The Securities and Exchange Commission today announced that Merrill Lynch has agreed to pay a $10 million penalty to settle charges that it was responsible for misleading statements in offering materials provided to retail investors for structured notes linked to a proprietary volatility index.
According to the SEC’s order instituting a settled administrative proceeding, the offering materials emphasized that the notes were subject to a 2 percent sales commission and 0.75 percent annual fee. Due to the impact of these costs over the five-year term of the notes, the volatility index would need to increase by 5.93 percent from its starting value in order for investors to earn back their original investment on the maturity date. But the offering materials failed to adequately disclose a third cost included in the volatility index known as the “execution factor” that imposed a cost of 1.5 percent of the index value each quarter.
The notes were issued by Merrill Lynch’s parent company Bank of America Corporation, and Merrill Lynch had principal responsibility for drafting and reviewing the retail pricing supplements. The SEC’s order finds that Merrill Lynch did not have in place effective policies or procedures to ensure its personnel drafted and approved disclosures that adequately disclosed the impact of the execution factor.
This is the agency’s second case involving misleading statements by a seller of structured notes. In October 2015, UBS AG agreed to pay $19.5 million to settle charges that it made false or misleading statements and omissions in offering materials provided to U.S. investors in structured notes linked to a proprietary foreign exchange trading strategy.
“This case continues our focus on disclosures relating to retail investments in structured notes and other complex financial products. Offering materials for such products must be accurate and complete, and firms must implement systems and policies to ensure investors receive all material facts,” said Andrew J. Ceresney, Director of the SEC Enforcement Division.
Michael J. Osnato, Chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s Complex Financial Instruments Unit, added, “This case demonstrates the SEC’s ongoing commitment to creating a level playing field when it comes to the sale of highly complex financial products to retail investors.”
The SEC’s order finds that Merrill Lynch violated Section 17(a)(2) of the Securities Act of 1933, which prohibits obtaining money or property by means of material misstatements and omissions in the offer or sale of securities. Without admitting or denying the findings, Merrill Lynch agreed to cease and desist from committing or causing any similar future violations and pay a penalty of $10 million.
The SEC’s investigation was conducted by Christopher C. Nee, Thomas D. Silverstein, and Kapil Agrawal with assistance from Thomas A. Bednar and David S. Johnson. The case was supervised by Andrew B. Sporkin, Reid A. Muoio, and Mr. Osnato. The SEC appreciates the assistance of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.