What Is Churning?
article-451

What Is Churning?

8 Min.

Churning refers to the practice of trading assets excessively in a client's brokerage account with the aim of generating commissions. Engaging in churning is both illegal and unethical, which can result in significant fines and sanctions. Brokerages can either charge a commission on trades or a flat percentage fee for managed accounts. If you have a flat-fee account, there is a risk of "reverse churning," where there is minimal or no trading, but you still have to pay an annual fee based on your assets. Investors can avoid churning and reverse churning by maintaining an active role in decision-making regarding their portfolios.

Basics

Churning is a broker's illegal and unethical practice of excessively trading assets in a client's account to generate commissions. While there is no quantitative measure for churning, frequent buying and selling of stocks or assets that do little to meet the client's investment objectives may be evidence of churning.

What Is Churning?

Churning, a clandestine practice, can lead to significant losses in the client's account. Even profitable trades may incur unnecessary tax liabilities. Unscrupulous brokers engage in excessive buying and selling of stocks, aiming to maximize commissions from these transactions on behalf of investors. Financial firms' brokers might be incentivized to promote newly issued securities underwritten by the firm's investment banking arm. Such incentives, like a 10% bonus for buying specific shares on behalf of clients, may not align with the investors' best interests. 

Detecting churning proves challenging. Investors may deduce overtrading when trade frequency undermines their investment objectives, escalating commission costs without tangible long-term results.

Types of Churning

Under the surface of churning lies many practices, each characterized by excessive trading orchestrated by brokers seeking to maximize commissions. If clients find themselves burdened with frequent commissions but see no tangible portfolio gains, churning may lurk behind the scenes.

Churning extends its grasp to encompass mutual funds and annuities, where excessive or unnecessary trading also poses a concern. A-share mutual funds, designed for long-term investments, bear an upfront load. Consequently, selling an A-share fund within five years and replacing it with another one necessitates a justifiable and prudent investment decision.

Within most mutual fund companies, investors can switch between funds within the fund family without incurring upfront fees. Hence, when recommending investment changes, brokers should primarily explore options within the fund family.

Contrary to mutual funds, deferred annuities—retirement savings accounts—do not typically impose upfront fees. Instead, they enforce surrender charges, penalizing early fund withdrawals. The duration of these charges varies from one to ten years.

To combat churning, numerous states have enacted exchange and replacement rules. These regulations empower investors to compare new contracts and highlight surrender penalties or fees, fostering transparency.

Another type of churning, credit card churning, is a technique employed to capitalize on introductory rewards. It entails opening multiple new credit card accounts and closing or leaving them unused. In the past, this approach enabled churners to accumulate substantial reward points.

While not illegal, credit card companies frown upon this practice. As a result, these companies have implemented safeguards to deter customers from repetitively opening and closing accounts, curtailing the potential benefits of churning.

Remaining vigilant against churning demands monitoring one's account with unwavering scrutiny. Diligently examine every transaction notice and meticulously review each monthly statement. Be aware of the commission amounts incurred, shielding yourself against potential harm.

Reverse Churning

Reverse churning occurs when a broker, compensated through a flat fee based on the assets under management, engages in minimal or no trading to earn that fee. This stands in contrast to churning, where excessive trading is used to increase commissions.

When opening an account with a broker, investors face a crucial decision:

  1. Commission-Based Account: In this setup, the broker earns a commission for each buy and sell order executed on the account.
  2. Flat-Rate Commission Account: Here, the broker charges a fixed percentage, typically ranging from 1% to 3% annually, based on the total assets under management.

Online or discount brokers often charge a flat fee per transaction, with some offering zero fees for specific transactions within limits. This option allows for a do-it-yourself approach without professional advice or management, although premium services are available for those seeking additional assistance. However, a potential risk arises if an investor switches from a commission-based broker to a flat-rate broker, only to find the latter providing minimal portfolio management while collecting fees annually.

A more favorable alternative is for the investor to retain control over the account, approving buy and sell decisions and clearly expressing their desired level of portfolio management activity from the outset. This approach empowers investors to make informed choices and avoid the drawbacks of reverse churning.

