Articles Posted in Books and Records

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently announced a series of enforcement actions centered on several of the largest broker-dealers in the financial sector. The enforcement actions addressed longstanding failures of the firms and their employees to preserve certain electronic communications. The 15 broker-dealers, and one affiliated investment adviser, admitted to the facts as stated, acknowledged their actions violated the securities laws, and agreed to pay a combined $1.1 billion in penalties.

Under the various securities rules, including recordkeeping provisions, broker-dealers and investment advisers are required to maintain and preserve electronic communications of business-related matters. Regulators expect that the written policies and procedures address this requirement and set forth a framework for the firm and firm employee’s compliance with the policies and procedures. To meet the regulatory expectations, firms traditionally have set out parameters for both internal and external communications and prohibited communications outside of those parameters. The goal of this method is to limit the forms of communications to those that the firm can monitor and preserve.

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While it comes with little surprise, on Monday the SEC’s Division of Examinations officially announced the areas of focus regarding compliance with the New Marketing Rule. The recently released Risk Alert was expected as the compliance date for the New Marketing Rule is quickly approaching.

Initially introduced in December 22, 2020 the modernized Marketing Rule allowed for an 18-month transition period ending with a compliance date of November 4, 2022. Since adoption, we have previously written about the passage of the New Marketing Rule and some of the significant areas impacted by the new rule. The newest announcement shows that the SEC is going to initially focus on some of the top-level issues under the New Marketing Rule: policies and procedures, substantiation, and performance advertising.

When reviewing policies and procedures, the SEC will look that the investment adviser has adopted and implemented a compliance program that is reasonably designed to prevent violations of the New Marketing Rule by the firm and its supervised persons. The Risk Alert mirrors sections of the Adopting Release and states that the SEC expects a thorough New Marketing Rule compliance program should include objective and testable means to prevent violations. Testing includes some documentable review process for advertisements for compliance with the policies and procedures.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently released a Staff Bulletin regarding the Standards of Conduct for Broker-Dealers and Investment Advisers Account Recommendations for Retail Investors. Since the adoption of Regulation Best Interest, or Reg BI, in 2019, the SEC has issued guidance and best practices for adoption of the policies and procedures expected for compliance with the regulation. We have previously written about the best interest standard applied to retirement rollover recommendations and the SEC’s announcement of the first enforcement case being filed under Reg BI.

The Staff Bulletin, presented in a Q&A format, provides the SEC’s views on how financial professionals can fulfill their obligations to retail investors when making account recommendations. The obligations discussed include the applicable standard for making account recommendations, factors to consider when making account recommendations, how and when cost is a factor, retirement rollover considerations, client account preferences, and developing and implementing a compliance plan reasonably designed to address Reg BI.

While Reg BI and the investment adviser fiduciary standard differ, the SEC points out that both standards require an account recommendation to be in the client’s best interest and prohibits an investment adviser from placing its interest ahead of a client’s interest. Additionally, the SEC states that a firm that does not evaluate sufficient information about a retail investor, it will not have the ability to form a reasonable basis to believe its account recommendations are in the retail investor’s best interest.

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.

Earlier this month, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced the examination priorities for registered investment adviser and broker-dealer examinations to be conducted in 2021 by the SEC’s Division of Examinations (formerly the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations).

The list included a continued focus on conflicts of interest, including examining for compliance with Reg BI (for broker-dealers) and with an investment adviser’s fiduciary duty. Among the matters examined will be whether RIAs comply with care and loyalty duties that arise from the fiduciary duty. Whether firms have taken appropriate steps to mitigate, disclose or eliminate conflicts of interest will continue to be a focus, with an emphasis on whether customers received enough information to be the basis of informed consent. The Division will also continue to prioritize examining information regarding investment products that carry elevated risks, such as certain ETFs, municipal securities, private placements, variable annuities, and microcap securities.

Not surprisingly, the Division will also focus on two areas that were emphasized over the last two years to varying degrees: ESG-related risks and disclosures and proxy voting practices. RIAs who offer asset management based on ESG principles will be questioned regarding their representations regarding products or services provided, including representations regarding third-party managers or products. The Division will also examine to ensure that proxies have been voted consistent with customer’s desires to invest in ESG focused investments.

Business continuity and disaster recovery plans will be a focus this year, including whether lessons learned during the pandemic have appropriately informed changes to such plans. A greater emphasis will also be placed on climate-related risks, due to greater instances of climate hazards experienced in recent years attributable to climate change. These types of issues will be of heightened concern for examinations of critical market participants such as clearing firms and market makers.

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On June 3, 2020, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed suit against a company claiming to be an internet-only investment adviser, based on the firm’s failure to respond to a request for documents and information, in violation of the Investment Advisers Act and rules. The company, E*Hedge Securities, Inc., is registered as an investment adviser with the SEC. The complaint also alleges, however, that E*Hedge is not properly registered, as it is ineligible to claim the basis for registration of an “internet only” adviser under Rule 203A-2(e), and does not meet any other qualification for federal registration. E*Hedge’s President, Devon W. Parks, is also named as a defendant in the complaint.

