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Thursday, December 16, 2004

First Command Sales Practices 
The National Association of Securities Dealers carries a hilarious description of First Command shenanigans here.


NASD also found that First Command violated NASD rules when a First Command supervisor inappropriately confronted a former customer – an Air Force officer – who complained in an e-mail to an online publication that he had suffered losses and recommended that others not invest with First Command. The e-mail was in response to a negative article about First Command’s sales practices.

First Command District Supervisor James Provo contacted the customer, suggested that he might need an attorney, told him that the highest level of Air Force commanders were being contacted regarding the e-mail and told him his previously approved change in assignment might be delayed until the matter was resolved. NASD also found that Provo arranged a meeting with the Air Force’s legal assistance office, questioning whether the customer had violated Air Force regulations by using e-mail to send his message criticizing First Command. Provo also contacted the customer’s squadron commander and informed her that First Command might have a grievance against a member of her squadron. First Command eventually wrote a letter of apology to the former client, but otherwise took no steps to discipline Provo.

In a separate action, NASD fined Provo $25,000 and suspended him from serving in a supervisory capacity for 30 days. In settling the matter, Provo neither admitted nor denied the allegations, but consented to the entry of NASD’s findings.


Provo's actions here are clearly beyond the pale. Soooooooooooooo I called the First Command headquarters.

I was forwarded to their communications director's voicemail. No problem. He's a busy guy today. I identified myself as a freelance writer, mentioned the blog, and mentioned my writing for Mutual Funds Magazine and Registered Representative Magazines. I know they've heard of me, too, because they already threatened to sue me, back in April.

I just had two questions, which I posed on his voicemail:

1.) Were there any factual errors on the NASD press release they wanted to clarify?

2.) Is James Provo still employed with First Command?

I informed them that I expected to write something as early as tonight, and I looked forward to talking to them.

First Command has not yet responded to my inquiries.

More sales shenanigans:

NASD found that the firm sold the plans through the use of a three-step scripted sales process that contained misleading statements and omissions. For example:

First Command emphasized in its sales that the 50% sales load would decrease to 3.3 percent upon completion of the term and that the high up-front sales charges increased the likelihood that an investor would complete the plan. However, the Firm’s own data showed that historically, only 43 percent of its customers completed the 15-year term.


First Command told its clients that a benefit of the high first-year sales charge was to “instill discipline.” However, First Command failed to inform its customers of the lost earnings potential as a result of the sales charges deducted from the customer’s first 12 months’ investments. For example, an investor who made monthly payments of $100, totaling $1,200 in the first year, would be left with an investment in the funds of only $600 for that year.


First Command also made misleading statements when comparing their plan with other mutual fund investments, telling investors that no-load mutual funds were primarily for speculators and that no-load funds frequently have some of the highest long-term costs. In fact, the long-term costs of owning no-load funds are, on average, lower than owning load funds.


First Command, in a training manual, cautioned its representatives when looking for prospects:


“Don’t ask or suggest to a ‘termite’ [a person who purchases term insurance, and invests the remainder in mutual funds] or ‘no loader’ [an individual who advocates the purchase of no-load mutual funds] who refuses to accept our philosophy that he talk with referrals. This is like voluntarily spreading a cancer in your market.”



Lovely, no?

I should mention, though, that the last bit of sleight-of-hand is hardly unique to First Command. They were just the only ones dumb enough to put it in writing.

For example, I write financial newsletters for a living. You know, those 4-8 page glossies you get in the mail from your bank, brokerage house, and insurance company.

One bank - I won't mention just who, but it's a household name, commissioned my employer to write a series of articles for its winter 2005 quarterly newsletter to its retail customers. I drew the assignment. Among the articles they specifically requested was the importance of conducting a regular financial checkup with an advisor. Ok, fine. I write something like that almost every week for someone or other.

I usually include a passage citing the following facts:

The average credit card holder has a combined balance of over 9,200 dollars (www.cardweb.com). I then multiply the balance by the going average interest rate for cards charging no annual fee (data courtesy of bankrate.com), and then inform investors that simply paying down credit cards can save them somewhere north of a thousand bucks a year. It's the best investment going, paying off 13-16 percent, guaranteed, with no risk, and no taxes!

Well, guess what: this passage got scrapped, at the request of the bank. "Incompatible with our product mix," they said.

Is it evil?

No. Just a little scuzzy, that's all.

Banks sell a product. That product, in the final analysis, is debt. I don't expect them to regularly publish newsletters trashing their own product.

But that's life in the financial services marketing industry.

I'll bet if I put it in an official-looking footnote, in the font we usually use for disclaimers, no one would have touched it!

Splash, out

Jason


UPDATE: First Command is one of Army Times's biggest advertisers. Miraculously, the Army Times' article on First Command makes no mention whatsoever of Mr. Provo's intimidation tactics.

What a sweetheart deal.

Splash, out

Jason


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7(m) Microloan Program

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• expand or renovate facilities;
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How do I repay the loan?

The length of time for repayment depends on the use of the loan proceeds and the ability of your small business to repay the loan.The term is usually 5 to 10 years for working capital, and up to 25 years for fixed assets such as the purchase or major renovation of real estate or purchase of equipment. There are no balloon payments, prepayment penalties, application fees or points permitted with these small business loans. Repayment plans may be tailored to each individual small business.

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You submit a business loan application to a lender for initial review. If the lender approves the business loan subject to an SBA guaranty, a copy of the loan application and a credit analysis are forwarded by the lender to the nearest SBA office. After SBA approval, the lending institution closes the business loan and disburses the funds; you make monthly loan payments directly to the lender. As with any loan, you are responsible for repaying the full amount of the loan. Visit **www.SBASmallBusinessLoans.com** for more info.
 
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