Wirehouse Merrill Lynch is on the hook for $19 million in restitution over alleged failures in supervising its agents on the opening of 529 college savings plans, the Portland Press Herald writes.
Maine’s state regulators say the wirehouse let its agents put investors who wanted to open college savings plans in its NextGen Fund into Class C shares, according to the consent order cited by the paper. Merrill Lynch earns more in fees from Class C shares than Class A shares, but Class C shares are designed for investing with a shorter time horizon, according to the state, the Press Herald writes.
The wirehouse had detected the inappropriate allocation itself and reported it to Finra, according to Bill Norbert, a spokesman for the Finance Authority of Maine, the paper writes. FAME is the administrator of the NextGen program in Maine, according to the Press Herald.
The NextGen fund only offered the long-term-geared class of shares until 2006, Judith Shaw, the administrator of the Maine Office of Securities, which issued the consent order, tells the paper. And Merrill Lynch didn’t have a system to match the age of the beneficiary to the class of the investment once a second share class was added to the fund, according to the Press Herald. But that supervisory failure on the part of the wirehouse has since been fixed, Shaw tells the paper.
Merrill Lynch is paying back around 50,000 account holders under the order, the Press Herald writes. In Maine, 673 NextGen accounts will receive an average credit of $164 while the Maine Securities Investor Education and Training Fund is receiving a $500,000 credit from the wirehouse, which Merrill Lynch is providing in lieu of paying a civil penalty, according to the paper.
Merrill Lynch’s NextGen fund has grown 36% over the past five years, reaching $9.4 billion in 2017, according to data from FAME cited by the Press Herald. But the wirehouse only collected $40 million in management fees on the fund, compared to the $43 million it earned in 2016 despite the fund having only $8.5 billion that year, according to FAME.