Articles Posted in Enforcement

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 ›

The Securities and Exchange Commission recently issued three Orders Instituting Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings relating to the misuse of quantitative models in managing customers’ accounts.  Four entities affiliated with Transamerica and two individuals associated with one of those entities were charged with violating the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”) and Advisers Act Rules.  The Orders allege that AEGON USA Investment Management LLC, Transamerica Asset Management, Inc., Transamerica Capital, Inc., and Transamerica Financial Advisors, Inc., marketed various products and investment strategies that used a “proprietary quant model” while failing to verify whether the models functioned as intended and without disclosing known risks connected with the models.  The Transamerica entities and the individuals, Bradley Beman and Kevin Giles, submitted offers of settlement to resolve the charges. Continue reading ›

Earlier this month, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it had reached a settlement with Ross Shapiro, a former managing director of Nomura Securities International, Inc. (“Nomura”).  The SEC filed a complaint against Shapiro and two other defendants, Michael A. Gramins and Tyler G. Peters, in September of 2015.  The complaint alleged that between January 2010 and November 2013, Shapiro, Gramins, and Peters made misrepresentations to customers about the prices of residential mortgage-backed securities (“RMBS”) and manufactured housing asset-backed securities (“MHABS”), thereby violating the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

An RMBS is a security whose underlying assets comprise residential loans.  Customers who invest in an RMBS typically obtain payments derived from the interest and principal payments on these loans.  Shapiro, Gramins, and Peters provided market information and sold RMBS and MHABS on behalf of Nomura, a FINRA-registered broker-dealer.  The customers in question were funds that invested in RMBS.

The SEC’s complaint alleged that Shapiro, Gramins, and Peters made various misrepresentations to customers regarding the prices at which Nomura bought and sold RMBS and MHABS and that they misrepresented the amount of compensation that Nomura would receive for arranging any trades.  For example, Shapiro, Gramins, and Peters allegedly deceived customers on numerous occasions regarding how much Nomura paid for RMBS and MHABS.  Shapiro, Gramins, and Peters also gave clients the impression that Nomura had paid a higher price for RMBS and MHABS than it actually had.  These misrepresentations were usually made via electronic communications such as instant messaging, emails, and online chats.

On June 25, 2018, Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC agreed to an Order settling charges brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission relating to Wells Fargo’s use of Market-Linked Investments (“MLIs”). According to the Order Instituting Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings, beginning in January 2009 and ending in about June 2013, Wells Fargo and its predecessor “improperly solicited customers to redeem their market-linked investments (“MLI”) early and purchase new MLIs without adequate analysis or consideration of the substantial costs associated with such transactions.”  Continue reading ›

On June 4, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an Order Instituting Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings against deVere USA, Inc. (“deVere”), a registered investment adviser.  The SEC’s Order alleges that deVere failed “to make full and fair disclosure to clients and prospective clients of material conflicts of interest regarding compensation obtained from third-party product and service providers.”  The Order also alleges that deVere made inadequate disclosures in its Form ADV, did not conform its compliance program to its method of doing business, and did not follow compliance requirements adopted in its compliance manual.  deVere submitted an offer of settlement in conjunction with the SEC’s Order. Continue reading ›

In June of this year, the Securities and Exchange Commission settled charges with 13 firms that serve as registered investment advisers to private funds for failing to file Form PF. The settling companies were: Bachrach Asset Management Inc., Bilgari Capital LLC, Brahma Management Ltd., Bristol Group Inc., CAI Managers & Co. L.P., Cherokee Investment Partners LLC, Ecosystem Investment Partners LLC, Elm Partners Management LLC, HEP Management Corp., Prescott General Partners LLC, RLJ Equity Partners LLC, Rose Park Advisors LLC, and Veteri Place Corp.  According to the settlement orders, “the advisers failed to file annual reports on Form PF informing the agency about the funds they advise, including the amount of assets under management, fund strategy, performance, and use of borrowed money and derivatives.”  Continue reading ›

A case involving real estate lending illustrates the perils of failing to comply with the securities laws.  Last fall the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a complaint against Paul Z. Singer, a Philadelphia-based lender, and his company, Singer Financial Corp. (“SFC”), alleging that from October 2012 to July 2015, Singer, “by and through SFC, raised $4.5 million from at least 70 investors through an illegal and unregistered offering of securities in the form of promissory notes.”

This is not the first time Singer and SFC have been alleged to have sold unregistered securities.  The Pennsylvania Securities Commission imposed penalties against SFC in 1997 and Singer and SFC in 2007 for violations of Pennsylvania’s securities laws pertaining to the unregistered offer and sale of securities.  Also, the New Jersey Bureau of Securities imposed a $5,000 fine against SFC in 2010 for selling unregistered securities. Continue reading ›

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