John Thomas Financial Inc. is a brokerage house straight out of the movie Boiler Room, with brokers fueled by vending machines stocked with nothing but energy drinks and music from Rocky films blaring from speakers. Its founder, Anastasios “Tommy” Belesis, even had a role in the sequel to Wall Street.
Junior brokers cold-call prospects for up to 14 hours a day, working from a memorized script that they rehearse by screaming pitches across the room to each other before the opening bell, a former employee of the firm told BuzzFeed.
BuzzFeed obtained both that script, used by brokers of every level at the 200-employee firm, as well as another script known internally as the “Golden Pitchbook,” which is given only to a privileged few senior brokers at the firm. Considered a performance reward for top brokers, the “Golden Pitchbook” is handed down from their mentors at the firm who have also received the elusive tome, the source said.
“It’s secret, privileged information,” said the source. “Some people at the firm don’t even know about it.”
The book’s origins date to the 1980s at Bear Stearns, and it has gone through various iterations on its journey into the hands of the lucky JTF broker who, after impressing superiors, is walked down the street to a Kinkos, where senior brokers supervise the book’s copying and hand-off.
“It’s a reward for senior brokers to give to junior brokers on their team as an investment in them,” the source said. “Once they had it, they used it all the time.”
The book offers a rare behind-the-scenes look into the world of high-pressure, hard-scrabble Wall Street stock jockeying, featuring detailed scenarios and responses used to pitch stocks to prospective clients.
The aggressive pitch tactics in the book and supporting JTF documents, such as what one scenario described by the source as “Don’t Pitch The Bitch,” have caught the attention of the FBI, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.
In March, the SEC charged Belisis with fraud for a hedge fund scheme in which he steered bloated fees to JTF. A month later, Finra filed a formal complaint against JTF regarding the firm’s actions in Februrary 2012, when it allegedly pushed shares of America West Resources, Inc. (AWSR) common stock on investors, thus inflating the price. Brokers at the firm also allegedly failed to execute sale orders for clients in a timely manner but sold the majority of its proprietary shares for a more than $1 million profit.
The firm’s alleged failure to execute at least 14 client sell orders lost investors thousands, and America West is now in bankruptcy. In an even more outrageous twist, the Finra complaint accuses Belesis of intimidating employees with threats of maligning their broker records and, in one case, running over an employee with his car.
Against that backdrop, here are some of the techniques outlined in the “Golden Pitchbook” used by JTF brokers. The firm’s attorney, Robert Bursky, in February told Bloomberg it did not use “high-pressure tactics.” He said at the time it doesn’t use scripts. Bursky did not respond to BuzzFeed’s requests for comment.
Scenario #1: “Speak to My Wife”/Don’t Pitch the Bitch
When a potential client (prospect) told a JTF broker he wanted to speak to his wife before placing an order, the broker would offer a series of rebuttals designed to pressure the prospect to buy immediately. According to a source familiar with the firm, this method is referred to internally at JTF as “Don’t Pitch the Bitch,” a bit of industry jargon made famous in Boiler Room that discourages brokers from making sales pitches to women and implores male prospects not to involve their wives or girlfriends in stock-buying decisions.
“(Prospect) if you want to call me back so you can ask your wife if you can buy the stock, I will call my wife and see if I can sell you the stock, come on! You make business decisions daily without your wife.”
“Let’s face it, if you go home and tell your wife that you want to invest with a broker whom you don’t know very well, chances are you will be hit with a frying pan and spending the night on the couch. However, once she sees my brochure from the firm and a dossier that I send you in the FedEx package with a buy confirmation, what do you think she is going to say? Besides, it is a lot easier to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission right?”
“Should I send it to your home where your wife will throw it out or to the office where you will put it by your merchant banker book that you never read either?”
Scenario #2: “Not Interested”/The Slap and Hug
If a prospect told a JTF broker flat-out that he was not interested, the broker would use a technique called “the slap and hug” to essentially belittle the prospect before building him back up through kindness or feigned concern. Brokers also used reverse technique, “the hug and slap,” at times.
“I have never in my life met anyone who wasn’t interested in making serious money. (Firm) is making more serious money for people than anyone out there. It is not that you are not interested, something else is bothering you. I am a problem solver. Perhaps if you tell me what your actual concern is, I could help.”
Scenario #3: The Long-Term Relationship
JTF brokers want prospects to know that they are in this thing for the long haul, but they are definitely NOT gay.
