On April 26, 2022, the Division of Examinations of the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a Risk Alert titled Investment Adviser MNPI Compliance Issues. The Alert identifies compliance issues relating to material non-public information – sometimes called “insider information” – and provides guidance to investment advisers, investors, and other market participants on complying with Section 204A of the Investment Advisers Act and corresponding Rule 204A-1.  

Section 204A of the Advisers Act requires investment advisers to establish, maintain, and enforce written policies and procedures designed to prevent the misuse of material non-public information (“MNPI”). Rule 204A-1 requires investment advisers registered under the Advisers Act to adopt a Code of Ethics. 

The Division identified three categories of compliance issues related to Section 240A of the Advisers Act. First, the Division observed that advisers have not adopted or implemented adequate policies and procedures to address the risk of receipt and use of data from non-traditional sources (“alternative data”), such as social media and internet search data. Second, the Division observed that advisers have not adopted or implemented adequate policies and procedures regarding investors who are likely to possess insider information, such as corporate investors or financial professional investors. Third and finally, the Division observed that advisers did not have adequate policies and procedures regarding possible interactions with consultants who might have access to insider information. 

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The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently released the 2022 Examination Priorities from the Division of Examinations, formerly known as the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations. This annual release provides insight into the areas that the SEC plans to highlight when examining investment advisers during the coming year.

While the SEC notes the continued impact of COVID-19 on investment advisers and the investment industry, the SEC reported an increase in examinations conducted during FY21, with the total number of completed examinations close to the pre-pandemic levels of FY19.

For FY22 examinations, the SEC will place a significant focus on (1) private funds; (2) environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing; (3) standards of conduct: Regulation Best Interest (Regulation BI), fiduciary duty, and Form CRS; (4) information security and operational resiliency; and (5) emerging technologies and crypto-assets. Many of these focus areas, such as ESG and Regulation BI, are carried over from previous years and mark a multi-year emphasis for the SEC.

With the date for compliance with the new Investment Adviser Marketing Rule approaching, now is the time for registered investment advisers to consider how the new rule impacts many facets of their regular practices. One area that should be carefully evaluated is the use of “hypothetical performance.” The new rule expands the definition of an “advertisement” to include many one-on-one presentations that were not covered by the former advertising rule. Now, any one-on-one presentation that contains “hypothetical performance” is subject to the general anti-fraud provisions of the new rule, as well as to several specific conditions and limitations on the use of hypothetical performance.

 

The definition of “hypothetical performance” is “performance results that were not actually achieved by any portfolio of the investment adviser.” That definition expressly encompasses “targeted or projected performance returns.” The illustration of “targets” or “projections” in one-on-one presentations was previously covered by the general anti-fraud rules, but the new regime imposes more onerous requirements and may indeed prevent RIAs from using the types of illustrations they are currently routinely using with new clients and prospects.

 

A common approach to acquiring new clients involves presenting an illustration of how a proposed portfolio will perform. This is frequently done through the use of reporting software or publishing services such as Morningstar, Riskalyze, and others, although the adviser may have the ability to customize the inputs and the contents of the final report. Sometimes specific returns are projected, while at other times the projections will show a range or band of returns coupled by a specific probability range.

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Last month, the SEC commenced an administrative enforcement action that highlights the significance of its change in guidance over the use of “hedge clauses” in investment advisory agreements. Recall that in IA-5248, the SEC’s 2019 interpretive release that addressed the standard of conduct for investment advisers, the Commission withdrew the 2007 No-Action Letter previously issued in Heitman Capital Management, LLC (Feb. 12, 2007) (“Heitman Letter”). Prior to IA-5248, the Heitman Letter had frequently been relied upon by investment advisers to permit the use of hedge clauses, or clauses purporting to limit an adviser’s liability, as long as the clause contained an affirmative statement that it should not be construed to waive unwaivable claims under federal and state securities laws. Because the SEC concluded that the Heitman Letter had been often misconstrued, IA-5248 expressly withdrew it.

