The brokerage firm E. F. Hutton is struggling with complaints about financial mismanagement; First Jersey Securities has once again come under fire from the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a string of small government-securities firms has failed this year.
Most of Wall Street is in far better shape than it was in the early 1970s. Nevertheless, investors should look to the safety of their accounts, to avoid being trapped in the coils of an insolvent firm. Some answers to your questions about brokerage-house failures:
*What happens to your money if your broker goes broke?
It won't affect you at all, if the broker always sends you the certificates for the securities you buy. But you do have to worry about any securities and cash that you've left at the brokerage house.
There, your funds are insured by the Securities Investor Protection Corp., which is financed by the securities industry. SIPC has enough money to bail out the customers of small brokerage houses, 10 of which have collapsed so far this year. It has a $1 billion line of credit on the U.S. Treasury, which could go a long way toward covering a larger failure.
*How much insurance protection do you have?
Let's say that your broker failed, with all your securities in his vaults. Normally, SIPC would first give you all the securities registered in your name. Next, any other identifiable cash and securities -- including securities held for customers in the name of the brokerage house -- would be distributed to their proper owners.
If you come up short, SIPC will reimburse you for up to $500,000 in missing cash and securities with a ceiling of $100,000 on your cash recovery; money-market mutual funds are treated as securities, not as cash.
Any money that you owe the brokerage house will normally be deducted from your recovery. If you owe the broker more than he owes you, you will be billed.
*How could you lose money, if your account is fully insured?
SIPC doesn't cover your market losses. When a firm fails, your account might be transferred to another broker within one to three months. If the records are bad or fraud was involved, it could take many months more.
During that time, your securities are frozen. If they decline in value, the loss is yours. If SIPC replaces your missing securities with cash, you'll get their price as of the day that the insurance fund took over -- not counting any increase in value since that time.
*How should you protect yourself?
Investors who rarely trade should keep their securities in a safe-deposit box, where they can't be caught in a brokerage failure. If you trade often, and it's handier to keep them with your broker, consider registering them in your own name to make it easy to establish ownership.
Keep meticulous records of what you own, especially if you register your securities in the name of the brokerage house. "House" names make it simple for you to sell in a hurry. But if the broker fails, its own records might be so snarled up that SIPC can't easily tell which house-named securities are actually yours.
*What if your account includes commodities or interests in gold or silver?
You're stuck. SIPC doesn't insure those investments and the commodities industry has no guarantee fund. When the commodities broker, Volume Investors Corp., failed earlier this year, around $13 million belonging to 100 customers was frozen. They recently received around half their money back and are negotiating for more.
Your safety net is to buy and sell commodities through large, well-capitalized brokerage houses, rather than small firms.
*When should you suspect that your broker might be in trouble?
If your account is constantly scrambled; if the firm sells you new stock issues, then tries to puff up the price by preventing you from selling; if you get confirmation for an order to buy stock when you never actually placed the order; if you start seeing stories about the firm's financial or legal difficulties. These should be signals to find a new broker. Many of the brokers that go out of business are solvent enough to pay their customers in full, SIPC told my associate, Virginia Wilson. But better safe than sorry.
*What if your money is with an investment adviser, rather than a brokerage firm?
His customers are not covered by SIPC. If he's dishonest and disappears, you have no protection except what the law can provide. British commodities trader Alex Herbage was recently accused of swindling $46 million from more than 3,000 American investors. It's hard to guess how much of that money will ever be seen again.