NEW YORK The blow up of now bankrupt-MF Global proves that vetting a financial firm isn't ever simple. Companies use accounting tricks and other machinations to hide problems until the last possible moment.
While no one expects individual investors to become forensic accountants, there are usually warning signs before a disaster strikes -- you just have to know where to look.
Here are some things you can do to protect yourself:
1. SET UP A GOOGLE ALERT TO TRACK YOUR BROKERAGE FIRM
If you just do a general search, you'll be inundated with emails. But you can curate the feed with a few terms (SEC, enforcement action, lawsuit) to keep the search focused and help you identify red flags.
2. DIG DEEPER ONLINE
BrokerCheck is one of the best places to do some sleuthing. While most people tap this free online database for the scoop on current and former FINRA-registered individual brokers, you can also get detailed information on 4,501 FINRA-registered firms. (The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority is a self-regulatory group for securities firms.) You may not find the right information on your first try - a search for Merrill Lynch, for example, yields 11 different iterations of Merrill-related businesses.
But once you've identified the right financial institution, click "Get a Detailed Report," to take a deep dive (up to thousands of pages) into a firm's disciplinary actions, criminal charges and other important information, including details about arbitration claims filed by investors.
Another website with essential information is the Securities & Exchange Commission's website. Here you can access information either on individual advisers or whole firms. You can quickly see if individuals have ever been fined or suspended, pleaded guilty or no-contest to a crime, or have violated any investment-related statutes or regulations.
A firm penalized for minor violations, such as a bookkeeping error, may still be trustworthy, but beware of any institution with a string of penalties in a short time period.
3. SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
Some private services now also offer free information about financial advisers. For example, BrightScope, a financial information company, introduced a free service in April that lets investors search for advisers by assets under management, geographic area and other criteria. The company, based in San Diego, gathers information from BrokerCheck and the SEC database, including disciplinary histories, but allows investors to search in different ways. Investors can also use the service to compare advisers.
You can also check out the regulatory financial examinations from CME Group. The derivatives marketplace performs these assessments to effectively monitor a firm's financial records and determine if accounts are appropriately divided up, which in industry speak is known as segregated.
The CME also monitors any corrective actions. If there are any signs of trouble, CME may uncover these first, as CME rules require clearing firms to calculate their customer segregated position daily - and notify both the regulator, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and CME in the event of a problem.
4. LOOK AT FINANCIAL STATEMENTS
For many people, the appeal of reading a financial statement ranks right up there with going to the dentist. But you'll need to do some sleuthing to understand what makes a company tick if you want to get a handle on the financial health of a firm.
For example, MF Global revealed in public filings that it had a long position of $6.3 billion in short-duration European sovereign debt -- more than five times the firm's book value, or net worth. New York-based MF Global, which was run by former Goldman Sachs chief Jon Corzine, disclosed its position in European debt as early as May, which could have provided an advance warning to eagle-eyed investors.
Net capital is one gauge the professionals use to measure financial health. "The best way to check out a firm's financial stability is to find out what kind of net capital requirements they have," says Gerri Walsh, FINRA's vice president of investor education.
Regulators require firms to keep a financial cushion to stay in business. One place you can often find reference to net capital is a quarterly earnings release (10-Q), which is available on the SEC's website. But the net capital ratio often varies by numerous factors, such as a firm's type of business and risk profile.
Futures brokers, like MF Global, must report net capital on the CFTC website - providing the most up-to-date information the CFTC has. There are financial reports from futures commission merchants (FCMs) and retail foreign exchange dealers (RFEDs), which are required by law to file monthly. It's easy to download by PDF or Excel files.
There's a catch: The most recent data might not be made public for a full 29 business days - as firms have 17 business days after the month to file, and the CFTC needs up to 12 business days to post those filings.
5. WATCH LEVERAGE
Leverage is another useful measure of a firm's financial footing. Simply put, think of leverage as the ratio of equity to assets: If a company's assets take a hit, which was the case with MF Global's bet on European debt, then the equity has to be sufficient to cover the loss. An overleveraged company doesn't have enough equity to cover significant fluctuations in asset value.
"Leverage kills," says Dan Wiener, who edits The Independent Adviser for Vanguard Investors newsletter.
Sean Egan, a principal at the Egan-Jones ratings service in Haverford, Pennsylvania, saw warning signs of MF Global's impending doom when few others did. On October 28, his firm issued a B-minus rating for MF Global, a total of six notches below that of Standard & Poor's credit rating, he says.
Egan says that a look at the company's leverage would have revealed trouble right away: "They had shareholder's equity in the area of $1.2 billion, but they had total assets of $41 billion. That means if their assets declined in value by nearly 2.5 percent, they would wipe out their shareholder's equity."
To get a sense of what kind of leverage is appropriate, you'll need to talk to someone who understands financial companies. A firm such as MF Global, which dealt with high-risk futures, should be able to cover at least 25 percent of its assets with equity, experts say. MF Global had just 3 percent.
Appropriate leverage percentages vary depending on the risk profile of the sector; banks, for example, traditionally can operate on a lower ratio.
While the pros have complex financial models to measure volatility, Hersh Shefrin, a finance professor at Santa Clara University in California, says individual investors should look at New York University's Volatility Lab website (See vlab.stern.nyu.edu/) to monitor factors such as leverage, along with a company's overall stability. Currently in a beta format, the "V-Lab," as it is also known, looks at volatility and systemic risk, tracking close to 1,800 data sets. Figures are updated daily.
Enter "Bank of America," for example, and you'll see a volatility rating of 75 percent for November 8, almost double where it stood a year ago.
6. KNOW WHO YOU ARE DEALING WITH
Because the financial system is so complex, companies are usually tangled up with each other. "If you have an adviser that's putting you with a managed futures fund, you have to call up that broker and ask them, 'Who is this money invested with?'" says Charles Rotblut, a vice president at the American Association of Independent Investors and an editor of the AAII Journal. "There will be a paper trail where the money is going, and where the transactions are being made - so they should be able to tell you where the money is invested, and with whom."
While channeling your inner Sherlock Holmes may sound exciting, research shows that most people don't take the initiative to vet their financial relationships. But the constant barrage of blow ups might soon lead to a tipping point, says FINRA's Walsh. "After all, a lot more people used to smoke," she says.
One more warning: If you do spot a red flag, don't wait to act. Right before MF Global filed for bankruptcy, some clients asked to pull their money from the firm. But instead of simply wiring that money back to customers, the firm sent old-fashioned checks via snail mail. By the time some clients deposited the checks, the firm was insolvent.