No SIPA Coverage for Soft Dollar Credits, Says Bankruptcy Court

The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York has decided that claims stemming from soft dollar credits aren’t qualified to avail of Securities Investor Protection Act. According to Judge James Peck, this is the first time a court has had to determine whether soft dollar claims qualify as customer claims under SIPA.

The motion was filed by James Giddens, the Lehman Brothers Inc. trustee, who sought to affirm the denial of securities claims made by dozens of hedge funds and money managers seeking to get back soft dollar credits in their accounts with Lehman. Soft dollars are commission credits that can be used for buying research and brokers services that fall under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934’s Section 28(e)’s “safe harbor” parameters. (Generally, a soft dollar arrangement includes an understanding or agreement through which a discretionary money manager obtains research or other services from a broker-dealer. This is done in return for brokerage commission from transactions involving the accounts of discretionary clients.) While Giddens decided that these claims did not have SIPA protection and were “general unsecured claims,” a number of claimants disagreed.

The bankruptcy court, however, sided with Giddens. The court said that not only are soft dollar credits not securities and can only be used for the purposes identified under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934’s Section 28(e), but also, soft dollar accounts are “exclusively” available to “brokerage and research services” that a broker provides and cannot go toward the purchase of securities. Therefore, said Judge James Peck, Soft Dollar Claimants’ claims involving their Soft Dollar Accounts can’t be dealt with as if they were customer claims made under SIPA.

The bankruptcy court disagreed with claimants’ argument that because the credits could be used for research that would direct the clients in their purchase of securities there was a “sufficient connection” between a securities purchase and the soft dollars. The claimants had argued that this type of link made them customers under SIPA’s meaning. The court said no, finding that under the statute, the definition of a customer is meant to be “narrowly construed” and credits that can only go toward market research expenses are not tangential or direct enough to fulfill SIPA’s definition of what is a customer.

The court also disagreed with the claimants’ argument that the credits, which are proceeds of securities that have been sold or converted, should be considered customer property under SIPA. The court said that soft dollar credits are associated not with securities trade proceeds but with broker-dealer commissions. Peck also said that considering their character and source, the “credits are not customer property.” The court said that the claims were “really breach of contract claims” falling under the unsecured claims umbrella.

Soft-Dollar Credits Not Entitled To SIPA Coverage, Bankruptcy Court Rules, Bloomberg/BNA, July 12, 2012


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