“Let’s face it, your first step is the hardest. I am not looking for a one night stand. You married your girlfriend right? Let me ask you a question, you met your wife, but you did not jump into bed with her on the first night did you? Of course not!! Maybe you held her hand or maybe even kiss. Well look, I am not looking to jump into bed with you or even get a kiss, I simply want you to hold my hand with 100 shares and [in] 3-6 months you are gonna (sic) want to get into bed with me quite frankly. I am not that guy [laugh]. So do the 100 shares not because it’s good for me, but because it is good for you.”
Scenario #4: This Company Is Going to Be Bought Soon So You Need to Buy Now
To coax a reluctant prospect into buying immediately, the script contains a boilerplate response scenario suggesting that whatever stock the broker is pitching is about to get acquired, likely for a premium.
“More importantly, when I have timed it with a near term event I have made a tremendous amount of money the event here is a possible takeover. We are not buying this stock for earnings; we are buying it for a takeover, which I feel is eminent.”
Scenario #5: My Clients Are Rich and Smart, Unlike You…
…And the more you invest with JTF, the better your chances of becoming rich.
“I want to say sincerely: I have many clients with net worths ranging between $500K to $50 million…If I could just show you what lies ahead in the future and the types of deals I get involved with, I know you would be very impressed.”
“My firm has turned the average investor into millionaires and the millionaires into multi-millionaires. Not on one trade, but on a series of 3-4 transactions over a 1-2 year time frame.”
“Are you familiar with George Soros? This is the guy you want on your side….Let’s not let him make ALL the money!”
Scenario #6: You Have Money, You Just Don’t Want to Give It to Me
A client claiming to not have money to invest is considered an insult, or an outright lie. Literally.
“No disrespect, but you telling me you are not liquid is an insult to both you and me! A guy with (amount) in the market has a couple hundred in the bank to back it up. There is always an excuse not to buy stock, but there is never an excuse not to make money!”
“Guys like you don’t ever let your bank accounts fall below 6 figures. Its not that you cant do it, its that you wont do it. I am going to buy you (shares) of (stock) at (price), money is due in one week but make me a promise. When I am not just right but exactly right, next time out we work in size and you send me 3 of your golfing buddies…OK?”
“(Prospect) if I offered you a Rolls Royce in min[t] condition today for $10,000 could you come up with the money? OF COURSE YOU COULD!! Let’s be candid, if you like my idea today, you could come up with ten times that amount.”
Scenario #7: Trust Us, We Did the Research for You
The script takes pains to instruct brokers in ways to avoid sending additional information requested by the client on the stock being pitched.
“By the time you get information or research reports, you are buying the stock 5 points higher. The way to make money in this business is to buy in to fundamentally sound companies that are timed with near term events or catalysts. With this approach I have made a fortune for a select group of individuals.”
“Ok (prospect) Fine! I have no problem with that, but let me ask you something first, correct me if I am wrong. What you’re telling me is that if I send you the information you want about the company and it mentions the merits I described, that you will open an account? (NO) Then obviously (prospect) the request for information is not your real concern.”
Scenario #8: Buy Now or You Will Miss Out
“Please understand, the secret of our program is matching timing opportunity. If we thought next month was the time to buy, I would not be calling you today. I would be calling you next month. You need to understand what we are doing here. I can appreciate now may be a bad time, but unfortunately the market is not going to wait for you. Lets be honest, when I call you back you will ask me to call you back again, then it will be tax time. To make exceptional returns, you must but on value and at the right timing. You know what sir? Your worst nightmare is to work with a broker who brings you a winning situation and is willing to play phone and mail tag with you. We both don’t have time for it. The reason my clients retain a broker like myself is for my exact pricing and timing. Without these 2 tools, you are tying my hands behind my back I may as well work at Charles Schwab.”
Bonus Scenario: Misusing the Term “Fiduciary”
One response in the pitchbook says that JTF brokers have a “fiduciary responsibility” to call back individuals whom they have spoken to.
The use of the term “fiduciary responsibility” is problematic in that it grossly misstates the broker’s professional standards of conduct when it comes to the relationship with a prospect. By law, the SEC does not require brokers to have a fiduciary duty to their clients, only financial advisers.
In fact, the commission has been pushing to change the laws pertaining to financial services professionals and their fiduciary responsibility to their clients, and has even acknowledged that investors are confused by the level of fiduciary responsibility their financial planning professional has to them.
The SEC has formally recommended a rule that would “implement a uniform fiduciary standard of conduct for broker-dealers and investment advisers when providing personalized investment advice about securities to retail customers.”
Like, say, customers who may have just bought the next America West from a broker at John Thomas Financial.