RIAs Join Brokers In Promoting Securities-Backed Lending

These loans are growing quickly beyond wire houses, but some are concerned about the risks and conflicts of interest

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Traditionally a major focus at bank-owned brokerage firms, securities-backed loans — where a wealthy investor puts up their portfolio as collateral for a big-money purchase &mash; are increasingly being marketed through independent registered investment advisers.

In the past two years, use of the products has soared as custodians beef up their lending capabilities. Pershing Advisor Solutions, a subsidiary of The Bank of New York Mellon Corp., began offering the loans to RIAs last year and has already issued 254 of them worth $1 billion through more than 20% of its 570 RIA clients. Fidelity Investments, which serves about 3,000 RIAs, has seen balances for securities-backed loans increase 63% in its RIA segment over the past two years.

“Non purpose loans have gotten more attention over the last year-plus with the custodians,” said John Sullivan, a former lending specialist at Smith Barney who is now a relationship manager at Dynasty Financial Partners. “Every effort is being made by firms like Dynasty and the various custodians that are out there to be able to replicate or in some cases exceed the existing platform” at the wirehouses.

For years, the loans have been a popular product at the wirehouses, including Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley Wealth Management. They are billed as a way for wealthy investors to make large purchases, such as a yacht or vacation home, without having to sell a portion of their portfolio or incur capital gains taxes in the short term. Bank of America Merrill Lynch had $11.7 billion in margin loans outstanding, according to its most recent SEC filings from March.

There is no upfront cost to set up a securities-based line of credit, and firms offer competitive rates, which are sometimes lower than a traditional bank loan and are particularly attractive now with low interest rates. The loans can be made in a relatively shorter period of time than traditional bank loans as well. They take as few as eight business days at Pershing.

But there are other reasons firms, including the wirehouses like securities-backed lending. The loans provide another income source from clients in fee-based accounts and can be more profitable for the firm than other investment products because they don’t have to share as much of the revenue with their advisers who sells the clients on the loan.

“Lending growth will enhance the stability of revenue and earnings for the firm as a whole and make our client relationships deeper and stickier,” Morgan Stanley & Co.‘s former chief financial officer, Ruth Porat, said in an earnings call in July.

RIAs specifically don’t receive any additional compensation from a bank or custodian for selling securities-backed loans, but there are other benefits. For example, the loans allow wealthy clients to make multimillion dollar purchases without cutting into the assets under management. Bob LaRue, a managing director at BNY Mellon, said new business from clients often results as well — and, of course, the dollars left in the portfolio have the potential for gains, which raise AUM.

Herein lies the rub, according to Tim Welsh, president and consultant of Nexus Strategy, a wealth management consulting firm. “They don’t sell, so the assets under management stay the same — so it inherently has a conflict of interest,” he said.

That can be a problem, Mr. Welsh said, particularly because client demand typically is highest for these kinds of loans at the wrong time.

“In every bull market I’ve seen, this is always a predictor of the top,” Mr. Welsh said. “When people start borrowing money against their assets, they’re really confident that they’re going up. And investors are always one step behind in terms of tops and bottoms.”

The risk is that if the value of a client’s portfolio drops, the firm can sell the securities or ask that the client put down more money to back that up. Using securities as collateral can be subject to greater volatility than other types, such as a home equity loan.

“When the markets rationalize, bills come due, and if you don’t have liquidity, all of a sudden you have to sell,” Mr. Welsh said. “It definitely raises the risk profile up immediately.”

Adviser Josh Brown of Ritholtz Wealth Management has dubbed the growth in these loans a “rich man’s subprime.”

“Once again, super-cheap financing based on an asset whose value can fluctuate wildly (a stock and bond portfolio, in this case) is being used for the purchase of assets that can be significantly less liquid, like real estate, fine art or business expansion,” Mr. Brown wrote in a story last year on the growth of the loans in the wirehouse space. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Regulators have taken notice as well. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc., which oversees broker-dealers, warned in January that it was looking into the marketing of securities-backed loans as part of this year’s regulatory agenda.

“Finra has observed that the number of firms offering [securities-backed loans] is increasing, and is concerned about how they are marketed,” the regulator said.

That said, Mr. Sullivan and others who defend securities-backed lending said it works well if that risk is taken into account.

“It’s really about staying invested for the long-term and meeting short-term cash flow needs with some borrowing that’s not going to exceed a certain percentage on the assets,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Mr. LaRue said advisers have to consider whether it makes sense to trade leverage for the tax benefits.

“The appropriateness of leverage depends on each individual client’s needs,” he said. “If you are borrowing [to avoid the capital gains] taxes and keep a favorable investment strategy in place, then perhaps leveraging those assets at a low interest rate makes sense.”

By Mason Braswell for Investment News

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