Regulators: Fund firm hid losses

June 9, 2009
By Todd Wallack

Federal and state regulators yesterday accused Boston-based Evergreen Investment Management Co. of overstating the value of one of its mutual funds for a 17-month period, and then secretly tipping off select clients about steep losses in the fund before disclosing them to other investors.

Evergreen agreed to pay $40 million to investors who lost money in the fund as part of its settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission and to hire an independent compliance consultant, who will review its procedures. It is also paying a $1 million fine to Massachusetts securities officials.

The allegations center on the Ultra Short Opportunities Fund, which Evergreen marketed as a conservative investment that provided shareholders with steady income at low risk. Instead, fund managers bought riskier mortgage-backed securities, some of which plunged in value in 2007, according to the complaints.

From February 2007 to June 2008, regulators said, members of the team that managed the Ultra Short fund failed to tell the valuation committee at Evergreen about price changes and other negative news that would affect the value of the fund’s holdings, or used pricing information that turned out to be unreliable. This had the effect of inflating Ultra Short’s value by as much as 17 percent. That meant investors who sold during this period got higher prices than they should have, while those who bought paid more than they should have.

Moreover, the inflated value made Ultra Short appear to be one of the best funds in its class, the SEC said, when it should have been ranked near the bottom of its category.

Securities lawyer Jahan K. Manasseh, who represents a client who lost money in the fund, predicted more legal cases against other investment companies that had supposedly safe, conservative bond funds, but lost money by investing in risky securities.

“They were often mislabeled and referred to as bond funds,” Manasseh said.

The SEC did not name the Evergreen employees responsible for the alleged violations. Evergreen said the two managers of the Ultra Short fund at the time were Lisa Brown-Premo and Robert Rowe. Company spokeswoman Laura Fay said they no longer work at the firm. Neither could be reached for comment.

In June 2008, regulators said Evergreen quietly alerted some important clients and middlemen that the value of the fund’s mortgage-backed securities had significantly declined, giving those investors a chance to dump their shares.

“By picking and choosing to disclose negative information to some investors and not others, Evergreen gave certain shareholders an unfair advantage and left others in the dark,” David P. Bergers, director of the SEC’s Boston office, said in a statement.

Massachusetts Secretary of State William F. Galvin said Evergreen began telling key investors and financial advisers who sell its mutual funds about Ultra Short’s problems on June 12, 2008. That prompted some to yank money out the next day, before the price plunged further.

Evergreen shut the fund on June 18, with remaining investors getting $7.48 per share, 22 percent less than the shares were worth at the start of the year. Just a week earlier, before Evergreen tipped clients about the problems, the fund’s shares had traded above $9.

Galvin said the investigation continues.

Evergreen did not admit to or deny the regulators’ assertions.

“We are committed to acting in the best interest of shareholders, and continue to move forward with our primary goal of safeguarding your investments and providing the high quality investment service you expect and deserve,” it said in a statement yesterday.

Evergreen runs 76 mutual funds, with $164 billion under management as of March 31. It’s now owned by Wells Fargo & Co., which bought its previous parent, Wachovia Corp., for $15 billion in December.

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