Prior to the issuance of the Heitman Letter in 2007, the SEC had rather consistently prohibited the use of hedge clauses. The Heitman Letter, however, constituted a departure from that previous near-blanket prohibition. In Heitman, the SEC staff stated that the use of a hedge clause that limits the adviser’s liability except for gross negligence or willfulness may under some circumstances be permitted, depending on “all the surrounding facts and circumstances.” Among the circumstances to be considered were whether it was written in plain English, whether it had been highlighted and explained to the client personally, whether there was a heightened explanation of the types of claims that were not waived, and whether impacted clients had access to other professional “intermediaries” upon whom they relied. After the Heitman Letter, the use of hedge clauses by investment advisers proliferated, not always consistently with the Heitman guidance.

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Earlier this month the National Society of Compliance Professionals, a nonprofit membership organization that supports compliance personnel and programs in the financial services industry, published a report entitled “Firm and CCO Liability Framework.” The report is designed as an aid to compliance professionals and as a proposal to regulators, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, to determine situations in which liability of Chief Compliance Officers should be mitigated.

The SEC has provided its own guidance regarding when CCOs may be held liable, some of which we have highlighted in a previous post. Additionally, the New York City Bar Association’s Compliance Committee released a comprehensive report last year that contains a description of the history of regulatory comments and guidance provided on the issue of CCO liability and proposes its own framework of liability.

The NSCP report was motivated in part by a widespread belief among compliance professionals that financial services regulators have expanded the situations in which CCOs will face liability for firm compliance failures. According to a survey contained in the report, 72% of compliance professionals share that belief. Additional survey results contained in the report include: that 35% of compliance professionals claim to have insufficient resources to adequately carry out the obligation to provide firm training on compliance issues; that 20% claim to have insufficient authority either to enforce or to develop compliance policies and procedures; and that 25% claim to be unable to meaningfully raise compliance concerns to the firm’s senior management.

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The Division of Examinations of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently released a Risk Alert relating to the Advisory Fee Initiative titled “Division of Examinations Observations: Investment Advisers’ Fee Calculations.” Under this Initiative, the SEC conducted approximately 130 examinations of SEC-registered investment advisers focusing on how advisory fees are disclosed and charged, particularly to retail clients.

Since 2018, the SEC has included the disclosure of the costs of investing in its list of yearly exam priorities. The Division of Examinations has focused on whether advisers have adopted policies and procedures reasonably designed to produce fair and accurate fee assessments, and whether those fees are disclosed to clients in a manner such that clients understand the costs of the advisory services provided.

During the Initiative, the Division’s review included: (1) the accuracy of the fees charged by the examined advisers; (2) the accuracy and adequacy of the examined advisers’ disclosures; and (3) the effectiveness of the examined advisers’ compliance programs.

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As anticipated, on October 25, 2021, the Department of Labor extended its previously adopted policy regarding delayed enforcement of Prohibited Transaction Exemption 2020-02 (“PTE 2020-02). This policy extension extended the deadline for enforcement of PTE 2020-02, allowing investment advisers who are investment advice fiduciaries additional time to comply with the exemption.

Sometimes referred to as “Fiduciary Rule 3.0,” PTE 2020-02 provides exemptions from the prohibited transaction rules for investment advice fiduciaries with respect to employee benefit plans and individual retirement accounts (IRAs). PTE 2020-02 allows an investment advice fiduciary to advise an ERISA Plan or an IRA and receive variable compensation. In this context, “variable compensation” means compensation that varies based on the advice provided, such as a commission.  For example, even though an investment adviser will receive “additional fees” by recommending that a client or potential client roll over 401(K) assets into an IRA to be managed by the adviser as a fiduciary, such a recommendation will not be deemed a prohibited transaction if the requirements of PTE 2020-02 are met. In order to take advantage of PTE 2020-02, however, the adviser must meet several conditions, which we outlined in a blog post earlier this year.

