The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) periodically issues “Risk Alerts” highlighting common deficiencies encountered by its staff during routine investment adviser compliance exams. These Risk Alerts serve the dual purpose of providing advisers with both useful insight into the results of recent OCIE examination activity as well as advance warning of areas that OCIE may be paying closer attention to in the future. Accordingly, a recent Risk Alert issued by OCIE details the most common deficiencies the staff has cited relating to Rule 206(4)-3 (the “Cash Solicitation Rule” or “Rule”) under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. See National Exam Program Risk Alert, Investment Adviser Compliance Issues Related to the Cash Solicitation Rule (Oct. 31, 2018).

By way of background, the Cash Solicitation Rule prohibits SEC-registered investment advisers from paying a cash fee, directly or indirectly, to any person who solicits clients for the adviser unless the arrangement complies with a number of conditions specified in the Rule, including that the fee must be paid pursuant to a written agreement to which the adviser is a party. Notably, the Rule discerns between solicitors that are affiliated with the registered adviser versus those that are not, setting-up more comprehensive requirements for the latter third-party solicitors. For example, third-party solicitors must provide potential clients with both a copy of the adviser’s Form ADV Part II (or other applicable brochure) and a separate written solicitor’s disclosure document containing specific data about the solicitation arrangement—including the terms of the solicitor’s compensation. Moreover, with respect to third-party arrangements, the Rule obliges advisers to: (i) collect a signed and dated acknowledgment from every potential solicited client that such client has in fact received the adviser’s brochure and the solicitor’s disclosure document; and (ii) make a “bona fide effort” to ascertain whether the solicitor has complied with its duties under the Rule.

In this context, OCIE cited the following as the most noteworthy deficiency areas encountered by its front-line examiners:

The SEC routinely hears appeals arising from FINRA disciplinary proceedings, and in turn issues “Adjudicatory Orders” announcing its decisions. To the extent that these Orders are issued by vote of the full Commission, they stand as highly useful guidance to industry players on the thoughts of the SEC’s ultimate leadership. In a recent Adjudicatory Order, the SEC articulated its current position on Chief Compliance Officer (“CCO”) liability for securities regulatory violations, as well as the liabilities of other members of a securities firm’s senior management for failure to supervise the CCO. See Application of Thaddeus J. North for Review of Disciplinary Action Taken by FINRA, Order of the Commission, Rel. No. 34-84500 (Oct. 29, 2018).

The facts of the case involve findings by FINRA that the CCO (Mr. North) of a multi-office 50+ representative brokerage firm violated FINRA rules by failing to establish a reasonable supervisory system for the review of electronic correspondence, failing to reasonably review electronic correspondence, and failing to report a relationship with a statutorily disqualified person. Specifically, despite being the person responsible for reviewing the firm’s electronic communications, the record showed that for a roughly two-year period North completely failed to review any Bloomberg messages/chats (such messages making up 85% of the firm’s electronic communications). North testified that he “did not understand” his firm’s Smarsh e-mail retention/retrieval system, and further attributed his failure to review electronic communications to that activity being “boring.” Separately, North failed to either independently investigate or report to FINRA his knowledge of a material relationship between one of his firm’s registered representatives and a statutorily-disqualified person. This particular failure came despite North’s knowledge that the representative had paid the disqualified person over $150,000, had executed a services agreement with that person, and that FINRA was actively investigating the matter.

On these facts, the SEC upheld FINRA’s disciplinary action as “clearly appropriate” in light of North’s “egregious” conduct in “fail[ing] to make reasonable efforts to fulfill the responsibilities of his position.” Notably, “North ignored red flags and repeatedly failed to perform compliance functions for which he was directly responsible.”

In our previous post regarding state-registered investment advisers, we examined the landscape and discussed common deficiencies found in state adviser examinations.  In this post, we will discuss enforcement actions typically aimed at state-registered investment advisers, as well as current enforcement trends such as fraud pertaining to emerging markets and protection of senior investors.

Earlier in 2018, the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA)  published its 2018 Enforcement Report.  This report contains information and statistics regarding NASAA members’ enforcement actions in 2017 and highlights current trends in enforcement actions aimed at state-registered investment advisers.

According to the Report, NASAA members received 7,998 complaints that resulted in 4,790 investigations.  Once the investigations were completed, NASAA members initiated 2,105 enforcement actions, over half of which were administrative actions.  Criminal actions made up the second largest number of enforcement actions, followed by civil and other types of enforcement actions. Continue reading

This is the first of a two-part series dealing with the state-registered investment adviser industry.  In this first post we examine the landscape and discuss common deficiencies identified in state adviser examinations.

Relevant statistics can be found in the North American Securities Administrators Association’s 2018 Investment Adviser Section Annual Report.  The Report offers an overview of the state-registered investment adviser industry in the US and highlights the work that state regulators and NASAA’s Investment Adviser Project Groups completed in 2017. The report should be viewed as a useful tool for state-registered advisers to anticipate and correct deficiencies that are commonly cited by state regulators. Continue reading

In October 2018, the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina granted class action certification to Robert Berry, a former financial adviser for Wells Fargo.  Berry’s suit against Wells Fargo alleges that Wells Fargo did not pay the class members, other former and current Wells Fargo employees money that they were owed as deferred compensation.