Safeguarding Against Churning: Effective Prevention Strategies

Preventing churning necessitates taking proactive measures to protect your investments. Consider the following strategies:

  1. Maintain Control: Churning can only occur when brokers possess discretionary authority over your account. Retain full control by requiring your explicit permission for any changes made to your account.
  2. Opt for Fee-Based Accounts: Opting for a fee-based account, such as a wrap account, mitigates the risk of churning. This type of account eliminates the incentives for excessive trading. Fees are typically charged quarterly or annually, ranging from 1% to 3% of the assets under management.
  3. Assess Suitability: While wrap accounts offer benefits, they may not suit all investors. If there is minimal or no trading of assets within the account, the flat fee structure can become excessive. Such a situation may indicate the presence of another form of churning known as reverse churning.

By implementing these preventive measures, investors can fortify their defenses against churning and promote the integrity of their investment portfolios.

Uncovering the Evidence: Proving Churning

Establishing the occurrence of churning can be a formidable task, but with diligence and scrutiny, you can gather the necessary evidence. Follow these steps to bolster your case:

  1. Vigilant Portfolio Monitoring: Pay close attention to your portfolio. Actively review and assess any buy or sell transactions made by your broker. While it's optional, you can request that your broker discusses transactions with you in advance. This provides an additional layer of transparency and helps in building a strong defense against churning.
  2. Written Transaction Notices: Federal regulations mandate that you receive written notices for all transactions. If you find yourself inundated with frequent notifications, particularly for mutual funds, annuities, or insurance products, this may indicate potential churning. These types of investments are typically not meant for frequent trading.
  3. Commission Evaluation: Thoroughly examine your monthly statements and scrutinize the commission charges. High total commissions diminish your overall profits. If you observe excessive commission fees, it could be indicative of churning.
  4. Report to Regulatory Authorities: If you suspect churning, take action by reporting it to the appropriate regulatory bodies. Notify the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) or the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) of the misconduct, providing them with the relevant details and evidence.

By diligently monitoring your portfolio, being aware of transaction patterns, and reporting any suspicious activities, you can actively combat churning and protect your financial interests.

Implications of Churning: Consequences and Sanctions

Churning, characterized by excessive trading to boost commissions, carries severe repercussions. Regulatory bodies such as the SEC, FINRA, and NYSE enforce strict rules to address this misconduct. Here's what you need to know:

  1. SEC Oversight: The SEC defines churning as broker-controlled excessive buying and selling to generate inflated commissions. Violations of SEC Rule 15c1-7, governing manipulative conduct, can lead to sanctions.
  2. Regulatory Intervention: The SEC investigates complaints against brokers who prioritize their own interests over those of their clients. FINRA, under Rule 2111, and NYSE, under Rule 408(c), also regulate overtrading practices.
  3. Filing a Complaint: Investors who believe they have fallen victim to churning can file a complaint with either the SEC or FINRA.
  4. Grave Ramifications: Churning is a grave offense that can result in employment termination, industry bans, and legal consequences. FINRA holds the authority to impose fines ranging from $5,000 to $116,000, according to their sanction guidelines.
  5. Broker Suspension: FINRA retains the power to suspend brokers for periods ranging from one month to two years. In more severe cases, suspensions can extend beyond two years or result in indefinite barring.

It is essential for investors to report suspected instances of churning to the appropriate regulatory authorities, as the consequences of this unethical practice are severe and designed to protect the interests of clients.

Conclusion

Churning, an illegal and unethical practice, involves excessive trading by brokers for higher commissions, harming client portfolios. Preventing churning requires investor control and fee-based accounts. Evidence gathering is essential, including monitoring transactions and reporting suspicions to regulatory authorities like the SEC or FINRA.
Churning carries severe consequences: fines, termination, industry bans, and broker suspensions. Investors must remain vigilant, proactive, and informed to combat churning effectively. By overseeing portfolios, reporting suspicious activities, and cooperating with regulators, investors can protect their investments and hold wrongdoers accountable.

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