Articles Posted in Guest Contributor

Investment advisers’ use of clients’ usernames and passwords to access their clients’ accounts to observe the accounts’ performance has come under scrutiny in recent years.  In February 2017, the SEC Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) disclosed in a Risk Alert that investment advisers’ use of client usernames and passwords can create compliance issues with the Custody Rule.  According to OCIE, an investment adviser’s “online access to client accounts may meet the definition of custody when such access provides the adviser with the ability to withdraw funds and securities from the client accounts.”  Accessing a client’s account using a client’s username and password often results in an investment adviser being able to withdraw funds and securities.

The North American Securities Administrators Association (“NASAA”) has also observed in recent years that if an investment adviser logs into a client’s account using the client’s personal information, “the investment adviser is in effect impersonating this client and has the same access to the account as the client.”  As a result, a number of issues arise when investment advisers use their clients’ personal information to gain access to online accounts, including custody, recordkeeping obligations, and potential violations of user agreements. Continue reading

Over the last two months, the Texas State Securities Board (“Securities Board”) has published four emergency cease and desist orders alleging violations of the Texas Securities Act involving the offer and sale of cryptocurrencies.  The fact that the Securities Board has issued four orders pertaining to cryptocurrencies shows that the Securities Board intends to make regulation of cryptocurrencies a priority.  It is also expected that Texas could “take the lead” in regards to state regulation of cryptocurrencies.  This follows last year’s announcement by the Securities and Exchange Commission that it intends to make the regulation of cryptocurrencies a priority this year in light of the fact that the cryptocurrency market has been growing over the years.

The Securities Board issued its first order involving cryptocurrencies on December 20, 2017 against a foreign firm called USI-Tech Limited.  According to the order, USI-Tech Limited and its agents offered Texas investors investments “in a series of Bitcoin mining contracts.”  The order alleged that these offers violated the Texas Securities Act because the investments, which were determined to be securities, were not registered in Texas.  USI-Tech Limited’s agents also allegedly were not registered as Texas dealers or agents, and no applicable exceptions applied.  The order also alleged that USI-Tech Limited and its agents made material misrepresentations and omissions concerning the offers. Continue reading

On April 3, 2018, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) published Frequently Asked Questions (“FAQs”) to help “covered financial institutions,” including broker-dealers and dually registered SEC investment advisers, better understand its new Customer Due Diligence Requirements (“CDD Rule”), which will become effective on May 11, 2018.  Other “covered financial institutions” include insured banks, commercial banks, federally insured credit unions, savings associations, trust banks or trust companies that are federally registered, and mutual funds.

The CDD Rule will require covered financial institutions to adopt written policies and procedures that are sufficiently tailored to “identify and verify beneficial owners of legal entity customers and to include such procedures in their anti-money laundering compliance program.”  A beneficial owner is defined as an individual who directly or indirectly owns 25 percent or more of a legal entity customer’s equity and a person who exercises significant control over a legal entity customer.  However, according to the FAQs, should covered financial institutions desire to gather information on individuals owning less than 25 percent of a legal entity customer, they are welcome to do so.  The FAQs also provide that covered financial institutions are required to verify beneficial owners’ identities using risk-based procedures that feature the same factors financial institutions are required to use to verify customer identities under the Customer Identification Program rules. Continue reading

In response to FINRA’s Regulatory Notice 17-42, the Securities and Exchange Commission published a letter detailing its thoughts regarding some rule amendments FINRA proposed relating to its expungement procedures.  According to FINRA, “expungement of customer dispute information is an extraordinary measure, but it may be appropriate in certain circumstances.”  Nevertheless, critics of expungement have voiced their concern that FINRA’s current procedures for expungement may not be adequate.  In response, FINRA proposed the amendments to improve procedures involving expungement requests.

The proposed amendments include changes to FINRA Rule 12805, which outlines the conditions that arbitrators must satisfy prior to granting an expungement request.  Rule 12805 does not currently elaborate on how or when expungement relief may be requested during an underlying dispute with a customer.  The amendments would require a FINRA associated person who is named as a party in the underlying customer case to seek expungement while the customer case is ongoing.  If the associated person files an expungement request, he or she would be obligated to file either a $1,425 filing fee or the applicable filing fee provided in FINRA Rule 12900(a)(1), whichever is greater. Continue reading

Last year, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it was creating a Retail Strategy Task Force as part of the Enforcement Division’s continuing endeavors to shield retail investors.  The newly created Task Force has already in 2018 published an Investor Alert relating to Ponzi schemes, as discussed below.

