Reviewing Investment Account Statements During Market Volatility – Five Red Flags

Seeing that account balance number can hurt. And not all investment losses are potentially recoverable or due to inappropriate recommendations by a financial advisor. But in times of market volatility, reviewing investment account statements might reveal claims for losses that are actionable and recoverable – if prompt action is taken.

Warren Buffet’s much repeated quote, “only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked,” rings true once again today in the sawtooth market volatility of the coronavirus global pandemic. The Dow Jones Industrial average hit a record high of 29,551 in mid-February. Today it stands about 20% lower than that, having seen the price of crude oil slipping into negative territory and other wild news. Some market sectors have been hit disproportionately, and there is no end in sight to the turmoil. Investors are waking to unexpected margin calls while struggling to maintain liquid assets.

Not reviewing investment account statements can hurt more in the long run.

Rising markets tend to conceal all kinds of potential misconduct or inappropriate investments. When markets drop, investors take notice and start asking questions. Why is my account allocation 80% in single stock equities? Why is there margin trading in my account? Why are there multiple variable annuities in my IRA account? Why is there frequent buying and selling of investments that I don’t recognize? Why can’t I easily sell the investments in my account? Why is my account concentrated in a certain sector like oil and gas investments? At its worst – where did my money go? 

Here are five red flags to consider when reviewing investment account statements: 

  1. First of all, did you get a statement? Are they arriving on time? If your account statements stop arriving, or your broker is hard to reach, that needs your immediate attention. Call the custodian or clearing firm customer service line that should be printed on your last received statement to get copies of statements and trade confirmations.
  2. You have investments that do not appear on the brokerage company’s account statements that you receive. Or the statements otherwise look irregular, unprofessional, or show frequent transactions that you don’t understand, or literally don’t add up. Or the dates or balances don’t match up to the last period. Or your advisor says you shouldn’t discuss your investments with anyone else at the brokerage company.
  3. In normal times any reported swing in portfolio value of more than 10% up or down, when you’re a conservative or moderate investor, is a red flag that the portfolio allocation is exposed to significant risk. These are not normal times in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. But, the performance of your investment should always be fully reported, plausible, well-explained, and roughly comparable to similar investments. Any indication that your investment is riskier than you bargained for is a red flag. Your portfolio value may lose money during market swings, but if it was appropriately allocated for your investment objectives and risk tolerance, then it may not have lost as much. This is especially important for senior investors who do not have as long of an investment time horizon to recover from significant market losses.
  4. Liquidity is a concern in uncertain markets. If you’re suddenly informed that you can’t sell your investments, or you encounter unexpectedly high penalties or surrender charges for selling, that’s reason to dig deeper. Nontraded REITs, LP or LLC interests, annuities, structured products with exotic names, may be appropriate for some investors or for a small part of a portfolio. But these products tend to pay selling brokers high commissions and are frequently oversold. Generally, any sense of rush, pressure, or surprise in the context of making investment decisions is cause for concern.
  5. You are a conservative or moderate investor, and discover that your broker has you in risky leveraged ETFs or has been trading on margin in your account. Many investors are discovering the risks of margin accounts with demands for payment of new money into accounts to meet margin calls. Failure to add required funds can allow the brokerage firm to liquidate holdings as well as charge commissions, fees, and margin interest. Margin trading is inherently risky – and ripe for abuse by unscrupulous brokers.

If you have seen any of these five red flags when reviewing investment account statements do not ignore your suspicions. Call us for a free initial consultation. We’ll discuss your concerns and whether we can help. Your call is confidential.

And if you have lost trust and confidence in your financial advisor, it may be time for a change. Consider whether a registered investment advisor and fee-based (rather than commission-based) account may be more appropriate for your needs. A good advisor can assist your transition and help a securities attorney review a prior advisor’s recommendations for potentially actionable claims.

Darlene Pasieczny, Attorney

Darlene Pasieczny is a fiduciary and securities litigator at Samuels Yoelin Kantor LLP.  She represents clients in Oregon and Washington with matters regarding trust and estate disputes, financial elder abuse cases, and securities litigation. She also represents investors nationwide in FINRA arbitration to recover losses caused unlawful broker conduct.  Her article, New Tools Help Financial Professionals Prevent Elder Abuse, was featured in the January 2019, Oregon State Bar Elder Law Newsletter.