About six weeks ago, I did a piece on how an aging hospitalized widow blew about $214,000 with a brokerage biggie E. F. Hutton & Co. because a greedy broker -- obviously hungry for commissions -- actively traded her account in one of the riskiest investment plays around: naked call options. I'm pleased to report that Hutton -- which did a shoddy job of monitoring the broker -- subsequently agreed to repay a big chunck of the losses (roughly $160,000). Moreover, the matter has now become the subject of an investigation by the Securities & Exchange Commission.
In response to my Hutton story, I was beseiged with dozens of calls and letters from other investors (or their lawyers) who complained that they too had been treated badly by commission-hungry, inept brokers. One particular complaint struck me for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it points up the dangers -- in very painful terms (the loss of big dollars) -- of investing in the hottest moneymaking craze on Wall Street the past couple of years: the corporate takeover game. It also shows how a fast-talking, hard-sell broker can sucker a supposedly sophisticated businessman into investing big bucks into highly speculative market situations by claiming access to privileged or inside information.
It's a graphic look at a broker-customer relationship as its worst -- out of which comes precisely the shoddy kind of dealings that give the securities industry a bad name. The outcome was virtually predictable from the start.
This story centers on a joint accound that Ted Smolkin, an admittedly dollar-conscious $60,000-a-year New York accountant, opened with his girlfriend in March 1978 at the brokerage firm of Phillips, Appel, & Walden (which has five offices in New York and New Jersey). The broker was Amy Slabod, who's been in the business 26 years -- the last 9 with Philips, Appel, and before that, 19 years with Oppenheimer & Co.
The first couple of trades -- equities that Smolkin picked on his own -- did just fine; they netted his account a profit of more than several thousand dollars in just a couple of months. But then came the horror story -- a loss of nearly $36,000 in the next 18 months on just five stocks. All five -- which Smolkin says Slabod vigorously pushed -- were touted as "sure-thing takeovers." Alas, you guessed it: None of the five was taken over, and each was sold at a loss.
The worst drubbing was taken on Sambo's Restaurants, 1,000 shares of which were bought at 20 1/4 and subsequently sold at 5 1/4 for an overall loss (including commissions) of nearly $15,500. According to Smolkin, during the stock's slide, Slabod repeatedly implored him to buy more Sambo's shares based on information she claimed she had obtained directly from a top Sambo's official -- namely that things were turning around for the company and that a takeover was still a possibility. Luckily Smolkin wasn't enticed. Later, when the stock fell to 7 (it was recently around 6), Slabod recommended its sale.
Her other four recommended takeovers: Varo, bought at 14 1/4, sold at 7 3/4; Coleco Industries, purchased at 6 7/8, sold at 3 7/8; Coachmen Industries, bought at 15 3/8, sold at 5; and Itek, purchased at 31 3/8 sold at 28 7/8.
Smolkin says that at no time did Slabod ever discuss the fundamentals of any of the companies. Nor did she ever inquire about investment goals or whether her two clients could afford to take losses in such speculations. It was strictly a case of Slabod claiming that "she more or less had inside information that the companies were going to be taken over," Smolkin said.
There's no getting away from the fact that those losses allegedly were taken on a broker's claims of inside information. And supposedly, that's not cricket.
Using that very argument, an angry Smolkin -- obviously trying to get some of his money back -- has lodged complaints both with Philips, Apel and the Big Board. He hasn't had much luck with either -- "the Big Board protects its own," he laments -- and so he took his case to the SEC. There he's made some headway; the agency has spoken to several of Slabod's customers, focusing strongly on her takeover claims. And at the end of the month, she'll be interrogated personally by the SEC.
Should the agency take any action, Smolkin indicates he probably will file a civil case against Slabod. "I may not get my money back, but brokers like that have to be stopped," he said.
What does Slabod have to say?
Her emotional, almost hysterical reaction when I called her: "They were all his recommendations, not mine. I only recommended on fundamentals." But then after saying that, she admitted she did suggest a few stocks "on hearsay, on rumors I've read about (which gives you an insight into how Phillips, Appel supervises its business)."