In a recently-announced administrative proceeding, the SEC has entered a permanent securities industry bar against Joseph B. Bronson, effectively preventing Bronson from ever again associating with any investment adviser, broker, dealer, or municipal securities dealer/advisor. The SEC Order barring Bronson—consented to by Bronson—comes on the heels of an August final judgment against Bronson and his former RIA, Strong Investment Management, obtained by the SEC in a civil case filed in a California federal district court. This final judgment against Bronson and his RIA was especially harsh as it found him and the firm jointly and severally liable for nearly $1 million in disgorgement plus $100,000 in prejudgment interest. Bronson was also individually ordered by the court to pay a $184,000 civil penalty.

The Bronson case is instructive as it highlights an especially egregious case of fraudulent conduct and fiduciary disregard in the form of a “cherry-picking” scheme that—while invisible to Bronson’s clients—did not go unnoticed by the regulators. In a nutshell, over a four-year period, Bronson utilized his firm’s omnibus trading account at two different broker/dealers to effect a bald-faced cherry-picking scheme, whereby he entered block trades via the omnibus account, waited to see the trades’ intra-day performance, and then disproportionately allocated the winning trades to his own personal accounts and the losers to client accounts. Continue reading

The SEC has just concluded settlement negotiations with two large RIA subsidiaries of the Bank of Montreal, resulting in a total settlement of almost $38 million—with $25 million of that in disgorgement. The SEC’s announcement and administrative order resolves enforcement proceedings against BMO Harris Financial Advisors, Inc. (“BMO Harris”) and BMO Asset Management Corp. (“BMO Asset”)(together, the “BMO Advisers”) involving conflicts of interest violations under the Advisers Act antifraud provisions.

The SEC’s administrative settlement with the BMO Advisers marks yet another significant action by the Commission against RIAs for failing to disclose material conflicts of interest. As fiduciaries, RIAs must seek to avoid conflicts of interest with clients, and, at a minimum, must fully disclosure all material conflicts. The SEC enforces violations of this requirement pursuant to Advisers Act Section 206(2), which prohibits RIAs from engaging in “any transaction, practice, or course of business which operates as a fraud or deceit upon any client or prospective client.” Continue reading

A number of state attorneys general have filed a lawsuit against the SEC, seeking to overturn the SEC’s recently adopted Regulation Best Interest or “Reg BI.” This not unexpected move comes in the wake of simmering discontent which has built up against Reg BI ever since its adoption on June 5th. In a nutshell, consumer advocate groups, state regulators and some high-ranking SEC officials all oppose Reg BI on the grounds that it doesn’t go far enough in imposing a more rigorous standard of conduct on broker-dealer firms. This lawsuit, filed in New York federal district court, ramps-up this disagreement considerably.

Reg BI, which this blog has discussed in some detail recently, is part of a comprehensive package of new rules and interpretations released by the SEC on June 5th. Specifically, the long-awaited Reg BI replaces the prevailing “suitability” standard of conduct applicable to broker-dealers and their registered representatives with a new “best interest obligation.” While under suitability, broker-dealers were only required to ensure that that their recommendations were “suitable” in light of a customer’s investment objectives and risk tolerance, the new best interest obligation requires that a broker-dealer always act in a customer’s “best interest.” Additionally, under Reg BI, the broker-dealer cannot place its interests ahead of a customer’s interests. Continue reading

The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) released a new Risk Alert on September 4th urging RIAs to review their compliance policies and procedures addressing principal trading and agency cross trading transactions.

We pay close attention to OCIE’s periodic Risk Alerts as these publications provide RIAs with not only a view of the results of recent OCIE exam, but also an insight into future exam priorities. This blog has provided commentary on all three of OCIE’s Risk Alerts for RIAs published thus far in 2019.Those alerts have focused on topics as diverse as hiring practices, customer record storage, and privacy notices.

This new Risk Alert encourages RIAs to revisit their policies and procedures designed to prevent violations of Advisers Act Section 206(3) and Rule 206(3)-2. Section 206(3) of the Advisers Act prohibits an adviser from engaging in the following trading activities, unless done with the consent of a client after receipt of written notice: (i) buying or selling a security from a client while acting as “principal for his own account” (“principal trading”); and (ii) acting as a broker for a person other than the client in order to effect a securities transaction between the client and the other person (“agency cross trading”).

