SEC halts trading of 17 penny stocks

June 7, 2011

The August 2010 report on a Nevada company called Kore Nutrition Inc. resembled any of countless research reports issued by Wall Street analysts assessing the outlook for company stocks.

Written by Cohen Independent Research Group Inc., it was filled with charts and tables of financial data supporting a conclusion that Kore Nutrition “offers an attractive investment for investors seeking growth from exposure to the fast-growing energy drink market.”

The report said the stock was trading at 61 cents at the time, and it presented a “Cohen Price Target” of $10.50.

The fine-print disclaimers more than 40 pages into the document added some caveats: The company had paid $11,500 for the report, which “should be viewed as a commercial advertisement and is not intended to be used for investment advice.”

On Tuesday, the Securities and Exchange Commission temporarily suspended trading in shares of Kore Nutrition and 16 other penny stocks, saying that a lack of current or accurate information about the companies seemed to leave investors vulnerable to hype and ma­nipu­la­tion.

The danger, SEC officials said, is that stock promoters could drive unsustainable spikes in share prices, and investors who buy on hype can be left holding the bag.

Penny stocks can be especially susceptible to such spikes because they may be thinly traded, a small number of investors may control a large proportion of the shares, and there may be relatively few sources of independent information about them, SEC officials said.

Regulators have long been concerned about penny stocks. The 17 suspensions Tuesday were part of the agency’s latest focus on the subject, involving a new “Microcap Fraud Working Group,” the agency said.

In a statement, SEC enforcement director Robert Khuzami said the group is scrutinizing promoters, lawyers, auditors, brokers and “other ‘gatekeepers’ who flourish in the shadows of this less-than-transparent market.”

Cohen Independent Research Group was not accused of doing anything wrong, and it was not named in the SEC’s actions Tuesday.

In a news release describing penny stock promotions, the SEC said Kore Nutrition’s share price began to spike on Aug. 31, 2010, after the release of “a company-paid research report setting a target price of $10.50.”

SEC officials said the agency was referring to the Aug. 19, 2010, Cohen report.

D. Paul Cohen, head of the firm that bears his name and of the affiliated Grass Roots Research and Distribution Inc. (GRRD), said in an interview that his organization neither knows about nor participates in any illegal activities.

“All of our reports are commercial advertisements, and they’re disclaimed as such,” he said.

The fine print said GRRD may be paid in stock, and that it might “significantly depress” the company’s share price when it sells the stock.

A profile on Cohen’s Web site says that as of late 2009, 80 percent of all stocks the company researched rose to their highest price within 30 days of being touted in a report.

A Kore Nutrition executive did not return a call seeking comment.

The trading suspensions last at least 10 days. Stocks traded outside exchanges in the “over-the-counter” market do not resume trading until a broker has determined that the companies have reasonably current financial statements, according to the SEC.

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