What is Churning?
Churning can be defined as the practice of executing trades for a customer’s investment account by a broker or brokerage firm for the sole purpose of generating commission from the account. It occurs when a broker engages in excessive buying and selling of securities in a customer’s account that is unnecessary to fulfill the customer’s investment goals.
By generating a large number of commissions, churning can substantially destroy the net value of an investment account in a short period of time. It results in a two-fold negative impact on the financial future of the investor: one, because the investments made by the broker are not prudent and two, because the investor is paying more in commissions than he actually should.
Churning can occur when the broker exercises control over the investment decisions in a customer’s account through a formal and legal agreement.
- Churning can be defined as the practice of executing trades for a customer’s investment account by a broker or brokerage firm for the sole purpose of generating commissions from the account.
- Brokers may often churn stocks and bonds, mutual funds, annuities, and life insurance policies.
- Churning is illegal in most jurisdictions and may attract severe fines, sanctions, and suspensions from regulatory bodies.
Understanding Conflicts of Interests
The practice of churning arises out of the inherent conflict of interest existing between the commission broker and his/her client. Brokerage houses advertise themselves as sources of reliable guidance for people who have the money to invest but may lack the necessary expertise to formulate an appropriate investment strategy.
A major portion of the broker’s income comes from commissions charged for executing buy and sell orders in the securities markets. Therein lies the conflict of interest: the broker makes little or no money unless the customer buys and sells securities.
Brokers who cause their customers to execute transactions that are solely for the broker’s benefit – that is, cause their customers to trade just to generate a commission for the broker with little or no benefit to the customer – are engaging in the practice of churning.
Forms of Churning
Mutual funds with an upfront load (load is the sales charge or commission paid by the mutual fund investor to the broker) called A shares, are long-term investments. The sale of an A-share fund and purchase of another within five years must be substantiated by the broker with prudent reasoning. It may be a case of churning if the trade results in no noticeable portfolio gain to the investor.
The most common form of churning is excessive trading in stocks and bonds by the broker. However, churning is not limited to such types of securities alone. Brokers may often churn mutual funds, annuities, and life insurance policies.
The practice of charging customers hefty fees in accounts that do not generate much activity is known as “reverse churning.” It typically occurs when clients who trade infrequently are put into a fee-based brokerage account.
How to Detect Churning in an Investment Account
The investor can detect churning by the broker when the frequency of trades becomes counterproductive to their investment goals, driving commission fees higher without observable results over time.
Another indication is when the investor is paying more in commissions than they are earning on the investments. Courts take into account the number of times the investment capital is re-invested during a year. In cases of churning, the entire assets of the investor are generally traded once a month or even more frequently.
Opening a wrap account (an account that is managed for a flat rate instead of charging a commission on every transaction) is a way for investors to safeguard themselves against churning.
Legal Consequences of Churning
Churning is regarded as a form of manipulation and is illegal in most jurisdictions. Regulatory agencies are often authorized to impose fines, suspend brokers, or even bar them indefinitely if caught churning accounts. The investor can legally claim the return of excessive commissions paid and of any losses resulting from the broker’s choice of stocks.
In the U.S., the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) lays down three key rules that make up the legal basis against churning.
- SEC Rule 15c1-7 classifies a broker’s actions as fraudulent if they use their discretionary power over the investor’s account to engage in transactions that are excessive in view of the financial resources and character of the account in question.
- FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) Rule 2111 advocates that brokers must always act in the best interest of their clients. It states that a broker must have a reasonable basis to believe that a trade will be beneficial for the customer based on their investment objectives, liquidity needs, tax status, and risk tolerance.
- NYSE Rule 408(c) prohibits investment firms from legally allowing their brokers to churn accounts.
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