By David Clark Scott, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
FLORIDA retiree Max Wells is miffed.
"I was deliberately taken. I told them three times I didn't want any risk," Mr. Wells says in a telephone interview from his home in St. Petersburg.
Another swampland sales scam? A penny stock swindle? Nope. Wells was dealing with a regional bank.
A year ago, Wells put $5,400 into what he thought was a government-insured account, supposedly "guaranteed to earn 5 percent over five years," he claims. Two months later, Mr. Wells received a statement in the mail saying his NationsSecurities mutual fund account had dropped in value. "Nobody said anything about a mutual fund," he fumes.
In case you missed it, your banker may now be a broker. For the first time since the Depression, the legal wall blocking banks from selling securities is being seriously breached. Banks are aggressively fulfilling the promise of one-stop financial shopping - stocks, bonds, insurance, and home mortgages all sold under one roof. Banks have already captured more than $300 billion in mutual fund assets (14 percent of the national total) since 1990, according to the Investment Company Institute, a Washington-based mutal fund industry trade group.
But beyond the promise lies a peril. The transformation from bank to brokerage firm is provoking customer confusion and, in some cases, unexpected financial losses for retired Americans with little means to recoup savings. Complaints and lawsuits
"Bank customers are risk-averse people," says Jonathan Alpert, Wells's attorney. "Millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent over the years to give banks credibility, stability, status, and an air of impregnability. The banks are using that trust to trick people into buying securities."
Wells and other disgruntled customers have caught the attention of the banking industry with a multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuit filed this summer against NationsSecurities and its parent company, NationsBank, a Charlotte, N.C.-based bank with about 1,900 offices in 10 states.
About 60 NationsSecurities stockbrokers have also filed arbitration claims, most in the last month, with the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD), a New York-based securities industry self-regulatory organization, complaining that the bank's brokerage unit encouraged them to mislead bank customers. Two other Southeastern banks have legal claims pending in similar cases and state securities regulators say a rising number of complants suggests a pattern of abusive practices.
NationsBank attorney Peter Aldrich calls the allegations "wild" and "totally false," in a statement filed with the NASD. Bank officials say brokers employing underhanded sales tactics are fired because such practices are illegal and bad for business. "Banks look for long-term relationships," Alfred Pollard told a congressional hearing on the issue last month.
"Banks have every incentive to maintain customer confidence by demonstrating that banks are the most trusted providers of financial services," says Mr. Pollard, a senior director of The Bankers Roundtable, a Washington-based trade group composed of executives from the nation's largest banks.
The confusion stems from what goes on in today's bank lobby. Once a genteel place where federally insured deposits were taken, banks are subtly but rapidly becoming high-powered sales rooms for uninsured securities. Larger regional banks are marketing not only well-known mutual funds, but their own brands of mutual funds, often trading on their reputation by giving the funds similar names and using promotional material that uses bank corporate colors and logos.
Consumer groups, Congress, and federal regulators are concerned that customer confusion is mounting. Often securities brokers sit in the same lobby, and sometimes, as in Wells's case, at the same desk once occupied by bank clerks.
"When they walk into the lobby of their hometown or neighborhood bank - which they trust and have done business with over the years - and they see that seal on the window that says `Insured by the FDIC,' customers are likely to believe that whatever transaction is going to take place there is backed up by the bank and insured by the federal government," says Sen. …