Articles Posted in Compliance

In this first quarter of the year, most investment advisers are working diligently to complete and file their annual updating amendment to Form ADV, including Part 2A, commonly called the “Brochure.” One of the most important requirements in drafting a Brochure is to make sure that all conflicts of interests, together with a description of how the conflict is mitigated or addressed, are fully and fairly disclosed. An administrative action brought by the SEC and settled last week illustrates, and should serve to underscore, the importance of identifying and disclosing such conflicts.

The SEC charged registered investment adviser Moors & Cabot (“M&C”) with breaching its fiduciary duty to investment advisory clients by failing to disclose conflicts of interest relating to revenue sharing payments and other financial incentives that the adviser received from two clearing brokers. The financial benefits included discounts, incentive credits and shared revenue that were contingent upon M&C meeting certain thresholds in total assets maintained in FDIC-insure bank deposit cash sweeps. M&C also received a share of margin interest the clearing firms charged to M&C’s clients who maintained margin loans. M&C also received a portion of postage and handling fees that one of the clearing brokers charged to its clients.

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For the majority of investment advisers registered with either the SEC or state regulators, annual updating amendment season is once again upon us. Advisers whose fiscal year ends on December 31 are required to file their Form ADV annual amendment within 90 days or by March 31, 2023.

While investment advisers are under a continuing obligation to update their disclosure documents when certain or material information becomes inaccurate, the annual update is a universal requirement designed to ensure that the filing information for investment advisers is up to date. This serves an important function in that it allows clients and potential clients to review the publicly filed ADVs for investment advisers on FINRA’s BrokerCheck and the SEC’s IADP. Additionally, regulators review the filings and the underlying analytics to track industry trends, plan examination targets, and conduct regulatory sweeps.

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The Securities and Exchange Commission recently announced the filing of an administrative proceeding against a registered investment adviser and the investment advisers owner/CCO for failing to adopt compliance policies and procedures, a Code of Ethics, and for failing to conduct annual reviews of the same. The advisory firm is Two Point Investment Management, Inc., based in Pittsford, New York. The SEC found that the violations occurred over a 10-year period starting when the adviser first registered with the SEC in 2012.

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While designed as a capital formation alternative to going public or conducting a private placement offering under Section 4(a)(2), use of the intrastate offering exemption has not been widely used since the SEC revised the regulation in 2016. Sometimes referred as “crowdfunding” due to the ability to raise smaller amounts from more investors, the intrastate offering exemption differs greatly from Regulation Crowdfunding, also known as Regulation CF.

North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA), the group of state securities administrators tracks the state jurisdictions that have implemented an intrastate offering exemption. In total, 35 jurisdictions have adopted some form of an intrastate exemptions with the regulatory requirements differing from state-to-state. While not widely used by Issuers in the majority of jurisdictions, other states such as Texas, Michigan, and Georgia have seen numerous filers take advantage of the exemption.

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Organizations seeking to raise capital have multiple options at their disposal – each with their own benefits, limitations, and regulatory obligations. As part of the JOBS Act, the SEC was tasked with reviewing an almost century old regulatory structure with the goal of easing and modernizing aspects of the federal securities regulations concerning capital formation. One of these such areas that the SEC reviewed and modernized was the traditional intrastate offering exemption.

The intrastate offering exemption, codified as Section 3(a)(11) of the Securities Act of 1933, customarily has been used in conjunction with the safe harbor contained in Rule 147. Under this framework, offerings conducted by an Issuer, that are only offered or sold within the same state jurisdiction as the Issuer, solely to residents within the same state jurisdiction as the Issuer, are exempt from registration with the SEC, and instead only have to comply with the respective state’s securities laws.

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On October 26, 2022, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) proposed a rule that would prohibit investment advisers from using certain third party service providers without additional due diligence and monitoring.

The proposed rule provides an oversight framework for investment advisers designed to ensure that any “covered functions” outsourced to third parties are consistent with the adviser’s obligations to their clients. A “covered function” is a function or service that is necessary to provide investment advisory services in compliance with Federal securities laws, and if the service is not performed or is performed negligently, would be reasonably likely to cause a material negative impact on the adviser’s clients or advisory services.

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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.

On August 3, 2022, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) published a Staff Bulletin related to compensation incentives that may cause a conflict of interest in violation of Regulation Best Interest (“Reg BI”) rules and the SEC’s fiduciary standards for investment advisers (“IA fiduciary standard”). Reg BI and the IA fiduciary standard provide that a conflict of interest is an interest that may consciously or unconsciously incline a broker dealer or investment adviser to make recommendations or render advise that is not disinterested. According to Reg BI and the IA fiduciary standard, broker dealers and investment advisers must identify and either disclose or eliminate all conflicts of interest.

The IA fiduciary standard encompasses both the duty of loyalty and the duty of care. According to the Commission Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers published in 2019, the duty of loyalty requires investments advisers to at a minimum disclose a conflict of interest so that a client may provide informed consent to said conflict or eliminate the conflict entirely. The 2019 Commission Interpretation also explains that the duty of care requires investment advisers to provide advice based on a reasonable understanding of the client’s goals and objectives that is in the client’s best interest.
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For the past several years, regulators at both the federal and state levels have placed a greater emphasis on the advisory fees charged to retail clients and how those fees are calculated and disclosed. We have previously written about these efforts publicized through Risk Alerts, Exam Priorities and Observations, and Staff Bulletins. Recently, the Colorado Division of Securities published an Ongoing Financial Planning Guide that articulated its concerns regarding investment adviser firms that provide continuous financial planning services.

The Colorado Division of Securities stated that it has encountered a growing trend in which investment advisers provide on-going financial planning rather than the traditional hourly or one-time fixed fee models. Under the on-going financial planning arrangement, investment advisers theoretically take a greater role in implementing financial plans, assisting clients with day-to-day financial decisions, updating financial plans, and making themselves available to the client as needed.

Compliance concerns regarding financial planning have traditionally focused on the disclosure of services and fees, including how and when the fees are charged, whether collecting fees in advance triggers custody concerns, and whether collecting fees in advance create a refund obligation. Colorado’s Guidance continues highlighting these areas of focus and expands what it considers to be best practices.
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