firms.

Not all disciplined advisers recycle themselves. FINRA in 2015 permanently barred nearly 500 individuals and 25 firms from the industry.

While individual firms like Raymond James steered clear of commenting on the study, a website called AdvisorHUB, described to me as the investment industry's version of a gossipy TMZ, panned the research as skewed and misleading. The online article's headline: "You Call This A Study?"

Many financial advisers are trustworthy. But Florida remains infamous as a state that attracts troubled brokers drawn by its abundance of wealthy retirees. Advisers with a record of multiple disciplinary actions often become what the industry calls "plate-lickers" — brokers who troll for clients by offering free dinners, a tactic FINRA has warned can involve excessive sales pressure.

Bottom line on a financial adviser? Trust but verify. Start by going online to brokercheck.finra.org.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.com.

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