Ameriprise’s Securities America near settlement; brokers chafe

* Lawyers reach preliminary pact over fraud claims

* Brokerage seeks survival support from Ameriprise

* Rivals make offers to worried brokers

By Joseph A. Giannone

NEW YORK, March 29 (Reuters) – Securities America, a
broker-dealer owned by Ameriprise Financial (AMP.N: Quote, Profile, Research) that’s
battling litigation over fraudulent securities sales, has
reached a preliminary settlement that ends threats to its
survival, sources familiar with the negotiations said.

Wavering support for Securities America from Ameriprise
throughout the proceedings still threatens to cause defections
by some brokers and clients, said rival firms and recruiters.

Securities America and Ameriprise are offering plaintiffs
in a wave of customer arbitration disputes as much as 48
percent of the value of their claims, according to a person
familiar with the negotiations. That’s up from the 20 percent
offer that a federal judge rejected two weeks ago in an attempt
to settle a class-action suit by investors.

The agreement to settle arbitration claims that could have
reached as high as $400 million was reached Friday after two
days of mediation, the sources said. Lawyers are now polling
plaintiffs and the more than two dozen attorneys who represent
them to see if there is sufficient support, a process that may
take a week.

Even if the agreement holds, Securities America is still
vulnerable to outstanding class-action suits if they are not
consolidated into the settlement, the source said.

MEDCAP FRAUD

Officials of Ameriprise and Securities America, which
provides investment products and regulatory and business
services to about 1,800 brokers who are “independent
contractors, declined to comment on the negotiations. Some
plaintiffs’ lawyers have said previously that $200 million —
about half the damages claimed in various class-action suits
and arbitration proceedings — would satisfy the aggrieved
investors.

Securities America brokers hawked about $700 million of
notes from Medical Capital and also aggressively sold private
securities of Provident Royalties. The companies were
subsequently charged with fraud by the Securities and Exchange
Commission, and about half of the investors who bought the
securities between 2004 through the end of 2008 lost money.

Securities America was not the only independent brokerage
firm in the sales network, but was the largest. The deep
pockets of its parent made it more vulnerable than others to
claims, according to lawyers.

The broker has warned that its $9.2 million of net capital
could easily be wiped out by legal judgments and Ameriprise —
which has $2.9 billion of cash on its balance sheet — has
averred that it has no obligation to bail out the
broker-dealer.

Ameriprise, a former financial planning and insurance unit
of American Express Co. and the sixth-largest wealth management
firm in the U.S., recently set aside $40 million in reserves
for the Securities America litigation, far short of what
clients are demanding.

The first of dozens of the pending cases resulted in a $1.2
million ruling against Securities America on New Year’s Eve.
Another $21 million settlement was rejected on March 18 by a
federal judge in Dallas, who wrote that the firm consciously
decided “to maintain a very low capital structure” and maintain
“a very low insurance coverage.”

BROKERS HANG IN

As the legal battles continue and the fate of Securities
America hangs in the balance, some recruiters say the firm’s
brokers are highly vulnerable to raids.

Janine Wertheim, Securities Americas Advisors president,
denies their assertions, saying brokers have been
“overwhelmingly supportive” during the negotiations.

“We’re not aware of any adviser leaving in the past couple
of weeks as result of this situation,” she said. “Year-to-date,
we have experienced a positive net gain in brokers.”

Independent brokerages like Securities America allow their
advisers to keep as must as 95 percent of the client revenue
they generate as opposed to about 50 percent for the top
producers employed at large brokerage firms. .

In return, the advisers cover their own overhead, pay fees
for access to trading and other systems, and generally have
access to fewer financial products than colleagues at large
Wall Street firms.

Because they are used to the higher payouts and the lower
bureaucracy, they are likely to listen to overtures from rivals
independent firms such as LPL Financial (LPLA.O: Quote, Profile, Research)–the biggest
of the breed, Commonwealth Financial Network and Cambridge
Financial Network. Those firms have apparently seized on
Securities America’s customer suitability problems.

JUMPING SHIP

Rival brokers say calls are coming their way without much
inducement.

“Our inbound calls have spiked,” said Robert Holcomb,
marketing chief for First Allied Securities, an independent
brokerage based in San Diego. “Plenty of their advisers are
hopeful they can remain in place and a resolution will make all
of this moot. Others (are) getting their lifeboats ready.”

Timothy White, a recruiter at Kaye/Bassman International
in Dallas, said that though Securities America brokers tend to
be loyal no broker-dealer is invulnerable to defections when
their advisers get hit with client suitability complaints.

“You can be sure every broker-dealer is calling every
broker at Securities America. They’re vulnerable,” said Arthur
Grant, chief executive of Syracuse, New York-based independent
brokerage Cadaret, Grant & Co.

He said a few have joined his company, and talks are
ongoing with “quite a few” more.

(Reporting by Joseph A. Giannone, editing by Jed Horowitz)

Ameriprise’s Securities America near settlement; brokers chafe