What TiVo and JP Morgan teach us about Reverse Convertibles
Reverse convertibles are short term, unsecured notes issued by brokerage firms including JP Morgan, Barclays, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Wachovia, Lehman Brothers, and RBC that pay less than the notes' face value at maturity if the price of the reference stock or the level of the reference stock index declines substantially during the term of the note. The SLCG study finds that brokerage firms overcharge for reverse convertibles so significantly that the expected return on these complex investments is actually negative and that reverse convertibles continue to be sold at inflated prices only because investors do not fully understand these products.
The SLCG study reports that despite substantial overpricing in the offerings and the significant losses on the reverse convertible notes in 2008 and 2009, there have been a substantial number of new issues of these dubious investments by JP Morgan, Barclays and many others brokerage firms in 2010. The study illustrates its main themes with JP Morgan's May 14, 2010 TiVo-linked reverse convertible.
Structured Products in the Aftermath of Lehman Brothers
SLCG's prior research showed that structured products were poor investments because they were significantly overpriced when offered and were, at best, thinly traded thereafter. SLCG concluded that overpriced structured products survived in the marketplace because structured products' opaqueness obscured their true risks and costs and the high fees earned by underwriters and salespersons.
The current SLCG study presents a brief history of the structured products program at Lehman Brothers and illustrates many of its points with Lehman structured products examples including Principal Protected Notes, Enhanced Return Notes, Absolute Barrier Notes, Steepeners and Reverse Convertibles. The study reports that the spectacular failure of Lehman brothers in September 2008 left investors holding more than $8 billion face value $US-denominated structured products. Dr. Craig McCann, the study's principal author, explained that the Lehman experience is especially instructive of the opportunity for mischief presented by financial engineering; faced with increasing borrowing costs Lehman stepped up its issuance of structured products where its credit risk would not be priced into the debt.
Are Structured Products Suitable for Retail Investors?
Equity-linked notes - a type of structured product - are securities issued by brokerage firms and traded in the secondary markets like shares of common stock. These investments offer part of the upside from owning stocks but limit nominal losses if held until maturity. Once sold only to sophisticated investors, structured products are increasingly being sold to unsophisticated retail investors. Equity-linked notes are difficult to evaluate and monitor, have high hidden costs and are illiquid. They are therefore virtually never suitable for unsophisticated investors.