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In what is turning out to be a busy summer at the SEC for issuing new rules and interpretations applicable to RIAs, the Commission has just released detailed guidance clarifying the proxy voting obligations of SEC-registered advisers.  This latest release comes on the heels of the agency’s landmark package of releases issued on June 5th, which, for RIAs, included rules implementing the new Form CRS (a/k/a Form ADV, Part 3) and a major interpretive release clarifying the fiduciary duty owed to clients by all advisers.  This latest release aims to clarify an adviser’s obligations arising under Advisers Act Rule 206(4)-6 (“the Proxy Rule”) relating to voting proxies for clients, specifically in the context of using the services of a “proxy advisory firm.”

The Proxy Rule provides that it is a “fraudulent, deceptive, or manipulative act” for an SEC-registered adviser to “exercise voting authority with respect to client securities” unless the adviser adopts and implements written policies and procedures designed to ensure that such voting is done in the “best interest of clients.”  The Proxy Rule also requires certain disclosures be made to clients regarding any voting done for them.  Notably, the Proxy Rule does not require advisers to vote client securities.  Indeed, many advisers choose to escape the coverage of the Proxy Rule by simply not—in any instance—voting client securities.  However, for advisers exercising any voting authority over client securities—even one share—the Proxy Rule swings into effect.  Accordingly, all such advisers opting to vote client securities will need to be in full compliance with the Proxy Rule—and should pay close attention to the SEC’s new guidance on this matter. Continue reading

The SEC has filed fraud charges against a large ($85 billion AUM) registered investment adviser for its failure to disclose material conflicts of interest in connection with a “revenue sharing” arrangement with its clearing broker. The SEC’s Complaint against the adviser, Boston-based Commonwealth Equity Services, LLC, d/b/a Commonwealth Financial Network (“Commonwealth”), was filed in Massachusetts federal district court, and alleges that Commonwealth received over $100 million in revenue sharing from the clearing broker while failing to properly apprise its advisory clients of the full nature of the revenue sharing arrangement and the inherent conflicts of interest implicated by it. The Commonwealth case is just the latest in a string of actions by the SEC involving mutual fund share class selection by advisers and comes on the heels of the recent DC Circuit decision in the Robare case, which has likely emboldened the SEC somewhat.

The Commonwealth case involves a revenue sharing arrangement between Commonwealth and National Financial Services, LLC (“NFS”), an affiliate of mutual fund giant Fidelity Investments. Pursuant to that arrangement, NFS paid Commonwealth a percentage of the money paid to NFS by mutual fund companies in return for the right to sell their mutual funds through NFS. The money paid to Commonwealth by NFS under this arrangement, in turn, was directly related to the amount of Commonwealth client assets invested in certain share classes of specific funds offered on NFS’ platform. In other words, the more client assets placed by Commonwealth into particular funds and classes of those funds, the more revenue shared with Commonwealth. Continue reading

As part of its June 5th landmark issuance of multiple final rules and interpretive releases dealing with broker and advisory standards-of-conduct—which included the long-awaited Regulation Best Interest (or “Reg BI”) for broker/dealers—the SEC also published a detailed interpretive release clarifying and interpreting an investment adviser’s fiduciary duty (the “Fiduciary Release”). While this blog has already provided an analysis of the high-level contours of the SEC’s entire package of rules and releases, we now write to give readers a closer look at the Fiduciary Release, which should be of particular interest to the advisory community.

The Fiduciary Release is the culmination of a regulatory process begun on April 18, 2018, with the SEC’s publication of a draft release on advisory fiduciary duties. The SEC also published draft releases of Reg BI and the Form CRS Relationship Summary (“Form CRS”)(a new disclosure document for advisers and brokers) on that date as well. However, we note at the outset that, unlike the final Reg BI and Form CRS rules—which will not be implemented until June 30, 2020—the Fiduciary Release is effective upon formal publication in the Federal Register. Since that formal publication has already occurred, the Fiduciary Release is now effective. Additionally, we note that the Fiduciary Release is legally applicable to not only SEC-registered investment advisers, but also to state-registered advisers and other investment advisers that are exempt from registration under the federal Advisers Act.