According to Berry’s First Amended Class-Action Complaint, he and a number of other Wells Fargo employees were part of two deferred-compensation plans that qualified as “pension benefit plans” under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”).  The complaint claims that the plans failed to follow ERISA’s funding, vesting, and non-forfeitability requirements. Continue reading

On October 30, 2018 the Securities and Exchange Commission announced amendments to rules and forms designed to improve disclosures made to clients regarding variable annuities and variable life insurance contracts.  According to the SEC, the purpose of the proposed amendments is to assist investors in comprehending the characteristics of variable annuities and variable life insurance contracts and the risks associated with those investment products.  The proposed amendments would allow financial institutions who offer variable annuities and variable life insurance contracts to give a summary prospectus to investors, which would satisfy the financial institutions’ disclosure obligations.  The SEC has invited the public to comment on both the proposed amendments and the hypothetical summary prospectus samples created and included in the proposed rule.  The comment period will run through February 15, 2019. Continue reading

On October 31, 2018 the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority published Regulatory Notice 18-37, which announces the commencement of the 2019 Renewal Program for registered investment advisers and broker-dealers.  The 2019 Renewal Program is set to begin on November 12, 2018.  On that day, FINRA will release Preliminary Statements to all registered firms via E-Bill.  Firms are required to remit full payment of their Preliminary Statements by December 17, 2018.

The Preliminary Statements contain various fees for renewal of state registrations and notice filings.  For individuals who are renewing their broker-dealer registrations, FINRA will assess a fee of $45.  For investment adviser firms and their representatives who are renewing their registrations, any IARD system fees will be featured on their preliminary statements.  For FINRA-registered firms that have one or more branch offices, FINRA will assess a renewal fee of $20 per branch.  FINRA will, however, waive one branch renewal fee for each FINRA-registered firm.

Firms may pay their Preliminary Statement fees via E-Bill, a wire transfer, or a check.  FINRA’s preferred method of payment is E-Bill.  If a firm does not pay the Preliminary Statement fees by December 17, it will be charged a late renewal fee.  The late fee will amount to either 10 percent of a firm’s final renewal assessment or $100, whichever is greater, but the late fee can be no more than $5,000.  FINRA also warns firms that failure to pay the Preliminary Statement fees by the December 17 deadline could result in the firms becoming unable to do business in the areas where they are registered.

The Securities and Exchange Commission recently issued three Orders Instituting Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings relating to the misuse of quantitative models in managing customers’ accounts.  Four entities affiliated with Transamerica and two individuals associated with one of those entities were charged with violating the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”) and Advisers Act Rules.  The Orders allege that AEGON USA Investment Management LLC, Transamerica Asset Management, Inc., Transamerica Capital, Inc., and Transamerica Financial Advisors, Inc., marketed various products and investment strategies that used a “proprietary quant model” while failing to verify whether the models functioned as intended and without disclosing known risks connected with the models.  The Transamerica entities and the individuals, Bradley Beman and Kevin Giles, submitted offers of settlement to resolve the charges. Continue reading

Earlier this month, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it had reached a settlement with Ross Shapiro, a former managing director of Nomura Securities International, Inc. (“Nomura”).  The SEC filed a complaint against Shapiro and two other defendants, Michael A. Gramins and Tyler G. Peters, in September of 2015.  The complaint alleged that between January 2010 and November 2013, Shapiro, Gramins, and Peters made misrepresentations to customers about the prices of residential mortgage-backed securities (“RMBS”) and manufactured housing asset-backed securities (“MHABS”), thereby violating the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

An RMBS is a security whose underlying assets comprise residential loans.  Customers who invest in an RMBS typically obtain payments derived from the interest and principal payments on these loans.  Shapiro, Gramins, and Peters provided market information and sold RMBS and MHABS on behalf of Nomura, a FINRA-registered broker-dealer.  The customers in question were funds that invested in RMBS.

The SEC’s complaint alleged that Shapiro, Gramins, and Peters made various misrepresentations to customers regarding the prices at which Nomura bought and sold RMBS and MHABS and that they misrepresented the amount of compensation that Nomura would receive for arranging any trades.  For example, Shapiro, Gramins, and Peters allegedly deceived customers on numerous occasions regarding how much Nomura paid for RMBS and MHABS.  Shapiro, Gramins, and Peters also gave clients the impression that Nomura had paid a higher price for RMBS and MHABS than it actually had.  These misrepresentations were usually made via electronic communications such as instant messaging, emails, and online chats.

The Securities and Exchange Commission recently issued an Order Instituting Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings against Massachusetts Financial Services Company (“MFS”), an SEC-registered investment adviser.  According to the SEC’s Order, MFS advertised hypothetical returns pertaining to its blended research stock ratings without informing clients that a number of the hypothetical portfolios’ superior returns were based on back-tested models.  Without admitting or denying the allegations in the SEC’s Order, MFS submitted an offer of settlement to resolve the matter.

According to the SEC’s Order, MFS has employed a quantitative-based research department since 2000.  In 2000, the department developed what MFS calls “blended research” strategies, which involve “combining fundamental and quantitative ratings to arrive at a blended stock score, and by using a portfolio optimization process that considers the blended scores along with risk and other portfolio constraints.”  As of May of this year, MFS had approximately $21 million in assets under management invested in blended research strategies.

The SEC’s Order alleges that from 2006 through 2015, MFS created research proofs based on the blended research analysis. The data and a bar chart describing the analysis were featured in MFS advertisements.  MFS subsequently used the bar chart in three different kinds of marketing materials: in a standard slide deck from 2006 through 2015, in responses to formal requests from clients starting in 2012, and in a white paper that discussed MFS’s blended research strategies.  These materials were marketed exclusively to institutional clients, prospective institutional clients, financial intermediaries, and investment consultants.