Investing 
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Don’t Buy (or Sell) Stocks On Emotionally-Charged News

Late last year, when there was blood in the streets, a well known discount broker (Company A) was said to be on the verge of bankruptcy and the stock tanked 50% in one day. Not only did it tank 50% but the prognosis on the street, at least perpetuated by mainstream media, was that company was hosed and that they were going under. They didn’t have a rich history of being able to fight off adversity, they were relatively new in the financial business and lots of people figured they’d collapse. SIPC insurance would have to be initiated to save accounts and it was going to be yet another one of the casualties of the sub-prime mess. Would you have sensed that the market had panicked and bought shares? Or would you have joined the bandwagon and watched the shares fall into oblivion?

Now consider this scenario. Several months later, an 85 year old investment firm (Company B), well known throughout the world, looked to be royally screwed as traders were concerned that the firm wouldn’t be able to fund future transactions. Their lifeblood, capital, appeared to be bleeding out as investors were pulling out their funds in the firm. Until their last quarter, they had never posted a loss. That’s 85 years worth of straight profits. On a Friday, their shares fell 10% to a five year low of around $57. By Monday, they closed at $30 on those same credit concerns. Did you see this as the market offering a huge discount on a valuable commodity? Or did you see it as the end of pretty good eight-five year old run?

Well, if you guessed, based on the setup, that Company A recovered and that Company B didn’t… you’d be quite astute. You’d be more astute if you made those determinations as the events were unfolding, rather than right now. Company A was E*Trade, which was the impetus for a topic focused on what would happen if your brokerage went bankrupt. Company B was Bear Stearns. JP Morgan Chase recently announced that they’d buy the firm for $2.30 a share, with funding from the Federal Reserve. While the ink isn’t dry yet on that deal, it was announced this past weekend in conjunction with a weekend 25 basis point cut by the Federal Reserve (an event almost as rare as Halley’s Comet, the last weekend rate cut announcement was October 6th, 1979).

The moral of this story is that you shouldn’t even buy individual stocks based on (emotionally-charged) news. The broader corollary to that moral is that you shouldn’t buy individual stocks without careful inspection of its fundamentals, but avoiding emotionally-charged news is always a great first step.

For the record, I thought E*Trade was going under and Bear Stearns would be fine. I didn’t buy shares of either because I’ve been burned (and rewarded) in the past about ignorantly buying on bad news (now I stick to index funds like a good boy!). In the past, I bought Enron because I thought people were over-reacting but one can never underestimate the pervasiveness and severity of outright fraud. I was rewarded when I bought shares of Xerox in 2000 when it was in single digits because I figured a firm with that storied a history probably was going to make it (or at least be acquired). Though it’s like they say, tell your kid that the stove is hot won’t sear in the message quite like actually touching it.


 Investing 
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What Happens If Your Brokerage Goes Bankrupt?

E-Trade Financial took a huge hit to their stock price today (50% haircut!) on word that they will be taking huge write downs because of their investment in securities backed by home loans. In fact, a Citi Investment Research analyst covering E-Trade downgraded it to a “Sell” from a “Hold,” adding that there’s a 15% chance E-Trade would go bankrupt. So what happens and what can you do if your brokerage goes bankrupt?

First off, you only have any protection if your brokerage has SIPC insurance. SIPC stands for U.S. Securities Investor Protection Corporation and it’s a federally chartered private corporation insuring shareholders against a stock-broker going bankrupt. It’s similar (but not exactly like) to FDIC and NCUA insurance for deposit accounts but covers against bankruptcy and not issues like fraud. If your brokerage is a member of the National Association of Security Dealers (NASD) FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority), then you will have SIPC insurance because the FINRA requires it. I personally would never use a brokerage that wasn’t in the FINRA because there’s simply no reason for it. The SIPC will cover you for $100,000 cash and $500,000 total (stocks and bonds, not futures, options, currency, etc.) but the brokerage itself may have supplemental insurance that goes beyond that.

So, what do you do? If your brokerage is liquidated, the court-appointed trustee will send you a claim form to fill out and send back. The turn around time is estimated at one to three months according to the SIPC website and that’s if you qualify (most do, there are some exceptions on that) and do it within the deadlines. Lastly, make sure you have good records with your statements so you can get your stuff back in a timely fashion. It’s not unheard of for a brokerage to have bad records so having your own helps the process.

Now with ETrade specifically, they claim to have SIPC coverage and you can confirm this by searching for “E*TRADE Securities LLC” in the SIPC lookup database. The search is very fickle, you have to type the whole name or it won’t find it (Etrade, Etrade financial, etc. all give no result).

Unless I’m missing something, it sounds like those folks who have investments through ETrade are covered by the SIPC. Those investing in ETrade are a different matter… whew, 50% is hard to take.


 Investing 
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Is Zecco A Scam or Legitimate?

(Updated Sept. 17, 2009) Zecco recently updated their free trades program to have a requirement of a $25,000 balance!

Anytime I hear free I immediately think “scam.” Let’s be honest, the person offering up something for free is looking for some sort of benefit and unless I can find out what the benefit is (especially if I’m giving them all the information they need to steal my identity), I’m going to assume the benefit for them is to steal my identity.

So, is Zecco legitimate or a scam? I let time do the testing because most people are savvy enough to sniff out a scam relatively soon, especially if you let mainstream media do the vetting. Right now, they appear legitimate and that’s because they’re actually a division of Equinox Securities, Inc. According to the NASD Broker Check, Equinox Securities (CRD# 135398, SEC# 8-66916) registered as a corporation in California on 01/21/2005 and is located in Ontario, CA. It’s currently not suspended by any regulator and has not yet had any Arbitration Awards, Disciplinary and/or Regulatory Events. I downloaded the full Equinox Securities report and you can see Zecco Trading listed on page 4.

So, the NASD knows about them but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re 100% legit, brokers with fraudulent intentions can register – they just can’t have committed fraud yet. That’s where the second line in their little fine print comes into play, they are a member of SIPC (Securities Investor Protection Corporation), an organization created by Congress in 1970. What do they do?

When a brokerage firm is closed due to bankruptcy or other financial difficulties and customer assets are missing, SIPC steps in as quickly as possible and, within certain limits, works to return customers’ cash, stock and other securities. Without SIPC, investors at financially troubled brokerage firms might lose their securities or money forever or wait for years while their assets are tied up in court.

Now, just because they say they’re in the SIPC doesn’t make it so, but I was able to confirm it through SIPC’s member check. Equinox Securities Inc. located at 2084 E Francis Street, Ontario CA 91761, an address that matches the NASD information. It’s a Cold Fusion script so I couldn’t link directly to the results but they’re in there.

Again, is participation in this program a guarantee it’s not fraudulent? Of course not, but that’s a lot of hoops to jump through if you’re a scam. So, after a brief bit of research, Zecco passed the extensive sniff test for me but to be honest, all the talk of their abysmal customer service makes me think you get what you paid for. Trades are cheap, why not go with a firm that has some credibility in the marketplace? I, for one, am going with TradeKing, twice named Smart Money’s #1 Discount Brokerage of the Year 2006 & 2007 (they removed the discount category after 2007), where trades are only $4.95. Smart Money put Zecco dead last in customer service.

I think customer service in a brokerage is crucial. If I have a problem, I don’t want to wait on hold.


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