Articles Posted in Enforcement

As illustrated in two recent cases, the SEC’s Enforcement Division continues to root out RIAs that receive excessive undisclosed fees, particularly 12b-1 fees and mutual fund revenue sharing payments. As we have noted repeatedly, the SEC has focused on this issue in the last several years. At issue is whether an adviser properly disclosed to its clients that its representatives or an affiliated broker-dealer would receive 12b-1 fees based upon the recommendation of a mutual fund share class that pays such a fee when other classes that do not carry such a fee are available to the client.

In the first case, SCF Investment Advisors (SCF), a California-based registered investment adviser, consented to more than $700,000 in monetary sanctions imposed by the SEC relating to the firm’s practice of receiving 12b-1 fees in advisory accounts without proper disclosure. According to the order, SCF used mutual funds and money market funds that paid 12b-1 fees, although the receipt of those fees was not disclosed to clients and less expensive alternatives were available. The firm’s affiliated broker-dealer also received revenue sharing payments, a practice that was also not disclosed. As a result of those charges, SCF and its affiliates were unjustly enriched, and the clients’ performance was lower than it would have been had the practices not existed.

In 2018, the SEC granted RIAs the opportunity to enter into consent orders that did not carry civil penalties by self-reporting the receipt of undisclosed 12b-1 fees. In those cases, however, the firms would nevertheless be required to reimburse clients the amounts received in 12b-1 fees. In April of this year, as a result of that self-disclosure initiative, the SEC announced that the initiative resulted in 95 RIAs returning nearly $140 million to their customers. Continue reading ›

Earlier this summer, the US Supreme Court handed down a highly anticipated decision clarifying the powers of the Securities and Exchanges Commission in civil enforcement proceedings. The court ruled by a margin of 8 to 1 that the SEC can obtain disgorgement from a defendant because disgorgement is a form of equitable relief. As such, the remedy is based on district courts’ inherent powers to enter remedies based on fairness and equity. But we anticipate that the lower courts will still have difficulty in answering questions relating to the equitable remedy with uniformity, most likely resulting in those questions eventually coming back to the high court for resolution.

The case, Liu v. SEC, involved a lower court’s order that a married couple must pay $27 million in disgorgement as a result of the husband’s raising that amount from Chinese investors in a fraudulent EB-5 offering. The funds were ostensibly raised to fund a new cancer clinic, but ultimately the funds were misused. The husband funneled some of the money to the wife and some to other related companies. Both husband and wife were paid millions of dollars in salaries alone. The disgorgement award held both husband and wife jointly and severally liable for the full amount.

The trial court ordered the couple to disgorge the full amount raised in the fraudulent scheme as “ill-gotten gains.” The defendants challenged the amount of disgorgement imposed on several grounds, including that the amount should be offset by legitimate expenses incurred by the defendants. A disgorgement award that was not limited to net profits, they argued, constituted a penalty and therefore, could not be imposed consistent with other limitations on awards of civil penalties. Continue reading ›

Last week, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) issued a Letter of Acceptance Waiver and Consent (AWC) censuring Merrill Lynch and ordering $7.2 million in restitution to investor clients. Merrill had already reimbursed the clients as a result of an internal review and had self-reported the underlying violations to FINRA, a move that earned praise from FINRA in the AWC.

At issue was the failure to honor rights of reinstatement in connection with mutual fund purchases. Mutual fund companies usually offer various rights to their shareholders, as set forth in a fund’s prospectus or the fund’s statement of additional information. Some funds grant shareholders a right of reinstatement, which allows investors to buy fund shares without incurring a front-end charge if the investor previously sold shares of any fund within the same family. Usually, this involves A-shares, but it could apply to different classes of shares, depending on the fund company. Similarly, a right of reinstatement usually allows the investor to recoup any previously charged contingent deferred sales charge relating to the sale of a fund within the family. Rights of reinstatement typically specify that the new purchases must occur within 30 to 90 days of the prior sale, but the period could be as up to one year later, depending on the fund and the particular situation. Continue reading ›

Last month Wells Fargo Advisors Financial Network LLC agreed to settle administrative charges brought by the SEC, and will pay a $35 million civil penalty in order to resolve the matter. According to the allegations, Wells Fargo failed to supervise investment adviser representatives who recommended inverse exchange-traded funds to their customers, leading to investor losses.

Inverse ETFs allow investors to short the entire market or a sub-market, depending on the ETF involved. However, because they usually “re-set” every day, inverse ETFs are not designed to be held for longer than a single trading day. Instead, they are designed to be used by traders to implement risk hedges on an intra-day basis. If they are held on a long-term basis, they will not necessarily perform consistently with the long-term direction of the market being shorted. This is especially true in volatile markets.

These risks are often described in detail in the product prospectuses but are not often explained sufficiently by financial advisers. In fact, advisers who are not specifically trained on the products often do not understand their unique characteristics. For example, a single-inverse ETF based on a particular index will usually lose money even if the index performance remains flat. In fact, even if the index falls the ETF can lose money.

Continue reading ›

A recent pair of SEC enforcement Orders against registered investment adviser Talimco, LLC and its Chief Operating Officer Grant Rogers highlight the need for advisers to be ever-mindful of their fiduciary duties to both clients when effecting cross trades between such clients.

