Fines paid by Wall Street firms as part of a "global settlement" with securities regulators could go to a restitution fund for individual investors who lost money by following Wall Street stock recommendations, sources familiar with the settlement talks said.
The total to be paid by a dozen large Wall Street firms could be more than $1 billion. Firms have largely accepted that they will have to pay big fines to end multiple investigations into their business practices. But regulators still expect some complaints as firms are told late this week and early next week the approximate size of their individual fines.
Executives at several Wall Street firms have said in recent days that they would be more comfortable paying the fines if the money went to investors rather than to state or federal regulators. New York state Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer, who has run the most aggressive of the investigations into alleged conflicts between investment bankers and stock analysts on Wall Street, advocates the restitution fund, according to sources familiar with his thinking.
Spitzer had been criticized by some investor activists for not agreeing to distribute to investors a $100 million fine he levied on Merrill Lynch & Co. earlier this year for allegedly tainted research.
Officials in other states investigating Wall Street firms did not return calls for comment on the restitution fund idea. Officials at the Securities and Exchange Commission and the industry self-regulatory group NASD, which are both taking part in the settlement talks, declined to comment. It is unclear at this stage who would administer the fund or how money would be distributed to investors.
Regulators and lawyers for Wall Street firms spoke on a conference call this afternoon about fines that the banks will be asked to pay as well as other proposed changes. No agreement on final terms is expected until mid-December.
Among other things, the global settlement is likely to put strict limits on when analysts can interact with bankers. It is also likely to require that each firm hire an ombudsman to purchase independent research from at least three firms that do no investment banking work and ensure that the research is distributed to retail brokerage clients. The firms will also likely be required to make the independent research available free on their Web sites. The amount of money each firm will be required to pay for third-party research will be determined by the number of retail brokerage clients they have and their investment banking revenue, sources said.
At the heart of the probes, which have uncovered internal e-mails deeply embarrassing to Wall Street's toniest firms, is the allegation by regulators that analysts regularly placed inflated ratings on stocks to generate or maintain lucrative investment banking business from those companies. Many of those stocks later crashed, costing investors hundreds of billions of dollars.
Firms are to begin meeting with regulators on Friday to learn the approximate size of their fines. Those under the heaviest scrutiny, such as Credit Suisse First Boston Corp. and Citigroup Inc.'s Salomon Smith Barney, are expected to go first. Other firms under less direct pressure will meet with regulators Monday and Tuesday, sources said.
According to sources, regulators sent out an e-mail to firms today to see who would be available to meet Thursday morning at the New York Stock Exchange for further discussions. It was unclear tonight whether the meeting would take place.
Meanwhile, firms are already complaining about the different fines, which sources say could be as high as $400 million for those viewed as the worst offenders. An executive at one firm under heavy scrutiny said other firms might be getting off easier only because they deleted damaging e-mails. An executive at another firm questioned regulators' commitment to significant reform, saying nothing under discussion would eliminate conflicts of interest on Wall Street.
"This is much more complicated than any of the regulators originally thought," this person said. "Now they just want to get the money and move on."