The SEC’s stated objective in issuing the Fiduciary Release is to “reaffirm” and “clarify” the longstanding fiduciary duty of an investment adviser as expressed in section 206 of the Advisers Act. Recognizing that this fiduciary standard has been developed over decades via case law in the form of judicial opinions as well as through SEC enforcement proceedings and no-action letters, the SEC notes that the Fiduciary Release is not intended to be the “exclusive resource” for articulating the fiduciary standard. Importantly, the Fiduciary Release does not explicitly declare any revisions to the advisory standard of conduct (as does Reg BI vis-à-vis broker/dealers).

A new Risk Alert released by the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) reminds advisers of the added compliance obligations that arise when hiring representatives carrying the baggage of reportable disciplinary histories. While by no means exhorting advisers not to hire such persons, the Risk Alert nonetheless encourages advisers to properly consider the obvious compliance risks presented by such hiring practices, and, in turn, to adopt prudent policies and procedures to address those risks.

We follow OCIE’s periodic Risk Alerts closely as they not only provide insights regarding the focus of recent OCIE examinations, but also provide insights as to what OCIE management will be directing the staff to focus on in the future. This particular Risk Alert is a read-out of the results of a recent series of OCIE exams from 2017 specifically targeting advisory firms that (i) previously employed, or currently employ, any individual with a history of disciplinary events and (ii) for the most part serve retail clients. Indeed, OCIE makes special notation of its “focus on protecting retail investors” as a genesis for both the targeted exam initiative (the “Initiative”) as well as this new Risk Alert. Accordingly, advisers with a large retail customer base should pay especially close attention to the new Risk Alert.

In conducting the Initiative, OCIE’s staff focused on three areas of interest: (i) the compliance policies and procedures put into place to specifically cover the activities of previously-disciplined individuals; (ii) the disclosures relating to previously-disciplined individuals required to be made in filings and other public documents (including advertising); and (iii) conflicts of interest implicated by the hiring of previously-disciplined individuals. With this roadmap in place, the Initiative identified a variety of observed deficiencies across a range of topics, including:

SEC Chairman Jay Clayton recently announced, on behalf of the Commission, a significant change in policy as to how the SEC will consider requests for disqualification waivers made by respondents in SEC enforcement proceedings where a settlement offer is being negotiated. We think that Clayton is to be applauded for this move as the new policy should prove to be a fairer and more efficient alternative to the status quo that has prevailed in recent years, most notably because it will give respondents a heightened degree of certainty regarding “collateral consequences” of an enforcement settlement.

First a bit of background. While the majority of SEC enforcement proceedings are resolved with a settlement agreement between the SEC and the respondent resulting in fines, restitution to investors, or other sanctions, a secondary or “collateral” consequence of the settlement may be statutory disqualification under the securities laws of the respondent (or an affiliate) from some otherwise permissible activity. A prime example is the so-called “bad-boy” provisions of Reg D, which, among other things, prohibit persons subject to SEC cease-and-desist orders or other SEC disciplinary orders from raising capital in a Reg D private placement. Another example is the prohibition on receipt of cash fees for solicitation under Rule 206(4)-3 of the federal Advisers Act where the solicitor is subject to certain SEC disciplinary orders. As noted by Clayton, “[t]he effects of these collateral consequences can vary widely depending on the scope of the businesses and operations of the entity and, in practice, range from immaterial to extremely significant.”  Continue reading

The Massachusetts Securities Division (“MSD”) has announced the adoption of new rules requiring that investment advisers registered with the MSD provide, to clients and prospective clients, an additional one-page stand-alone disclosure document specifically detailing the adviser’s fee schedule. This new disclosure document or “Fee Table” will need to be “updated and delivered consistent with the existing requirements for Form ADV (including the Brochure).” The new rules, which were adopted pursuant to the MSD’s notice and comment process, take effect—and will be enforced—commencing on January 1, 2020.

While only applicable to advisers registered with the MSD, the new rules requiring the Fee Table could portend similar future action by additional states. Moreover, the new rules come on the heels of the SEC’s June 5th high profile standard-of-conduct releases (which we have previously chronicled) that also include a new stand-alone disclosure document for SEC-registered advisers to be known as Form CRS. If the MSD’s actions here are in fact echoed by additional states, it could cause potential headaches for the RIA industry, as this would require RIAs operating in multiple states to conform to multiple differing disclosure document regimes. Additionally, with the new Form CRS (applicable to SEC-registered advisers only) beginning to circulate at about the same time, an assortment of new documents being presented to clients may cause marketplace confusion as well.  Continue reading