Dollars and Jens
Thursday, December 14, 2006
From Business Week:
Eliot Spitzer has a new racket he's chasing down on Wall Street, charging that UBS put some customers in unsuitable fee-based brokerage accounts. He's late to the party as the SEC, NASD and NYSE have been on this one for more than a year, as I wrote back in May, 2005. But it's worth reviewing the issue to ensure you're in an account that best suits your investing habits.What the author seems to gloss over is who is making what decisions. If you're putting your money in your broker's hands and saying, "I don't know what a stock or a bond or a federal reserve is — you do as you see fit," you want your broker's incentives to line up with yours. Letting him skim off a couple of percent a year makes a lot more sense than letting him skim off a couple of percent a trade (though it would make even more sense to pay him based on how well your investments do). If you are deciding how often to trade and what trades to make, paying a couple percent a year for custodial services seems pretty steep.
...In the bad old days of Wall Street, say 1990, the most common problem afflicting widows and orphans was called churning. That was when an unscrupulous broker traded in and out of stocks in an account just to generate big commissions for him or herself. About 10 years ago, the street formally looked for ways to clean up its act. A task force headed by former Merrill Lynch Chairman Daniel P. Tully examined broker compensation policies and recommended, among other things, that a switch to fee-based accounts would eliminate the incentive to churn. And that seems to have been the case as churning complaints dropped considerably.
The dark side, of course, was that some people would have been better off in an old-fashioned commission-based account because they didn't trade much.
UBS may or may not have engaged in dishonest marketing here. Knowing Spitzer, I assume they'll end up settling either way, probably paying a price that does nothing to compensate anyone who might have been wronged.