The complaint alleges that in March 2020, E*Hedge began marketing investment opportunities relating to COVID-19 related products and services, particularly tests and treatments. The firm began operating a website at www.Covid19invest.com. It also used social media websites for the same purposes. Together the websites touted investments in companies involved in manufacturing vaccines, diagnostic tests, and treatments for COVID-19. E*Hedge’s website identifies the company’s primary business is to provide a platform for initial public offerings, offerings under Regulation A+, and private offerings under Rule 506 (c). Continue reading ›

Earlier this month the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) issued two related risk alerts on the subjects of Form CRS and Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI). The purpose of the risk alerts was to provide investment advisers and broker-dealers information regarding the anticipated scope and content of the examinations OCIE will conduct following the compliance date for Regulation Best Interest, and the filing deadline for Form ADV, Part 3. In this post, we summarize the risk alert relating to Reg BI.

The initial broker-dealer examinations will focus on whether firms have established policies and procedures reasonably designed to comply with Regulation Best Interest’s for distinct obligations: the duty to disclose; the duty of care; the duty to avoid or disclose conflict of interest; and the duty to adopt compliance procedures. In addition to assessing whether a registrant has adopted policies and procedures reasonably designed to comply with Regulation BI, the examinations will also assess the operational effectiveness of those procedures.

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In our previous post, we described the SEC’s announcement of examination priorities in 2020 for the Commission’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE).  In that post, we discussed areas of examination that will apply to a large percentage of registered investment advisors and other regulated entities.  In this post, we focus on another priority, namely robo-advisers.

Otherwise known as automated investment platforms, “robo-advisers” have come under increased scrutiny by OCIE.  The number of these advisers has increased substantially over the last four years.  OCIE intends to focus on issues such as the eligibility of the robo-adviser to register with the SEC, marketing practices engaged in by robo-advisers, the ability to comply with fiduciary duty, the adequacy of the adviser’s disclosures, the effectiveness of the adviser’s compliance program, and the firm’s cybersecurity policies, procedures and practices.

Advisers Act Rule 203A-2(e) permits “internet only advisers” to register with the SEC, provided certain conditions are met and maintained.  Specifically, the adviser must provide investment advice to all clients exclusively through an interactive website and maintain records demonstrating that it does so.  Under the rule, an adviser may provide investment advice through means other than the internet to up to fourteen clients during any twelve-month period. Undoubtedly there are some firms that registered on this basis who were either not eligible at the time or, through the evolution of their business, have strayed from the conditions required to remain eligible for registration.

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Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up a lower court ruling upholding the SEC’s authority to adopt and enforce FINRA’s Pay-to-Play rule, Rule 2030. That rule, which became effective in 2017, followed and was patterned after Rule 206(4)-5 under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940.  Adopted in 2010, the Advisers Act Pay-to-Play rule prohibits investment adviser firms and certain of its executives and employees, including representatives, from providing advisory services to government clients within two years after the firm or those covered employees make contributions to elected officials relating to the client.  Additionally, the rule prevents an adviser from directly or indirectly paying any third party to solicit advisory business from any government entity, with certain exceptions.  Finally, the rule prevents an adviser from coordinating or soliciting contributions for certain government officials or candidates in situations where the adviser is either seeking the business of the government entity or providing advisory services.

In 2016 FINRA adopted Rule 2030, which is substantially similar to the Advisers Act rule.  One of the chief motives for the adoption of the FINRA rule was to foreclose the possibility that registered representatives or FINRA member firms could circumvent the Advisers Act Rule, where the firms were dual registrants. Both rules have de minimis exceptions of $350.00 per election in contributions to any one official or candidate if the contributing associate was entitled to vote for the candidate, and $150.00 per official per election, to candidates for whom the associate is not entitled to vote.  Both rules also have recordkeeping requirements.

Both the SEC and FINRA have enforced their respective rules through administrative enforcement actions.

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The North American Securities Administrators Association—also known as “NASAA”—a cooperative association consisting of the chief securities regulators for each of the 50 United States, as well as Canadian and Mexican jurisdictions, has recently voted to adopt a model information security rule. NASAA’s new model information security rule could—if widely implemented by the individual NASAA Member jurisdictions—ultimately have a broad impact on the compliance programs of state-registered investment advisers.

Among its many roles as a confederation of individual regulators, NASAA frequently drafts and circulates “model rules” to its Members, who eventually vote on and adopt these draft rules for use by the various Member jurisdictions. A “model rule” is a familiar regulatory tool, which essentially provides a template upon which laws, rules, and other regulations can be drafted. For example, many of the individual states’ securities acts are variants of the Uniform Securities Act of 2002, a model act created by a group of legal scholars, regulators and veteran attorneys. NASAA’s new model rule is just such a template for regulators. Individual states and other jurisdictions may—at their discretion—adopt it in whole, in part, or not at all. That said, we believe that, especially given the growing importance of cybersecurity issues, it will be used more likely than not as the states come around to developing rules to parallel those already in place at the federal (SEC) level.  Continue reading ›

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