Broker Solvency as a Marketing Tool

I received this in the mail on Saturday:

ABC logo

March 31, 2008

Dear Investor,

I am writing to tell you that my firm is in very good financial condition. Normal market conditions would not require this correspondence. But I understand that many people are deeply concerned about the stability of their brokers at this time.

I have always tried to earn my clients’ trust by running the firm conservatively, with clients’ interests in mind. Today, 75% of the Company’s assets are in cash or cash equivalents and we have no debt. In addition, we have no investments in collateralized debt obligations or similar instruments. As a matter of policy, we do not carry positions or make markets.

Throughout the years, in making decisions about my business, I have always put the safety of my clients’ assets first. This is one of the primary reasons my firm clears on a fully disclosed basis through DEF LLC (DEF), a GHI company. DEF clears our clients’ trades and is in custody of their accounts. Their name appears with ours on monthly statements and confirmations. As of December 31, 2007, DEF had net capital in excess of $2.1 billion which exceeded its minimum net capital requirement by more than $1.9 billion.

In addition, when you do business at ABC, your account receives coverage from the Securities Investment Protection Corp. (SIPC) as primary protection for up to $500,000, including a limitation of $100,000 for cash. SIPC coverage is required of all registered broker-dealers. Since most “cash equivalent” money market mutual funds are considered securities under SIPC, investments in money market mutual funds held in a brokerage account are protected by SIPC along with your other securities to a maximum of $500,000. Of course, there is no protection that will cover you for a decline in the market value of your securities. You may visit www.sipc.org to learn more about SIPC protection.

Furthermore, DEF has arranged for additional protection for cash and covered securities to supplement its SIPC coverage. This additional protection is provided under a surety bond issued by the Customer Asset Protection Company (CAPCO), a licensed Vermont insurer with an A+ financial strength rating from Standard and Poor’s. DEF’s excess-SIPC protection covers total account net equity for cash and securities in excess of the amounts covered by SIPC, for accounts of broker-dealers which clear through DEF. There is no specific dollar limit to the protection that CAPCO provides on customer accounts held at DEF. This provides ABC clients the highest level of account protection available in the brokerage industry to the total net equity with no limit for the amount of cash or securities. And, unlike many other brokers, there is no “cap” on the aggregate amount of coverage for all of our customers’ assets. You may access a CAPCO brochure about “Total Net’ Equity Protection” at ABC.com [deleted]….

If you are concerned about the status of your assets at another brokerage firm, you might consider moving them to ABC. It is easy to transfer assets. If you have friends who are concerned about their brokers, you might consider referring them to us. We continue to offer free trades for asset transfer and referrals. If you have questions about anything in this letter, please feel free to call us at 800-xxx-xxxx from 7:30 a.m. –7:30 p.m. ET, Monday-Friday. Once again, thank you for your trust and your loyalty.

Sincerely,

President and Chief Executive Officer of ABC

I used to do business with ABC, and I presently do business with GHI. Both of them are good firms, doing business on a fair basis for their clients. To me, it is interesting to use financial strength as a marketing tool.

On another level, how many people actually check the solvency of their brokers before doing business with them? On a retail level very few, if any. On an institutional level, that’s a normal check for sophisticated investors.

That said, I would be surprised to see any major retail brokers go insolvent aside from those with significant investment banking exposure. Even there, accounts are segregated, and client cash typically has the option of being in a money market fund.

This is not something that I worry about in investing, but if I were worried about my broker, I would make sure that my liquid assets over $100,000 were in a non-commingled vehicle, most likely a money market fund.

What of Excess Insurance?

Now, I will add just one more note in closing. CAPCO is a nice idea, but I am always skeptical of small-ish insurers backing large liabilities with a remote possibility of incidence. There aren’t that many AAA reinsurers out there, and I am guessing that Berky is not one of them. Buffett does not like to reinsure financial risks, aside from municipal debt. That leaves the AAA financial guarantors — Ambac, MBIA, Assured Guaranty, and FSA (though I am open to a surprise here). I’m guessing it’s the first two, and not the last two. CAPCO is owned by many of the major brokers, but in a crisis, CAPCO has no recourse to its owners, but only to its reinsurers, should that coverage be triggered. The recent financial troubles have led S&P to place CAPCO on negative outlook, mainly because:

Standard & Poor’s assigns a negative outlook when we believe the probability of a downgrade within the next two years is at least 30%. The revised outlook reflects the challenging environment for broker/dealers and their parents. Deterioration in their credit quality and risk-management capabilities could affect CAPCO’s financial strength. In the past couple of months, Standard & Poor’s has revised the outlook on several of CAPCO’s members’ parents to negative. Also, the ratings on a couple of members are on CreditWatch with negative implications, which means there’s the potential for a more imminent downgrade. The capital of CAPCO’s members and–in some cases–their parents is an important resource for mitigating CAPCO’s potential payments for its excess SIPC (Securities Investors Protection Corp.) coverage.

It would be interesting to know for certain the underwriters and terms of CAPCO’s reinsurance. I’m not losing any sleep over it, though… there are bigger things to worry about, my personal broker is well-capitalized, and I have less than $100K at risk in cash, and that is in a money market fund. So long as accounts remain segregated, risks are small.