In 2018, the DOL issued Field Assistance Bulletin (FAB) 2018-02, a temporary enforcement policy that explained the DOL would not pursue prohibited transaction claims, nor conclude that persons are violating the prohibited transaction rules if an investment advice fiduciary can demonstrate it worked in good faith and reasonable diligence to comply with “Impartial Conduct Standards” for transactions that would have been exempted under the previously vacated 2016 rule. Those impartial conduct standards include providing investment advice in the client’s best interest, receiving only reasonable compensation, and avoiding any materially misleading statements. FAB 2018-02 was set to expire on December 20, 2021.

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Over the last few years, more and more states have enacted laws to protect vulnerable adults from financial exploitation. These laws typically apply to the conduct of registered investment advisers, broker-dealers, and their employees. Two states – Iowa and Nebraska, have passed such legislation in 2021. Two other states – Florida and Texas – have added additional protections to already existing laws. The new laws are worth studying as they point to the general tenor and structure of the laws being adopted in other states.

For example, Iowa Sec. 502.801, titled “Financial Exploitation of Eligible Adults,” includes protection for adults over 65 and certain other “dependent adults.” The law requires all broker-dealers or investment advisers to provide vulnerable adult training for its employees “appropriate to the job responsibilities” of the employee. The training must occur within one year of the employee’s hire date and must include information on how to identify actual or attempted financial exploitation of eligible adults and how to report such exploitation to the regulatory authorities. “Financial exploitation” is defined to mean “any act or omission taken by a person to wrongfully and knowingly deprive an eligible adult of money, assets, or property, or to obtain control over or otherwise use, convert, or divert the benefits, property, resources, or assets of the eligible adult by intimidation, deception, coercion, fraud, extortion, or undue influence.”

The statute permits, but does not require, certain actors to report any reasonably suspected exploitation to the securities administrator, which is the Securities and Regulated Industries Bureau of the Iowa Insurance Division (“the Bureau”). Any such report made reasonably and in good faith cannot form the basis of civil or administrative liability by the person or company making the report. Those authorized to make such reports, and therefore able to take advantage of the civil and administrative immunity provisions, are any broker-dealer, investment adviser, or any individual who has received the required training. Continue reading ›

On July 13, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) published an order instituting administrative cease-and-desist proceedings against TIAA-CREF Individual & Institutional Services, LLC (“TIAA”). TIAA consented to this order without admitting or denying the findings except as to jurisdiction and subjection matter. The SEC’s order alleges TIAA failed to properly disclose conflicts of interest and made materially misleading statements concerning rollover recommendations they made to clients over a five-year period from 2013 to 2018.

TIAA’s policies and procedures required their investment adviser representatives, who were also dually registered as registered representatives, to present clients with four options regarding rollover recommendations when providing financial planning services. The options were:

  1. Leave client assets in their employer-sponsored retirement plans;
  2. Rolling the assets into a self-directed individual retirement account;
  3. Rolling over the assets to a new employer’s plan; or
  4. Cashing out the account value/taking a lump-sum distribution.

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Over the last five years, cybersecurity has consistently been a top priority of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”). We have written about the SEC’s focus on cybersecurity in July 2020 and January 2020. With an additional enforcement action in June, the SEC is continuing to signal that firms regulated by the SEC need to have appropriate risk management and cybersecurity controls in place. While this case study isn’t directly related to Investment Advisers, they would be wise to learn lessons from this story.

First American Financial Corporation (“First American”) is a real estate settlement services provider. In that capacity, they store certain non-public personal information (“NPPI”) of real estate purchasers and sellers. In an internal audit in 2018, an error was caught that certain NPPI stored by First American was not stored securely.

Subsequently, First American conducted a vulnerability test which culminated in a written report in January 2019. In the report, information security personnel determined that certain website URLs that First American provided to people could be replaced with different numbers to create access to NPPI that was unauthorized. Continue reading ›

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