Articles Posted in Compliance

Late last year, the SEC announced the settlement of five enforcement cases against RIA firms relating to their recommendations and purchases of complex exchange-traded products (ETPs) in clients’ accounts. The settlements – against Benjamin F. Edwards & Co., Royal Alliance Associates, Inc., Securities America Advisors, Inc, Summit Financial Group, Inc., and American Portfolios Financial Services. The actions were announced in connection with the SEC’s ETP initiative.

These cases may be the first of many, and they followed a joint statement from SEC Chairman and division heads in October of last year indicating that firms would be examined relating to their use of complex ETPs. However, the SEC has not formally announced a new initiative on the subject. Earlier in 2020, the SEC had resolved a similar charge against Wells Fargo resulting in a $35 million fine.

Generally, the products in question were those that track market volatility and are designed as short-term investments. Typically, these products are tied to the CBOE volatility index or VIX. Examples of such products are the VelocityShares Daily Inverse VIX Short Term Exchange-Traded Notes and the ProShares VIX Short-Term Futures ETF, both of which are tied to the performance of the S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures Index. The product offering materials describe the objectives of these products as to manage trading risks on a daily basis, and warn that their use over periods longer than a single day is not suitable, as the risk control objective will not be met by using them over such longer period. The issuers’ materials clearly describe that the products could lead to substantial losses when held in portfolios over periods longer than a single day.

Late last year, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE), now known as the Division of Examinations, issued a compliance risk alert warning investment advisers to ensure that their compliance programs are uniform and are uniformly applied across all branch office locations.

The alert summarized the findings from OCIE’s two-year Multi-Branch Initiative, in which it examined nearly 40 advisers’ main offices and their respective branches. Most of the advisers included in the initiative had 10 or more branches that were widely dispersed from the main office. Primarily, the report emphasized that compliance risks relating to supervising personnel and processes are heightened when the branch office has policies or procedures that differ from those of the main office.

In the report, OCIE further explains that more than half of the examined firms had policies and procedures that were either inaccurate or not consistently applied among branches, or both. Almost all firms had at least one compliance defect. Many of the deficiencies related to unrecognized custody of client funds, inadequate or inconsistent fee billing practices, failure to recognize and disclose conflicts of interests, or differences in portfolio management practices or other ways in which the firm’s advisers formulate or deliver investment advice.

In a speech last month, Peter Driscoll, the director of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE), stressed that registered investment advisers must take steps to grant authority to their Chief Compliance Officers, pointing out that the failure to do so is often cited as a deficiency following RIA audits. Driscoll explained that CCOs must be supported and empowered by an RIA’s upper management and that OCIE examiners are looking closely to determine whether that is or is not happening at a particular firm.

Driscoll’s speech comes on the heels of the SEC’s upholding a FINRA enforcement action against the CCO of a broker-dealer who was fined $45,000 and given a 90-day suspension for failing to follow up on “red flags” that the broker-dealer was making payments to a firm owned by a barred broker. A federal appellate court recently affirmed that decision. The speech seemed designed, in part, to allay concerns by CCOs that they are at risk of becoming frequent enforcement targets. Consistent with prior SEC guidance, Driscoll’s speech highlighted that compliance failures are more often the result of other senior firm officers not sufficiently fulfilling their roles to assure that the compliance function is adequately staffed and complied with. Compliance should not fall entirely “on the shoulders of the CCO,” he said.

Too often, says Driscoll, OCIE sees firms take a “check-the-box” approach to their CCO position, meaning they are given just enough authority to complete the bare minimum compliance tasks but aren’t fully integrated into the ongoing operations, direction, or major decisions of the company. He notes that in many examination meetings, the CCO stays quiet as the company’s other senior executives dominate answers to core compliance questions. In other instances, he says, firms try to use the CCO as a “scapegoat” to cover failings by other firm personnel to follow clear policies or guidance. When OCIE notices that the CCO is turned into a target for every compliance problem identified, while CEOs take no responsibility, it is an indication that the firm has not set the proper tone and the top that is critical to all good compliance programs.

Earlier this year, the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA), through a working group within the Senior Issues/Diminished Capacity Committee, issued a report of findings and recommendations relating to issues of cognitive impairment or diminished capacity that may affect investment advisers and other financial professionals. The report summarized information received by the working group from registered investment advisers, broker-dealers, and compliance consultants in the industry. The findings focused on communication, education, and succession planning as key elements of an effective plan to address impairment issues.

Of course, an adviser suffering from diminished capacity could face serious difficulties relating to his or her work, including not being able to provide effective service to the client or to comply with responsibilities under the securities laws, including meeting the standards of conduct and maintaining adequate books and records. Those interviewed in connection with the study indicated that the industry welcomes continued regulatory engagement and continued input on this subject. Many of them also identified existing guidance from NASAA, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, and the Financial Services Institute as being resources they currently consult when issues arise.

Among the key areas considered are how firms can recognize signs of diminished capacity and how they should consider dealing with issues that arise. The report encouraged firms to consider implementing an appropriate training program to enable staff to detect “red flags” of impairment by an adviser and a mechanism to communicate concerns freely within an organization. While dementia associated with aging is still the most common reason for impairment, other underlying causes include accidents and traumatic injury, side effects from medications, a non-dementia medical diagnosis, and drug or alcohol addiction. When a situation is detected, how a firm should confront the adviser is a key issue, and one that may be fraught with both practical and legal considerations. The report summarized a few instances where firms had successfully dealt with such issues and stressed that sensitivity and respect should be paramount in every such encounter.

SEC Issues Risk Alert to Private Fund Advisers, Part 2

This supplements our previous post relating to a Risk Alert issued by the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations on June 23. The Risk Alert was directed at investment advisers to private investment funds. While the prior post discussed the portion of the Risk Alert dealing with fees and expenses, this post discusses the SEC’s findings relating to failure to disclose conflicts of interest.

By way of background, the Risk Alert reminds private fund advisers that they owe duties of care and loyalty to the investors in private funds. In order to fulfill the duty of loyalty, the adviser may not prefer his own interests to those of the investors and must disclose to its clients, in a full and fair manner, all material facts relating to the advisory relationship. The scope of the investment adviser’s duties is discussed at length in IA-5248, issued in June 2019, which we have discussed in a previous post.

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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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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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