Cross trading occurs whenever an adviser arranges a securities transaction between two parties, both of whom being advisory clients of the firm. While “principal trading” (where the adviser buys or sells for its own proprietary account) and “agency cross trading” (where the adviser acts as a broker and receives compensation) are accorded heightened scrutiny and require additional disclosures and consents, this recent pair of Orders show that even ordinary cross trades can be highly problematic when one client is favored over another.

In this particular case, the SEC alleges that Talimco and Rogers went so far as to manipulate the auction price of a commercial loan participation in a sham transaction between two of its clients that distinctly advantaged one client over the other. Continue reading ›

A recent settled SEC Order with Wedbush Securities, Inc., a dually-registered investment adviser and broker-dealer, has resulted in a censure and $250,000 fine against that firm. The genesis of this rather harsh result is what the SEC alleges to be the firm’s lack of an ability to follow-up on obvious compliance “red flags” that, in this case, pointed to an extensive and long-running “pump and dump” scheme involving one of the firm’s registered representatives. Indeed, as noted by Marc P. Berger, Director of the SEC’s New York Regional Office, “Wedbush abandoned important responsibilities to its customers by looking the other way in the face of mounting evidence of manipulative conduct.”

The SEC’s regulatory requirements compel broker-dealers to adopt policies and procedures that are sufficiently tailored to determine whether their associated persons are violating the securities laws and to prevent them from violating the securities laws. Broker-dealers are also compelled to ensure that these policies and procedures are sufficiently implemented to discover and prevent securities law violations. Continue reading ›

Demonstrating its regulatory interest in the robo adviser industry, on December 21, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an Order Instituting Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings against Wealthfront Advisers, LLC, a registered investment adviser which uses a software-based “robo adviser” platform in servicing its clients. The action is the second case against robo advisers filed on the same day. Wealthfront submitted an offer of settlement in light of the proceeding.

According to the SEC’s Order, Wealthfront utilizes a proprietary tax loss harvesting program (“TLH”) to help its clients garner tax benefits. These tax benefits would typically come through selling assets at a loss, which could potentially be used to reduce income or gains and create a lower tax liability. From October 2012 onward, Wealthfront has featured whitepapers on its website that provide information about the TLH strategy. Continue reading ›

On December 21, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an Order Instituting Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings against Hedgeable, Inc., a registered investment adviser.  Hedgeable utilizes a “robo adviser” program, which it offers to individuals, small business owners, trusts, corporations, and partnerships through both its website and social media.  The SEC’s Order alleges that from about 2016 through April 2017, Hedgeable made various misleading statements in advertising and performance data.  Hedgeable submitted an offer of settlement in order to resolve the proceeding.

According to the Order, Hedgeable launched a so-called “Robo-Index” to present comparisons of its performance against that of two unaffiliated robo advisers.  These comparisons were featured on both Hedgeable’s website and various social media sites.  The SEC found that Hedgeable’s method of preparing the Robo-Index had significant material issues.  For example, the SEC found that data from 2014 and 2015 only featured data from a small pool of Hedgeable client accounts and excluded over 1,000 other client accounts.  The SEC alleged that, because of the small sample sizes, the data likely reflected “survivorship bias,” stemming from the fact that the sample size likely only contained clients who received higher than average returns compared to Hedgeable’s other clients.  The SEC also determined that Hedgeable’s calculation methods did not correctly estimate expected returns for a standard client of the other two robo advisers.  Hedgeable allegedly produced the data in the Robo-Index using estimations of the other robo advisers’ trading models rather than using the robo advisers’ actual models. Continue reading ›

Following several enforcement actions brought against registered investment advisers that received 12b-1 fees when institutional shares were available to be purchased in clients’ advisory accounts, in February of this year the Securities and Exchange Commission announced an initiative under which firms could self-report the receipt of “avoidable” 12b-1 fees since 2014.  Under the so-called Share Class Selection Disclosure Initiative (SCSDI), advisers who self-reported receiving 12b-1 fees under those circumstances would be subject to an SEC enforcement action but would receive favorable treatment in such a case. Such favorable treatment included no recommended civil penalties as long as the firm agreed to disgorge all avoidable 12b-1 fees received.

In order to participate in the SCSDI, however, firms were required to report to the SEC by June 12, 2018. In announcing the SCSDI, the SEC indicated that firms that did not self-report may be subjected to harsher sanctions if their practice was later discovered.

In recent weeks through information available through clearing firm data and public sources the SEC has identified RIAs that may have received 12b-1 fee but chose not to self-report. Some of these firms are receiving subpoenas or requests for information and testimony.  Whether the failure to report was justified and/or the original receipt of the 12b-1 fees were not improper are questions that the SEC Enforcement Staff will be evaluating during its investigations.  In some limited circumstance a firm might be able to justify receipt of the questioned fess, and also might be excused from or ineligible for the self-reporting initiative. Continue reading ›

In October 2018, the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina granted class action certification to Robert Berry, a former financial adviser for Wells Fargo.  Berry’s suit against Wells Fargo alleges that Wells Fargo did not pay the class members, other former and current Wells Fargo employees money that they were owed as deferred compensation.

According to Berry’s First Amended Class-Action Complaint, he and a number of other Wells Fargo employees were part of two deferred-compensation plans that qualified as “pension benefit plans” under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”).  The complaint claims that the plans failed to follow ERISA’s funding, vesting, and non-forfeitability requirements. Continue reading ›

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