Articles Posted in Compliance

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 month, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) announced its examination priorities for 2020.  Many of the priorities listed are similar to those identified in previous years’ priorities lists. The SEC’s approach in addressing them, however, continues to evolve to keep pace with the changing landscape of financial markets, market participants, products, technologies and risks. This post will address some of the areas that should be of concern to a large percentage of registered investment advisers (RIAs), broker-dealers and other regulated entities.

OCIE reiterated that a significant underpinning of any effective compliance program is the “tone at the top” set by C-level executives and owners. Those firms that prioritize compliance and effectively create a “culture of compliance” tend to be more successful in designing and implementing compliance plans than firms that view compliance as an afterthought or business hindrance. One of the “hallmarks” of a firm’s commitment to compliance is the presence of an “empowered” CCO who is routinely consulted regarding most facets of the firm’s operations. There is nothing new to these concepts, but it is worth noting that OCIE continues to emphasize them year after year. Although not stated in the priorities release, the degree to which a firm demonstrates a commitment to compliance often weighs heavily on decisions OCIE examiners must make regarding how deficiencies will be addressed by the Commission. All other things being equal, firms that have made mistakes but demonstrate the ability to make effective corrections will often be provided an opportunity to implement those corrections and are less likely to become the subject of an enforcement referral.

Not surprisingly, OCIE will continue to prioritize examining RIAs to assess compliance with their fiduciary duty to clients. For examinations of RIAs occurring during the second half of 2020, this will undoubtedly include the proper use of Form ADV Part 3, which RIAs are required to complete, file, and place into use with clients by June 30, 2020. Additionally, broker-dealers will be expected to implement compliance with new Regulation BI, requiring adherence to a best interest standard. The priorities list reiterates that advisers and broker-dealers must eliminate, or at least fully and fairly disclose, all conflicts of interest, as more fully explained in Investment Advisor Release 5248, issued in June of last year.

Among other priorities relevant to RIAs, OCIE also listed the protection of retail investors saving for retirement, information security, anti-money laundering programs and financial technology.

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The SEC’s Divisions of Investment Management and Trading & Markets have issued guidance in the form of a set of Frequently Asked Questions (or “FAQs”) addressing the upcoming implementation of the newly-created SEC Form CRS Relationship Summary (“Form CRS”).

As previously profiled on this blog, Form CRS is a new SEC disclosure document that will be applicable to both RIAs and broker/dealers offering services to retail investors. Indeed, for RIAs, the new Form CRS will function as a new Part 3 to the RIA’s existing Form ADV. The purpose of Form CRS is to summarize basic information about the firm’s services, fees, and costs, as well as its conflicts of interest and material disciplinary events. As noted, Form CRS obligations only arise for firms dealing with “retail investors,” which the SEC defines as “natural persons” or their legal representatives, who seek to receive or receive services “primarily for personal, family or household purposes.” Full implementation of Form CRS is slated for June 30, 2020.

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As discussed in our most recent posting on this blog, the SEC has proposed a wholesale rewrite of its existing advertising and cash solicitation rules. While that last post delved into the specifics of the SEC’s proposed amendment of its advertising rule, in this installment, we take up the Commission’s plans for revamping its cash solicitation rule.

The SEC’s Release No. IA-5407, published on November 4th, aims to modernize both rules to reflect the dramatic changes seen in technology and the advisory industry since the initial adoption of these rules decades ago. While just a proposal for now, it offers the best view into what any ultimate final rules will probably look like. At this stage, RIAs and other industry participants are closely reviewing both proposed rules, and many will be submitting public comments to the SEC as permitted pursuant to the Commission’s public comment process. While the public comment process runs a fixed 60 days, the ultimate publication of final rules is at the SEC’s discretion.

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On November 4th, the SEC released for public comment proposed replacements to its decades-old advertising and cash solicitation rules. The proposed rules, which are accompanied by almost 500 pages of explanatory text, are now subject to the SEC’s “notice and comment” process, whereby interested persons will have 60 days to file comments to the SEC, after which time the SEC will likely issue final versions of the new rules. While the content of the final rules ultimately adopted by the SEC may differ substantially from the versions now being circulated, the current proposals are the most likely outcome at this point in time and offer valuable insight into the SEC’s thinking in this area.

According to the SEC, both the advertising and cash solicitation rules are ripe for updates and modernization as a result of “changes in technology, the expectations of investors seeking advisory services, and the evolution of industry practices.” Notably, the advertising rule (Advisers Act Rule 206(4)-1) has been largely untouched since its adoption in 1961. Likewise, the cash solicitation rule (Advisers Act Rule 206(4)-3) has not been amended since its adoption in 1979. In this installment of our blog, we will outline some of the more salient points of the SEC’s proposal to replace the advertising rule. Look for our discussion of the proposed cash solicitation rule amendment in an upcoming post.

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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.

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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.”

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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 ›

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