The Enforcement Division has had “a long and successful history of bringing cases involving fraud targeting retail investors.”  In recent years, it has seen a substantial number of cases pertaining to fraud that impacted retail investors, such as the sale of structured products that were not suitable to the relevant retail investor and microcap pump-and-dump schemes.  The Retail Strategy Task Force will put into practice the education obtained from those cases in order to pinpoint “large-scale misconduct affecting retail investors.” Continue reading

On March 15, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit elected, in a 2-1 decision, to vacate the Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) Fiduciary Rule (Chamber of Commerce of the U.S.A., et al. v. U.S. Dep’t of Labor, et al.).  In doing so, the Fifth Circuit overturned the Fiduciary Rule in its entirety, including its new definition of fiduciary advice under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1975 (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code (Code), as well as the various new exemptions and revisions to existing exemptions that it features.  It is uncertain whether the DOL will request that the Fifth Circuit rehear the case, appeal the case to the United States Supreme Court, or do nothing.  The Fifth Circuit’s decision, however, has not deterred the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from continuing to discuss implementing its own fiduciary rule.

According to the Fifth Circuit’s majority opinion, the DOL exceeded its authority in adopting the new fiduciary investment advice definition in the Fiduciary Rule, finding the definition inconsistent with the plain text of ERISA and the Code. The Fifth Circuit also concluded that the DOL acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in, among other things, requiring people providing services to IRAs to sign a contract under the Best Interest Contract exemption in which they admit that they are fiduciaries and can be sued. Therefore, the Fifth Circuit concluded that “the Rule fails to pass the tests of reasonableness of the [Administrative Procedures Act].” Continue reading

On February 26, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an Order Making Findings and Imposing Remedial Sanctions and a Cease-and-Desist Order against EquityStar Capital Management, LLC, an unregistered investment adviser, and its owner, Steven Zoernack.  According to the SEC’s Order, EquityStar and Zoernack offered and sold investment interests in two unregistered investment funds from about May 2010 to about March 2014.  The SEC’s Order alleges that in the course of making these offers and sales, EquityStar and Zoernack “made material misrepresentations and omissions and engaged in a fraudulent scheme involving this and other deceptive conduct.”

Zoernack was tasked with writing and publishing marketing materials for the funds that EquityStar managed.  In these marketing materials, Zoernack allegedly claimed that the funds’ manager, whose name was not disclosed, had “an impeccable and unblemished past record with the SEC.”  According to the SEC, however, Zoernack was in fact the manager, and he had “two criminal fraud convictions, had previously filed for bankruptcy, and had numerous money judgments and liens against him.”  The Order also claims that Zoernack made various efforts to hide his criminal record and negative financial history, including paying a search-engine manipulator to make positive information about him appear before negative information in search engine results. Continue reading

On February 13, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it is accepting registrations for the National Compliance Outreach Seminar (“National Seminar”).  The National Seminar, which is part of the SEC’s Compliance Outreach Program, is designed to help educate registered investment advisers’ chief compliance officers (“CCOs”), as well as their senior officers, about “various broad topics applicable to larger investment advisory firms and investment companies.”  The National Seminar will take place on April 12, 2018 at the SEC’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., and it will last from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. ET.  While only 500 participants can attend in person, a live webcast will be provided via www.sec.gov.

This year the National Seminar will include six panel discussions between SEC personnel, CCOs, and various other industry representatives.  SEC personnel who participate in the panels typically include officers from the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations, the Division of Investment Management, and the Division of Enforcement’s Asset Management Unit, as well as officers from other SEC divisions or offices.  CCOs and other senior staff in private advisory firms typically participate in the panels as well.  Each of these panels reflects areas of concern which the SEC likely intends to prioritize in 2018. Continue reading

On February 7, 2018, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) published its Examination Priorities for 2018.  The Examination Priorities cover “certain practices, products, and services that OCIE believes may present potentially heightened risk to investors and/or the integrity of the U.S. capital markets.”  The five priorities that OCIE specifically listed are (1) issues crucial to retail investors, such as seniors and those saving for retirement, (2) compliance and risks in critical market infrastructure, (3) FINRA and MSRB, (4) cybersecurity, and (5) anti-money laundering programs.  This is not an exclusive list, and OCIE invited comments concerning how it can adequately promote compliance.

OCIE intends to continue to make shielding retail investors from fraud a priority.  OCIE plans to focus especially on senior investors and those saving for retirement.  For example, examiners will pay particular attention to firms’ internal controls that are intended to monitor their representatives, especially in relation to products targeted at senior investors.  OCIE will also focus on disclosure of the costs of investing, examination of investment advisers and broker-dealers who primarily offer advice through digital platforms, wrap fee programs, mutual funds and exchange traded funds, municipal advisors and underwriters, and the growth of the cryptocurrency and initial coin offering markets. Continue reading

Whether or not the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) will formally name advertising as among its priorities in 2018, it is clear from its activity and that of the Enforcement Division in 2017 that advertising should remain a concern of every registered investment adviser and chief compliance officer.

In September 2017, OCIE published a Risk Alert identifying the most common compliance issues pertaining to Rule 206(4)-1 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, otherwise known as the “Advertising Rule.”  An advertisement includes “any notice, circular, letter or other written communication addressed to more than one person, or any notice or other announcement in any publication or by radio or television, which offers” advice regarding securities.  The Advertising Rule forbids an investment adviser from “directly or indirectly… publishing, circulating, or distributing any untrue statement of material fact, or that is otherwise false or misleading.” Continue reading