The Wall Street Journal has an article in their November 24, 2012 issue titled “Protecting a Small Account” with the tagline “What the Spate of Brokerage Blowups Means for Investors”.
The article discussed some recent events where brokerages went bankrupt or ran into financial troubles, specifically smaller or regional firms. They give some generic advice, such as research your firm or and carefully check your brokerage statements each month for evidence of unauthorized trades.
The overall risk is that if a firm goes bankrupt while holding your money, The Federal Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) provides the following guarantees:
The Securities Investor Protection Corporation protects customers against the loss of missing cash and/or securities in their customer accounts when a SIPC member broker-dealer fails financially. SIPC either acts as a trustee or works with an independent court-appointed trustee in a brokerage insolvency case to recover funds.
The statute that created SIPC provides that customers of a failed brokerage firm receive all non-negotiable securities – such as stocks or bonds – that are already registered in their names or in the process of being registered. At the same time, funds from the SIPC reserve are available to satisfy the remaining claims for customer cash and/or securities custodied with the broker for up to a maximum of $500,000 per customer. This figure includes a maximum of $250,000 on claims for cash.
The simplest answer to this potential risk is to split up your assets so that you don’t have more than $500,000 with a single brokerage firm.
However, there are downsides to doing this. For one thing, larger firms give bigger discounts as you consolidate assets. Vanguard, for example, gives a large number of free trades and provides lower cost mutual funds, along with other services. In order to get certain types of brokerage services at other firms it helps to be a larger scale customer, as well.
Based on a review of Vanguard, Fidelity and eTrade, the major firms also take out insurance with Lloyds of London for additional coverage beyond the SIPC minimums. Per Vanguard’s web site:
To offer greater protection and security, Vanguard Marketing Corporation has secured additional coverage from certain insurers at Lloyd’s of London and London Company Insurers for eligible customers with an aggregate limit of $250 million, incorporating a customer limit of $49.5 million for securities and $1.75 million for cash. Coverage provided by SIPC and certain Lloyd’s of London and London Company Insurers does not protect against loss of market value of securities. The policy provided by certain Lloyd’s of London and London Company Insurers is subject to its own terms and conditions.
In addition to a Lloyds policy, Fidelity describes additional protections available to investors at their site here. Key additional items:
Broker CDs, which are issued by an FDIC-insured institution and held in Fidelity brokerage accounts, are also eligible for FDIC insurance. The coverage maximum for IRAs and brokerage accounts is $250,000 per bank. All FDIC insurance coverage is in accordance with FDIC rules.
I inadvertently tested this over and over during the 2008-9 crash as CD’s I bought from high yielding bank through my brokerage account repeatedly failed and the cash investment, plus accrued interest to date, was transferred back into my cash account with every failure. I certainly wish that I had those high yielding CD’s back today, since interest rates are now below 2% even for 5 year CD’s, but I digress…
There are important exceptions to the coverage, including stocks bought on margin and futures contracts. If you are using these sorts of instruments then you need to do additional research.
Cross posted at Chicago Boyz