TANSTAAFL is an acronym for the adage "There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. It was popularized by the Nobel economist Milton Friedman, but the phrase, "free lunch", has its antecedents in American literature from about 1870 through 1920. The phrase refers to a tradition once common in saloons in many places in the United States. These establishments offered "free" lunches, varying from the basic to the quite extensive, but required the patron to buy at least one drink who usually went on to order more. In other words, free things often have hidden costs.

The SEC and other security regulators also think TANSTAAFL. They held a Seniors Summit yesterday at the Securities and Exchange Commission during which they released a joint report summarizing the results of their examinations of "free lunch" investment seminars.

A year-long examination was conducted by the SEC, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) and state securities regulators (members of NASAA, the North American Securities Administrators Association). The regulators scrutinized 110 securities firms and branch offices that sponsor sales seminars and offer a free lunch to entice attendees. The report’s key findings include:

  • 100% of the "seminars" were instead sales presentations.
  • 59% reflected weak supervisory practices by firms.
  • 50% featured exaggerated or misleading advertising claims.
  • 23% involved possibly unsuitable recommendations.
  • 13% appeared to be fraudulent and have been referred to the most appropriate regulator for possible enforcement or disciplinary action.

The report recommends that financial services firms review their supervisory practices and take steps to supervise sales seminars more closely, and redouble their efforts to ensure that the investment recommendations they make to seniors are suitable in light of the particular customer’s investment objectives. The report also includes a list of supervisory practices that appeared to be effective.

The report also recommends that ongoing investor education efforts for seniors should provide education with respect to "free lunch" sales seminars. Specifically, senior investors should understand that these are sales seminars that result in the sales of financial products, and they may be sponsored by an undisclosed company with a financial interest in product sales.

Here’s a link to the full Free Lunch Report (PDF).