Articles Posted in Investment Adviser

The SEC, on June 5th, adopted a comprehensive set of rules and interpretations that will have a profound effect on the brokerage and advisory industries going forward, first and foremost by revising the standard-of-conduct applicable to broker-dealers and their registered representatives in dealings with retail customers. Even casual observers will likely be familiar with the various proceedings just concluded at the SEC, which resolve debates that have raged in the investment industry for decades as to the need to align the higher fiduciary “standard-of-conduct” applicable to investment advisers with the lesser suitability standard applicable to broker-dealers. While the June 5th releases do not equalize the two standards—as many commentators would have desired—they do significantly raise the standard applicable to broker-dealers from suitability to “best interests.” The SEC’s releases number four separate documents, each covering a distinct aspect of the standard-of-conduct controversy, and run over 1200 pages. Accordingly, this note will seek to identify the major headlines from the various releases. Look for future writings, wherein we will explore the nuances of the June 5th releases in greater detail.

As noted, the SEC released a package of Final Rules and Interpretive Releases comprising four separate components: (1) Final Rules implementing Regulation Best Interest (“Reg BI”), the new enhanced standard for brokers; (2) Final Rules implementing a new Form CRS Relationship Summary (“Form CRS”), a new disclosure document applicable to both brokers and advisers (that, for advisers, will function as a new Part 3 to Form ADV); (3) an Interpretive Release clarifying the SEC’s views of the fiduciary duty that investment advisers owe to their clients; and (4) an Interpretive Release intended to more clearly delineate when a broker-dealer’s performance of advisory activities causes it to become an investment adviser within the meaning of the Advisers Act. All four components of the regulatory package were approved by a 3-1 vote of the SEC’s Commissioners, with Commissioner Robert Jackson being the sole dissenter.

While the June 5th releases are the culmination of a decades-long controversy, they are the proximate result of a formal rulemaking commenced on April 18, 2018, at which time the SEC published initial proposed versions of Reg BI, Form CRS and the advisory interpretations. The Final Rules for Reg BI and Form CRS will become effective 60 days after they are formally published in the Federal Register; however, firms will be given a transition period until June 30, 2020 to come into compliance. The two Interpretive Releases will become effective upon formal publication.  Continue reading

The North American Securities Administrators Association—also known as “NASAA”—a cooperative association consisting of the chief securities regulators for each of the 50 United States, as well as Canadian and Mexican jurisdictions, has recently voted to adopt a model information security rule. NASAA’s new model information security rule could—if widely implemented by the individual NASAA Member jurisdictions—ultimately have a broad impact on the compliance programs of state-registered investment advisers.

Among its many roles as a confederation of individual regulators, NASAA frequently drafts and circulates “model rules” to its Members, who eventually vote on and adopt these draft rules for use by the various Member jurisdictions. A “model rule” is a familiar regulatory tool, which essentially provides a template upon which laws, rules, and other regulations can be drafted. For example, many of the individual states’ securities acts are variants of the Uniform Securities Act of 2002, a model act created by a group of legal scholars, regulators and veteran attorneys. NASAA’s new model rule is just such a template for regulators. Individual states and other jurisdictions may—at their discretion—adopt it in whole, in part, or not at all. That said, we believe that, especially given the growing importance of cybersecurity issues, it will be used more likely than not as the states come around to developing rules to parallel those already in place at the federal (SEC) level.  Continue reading

In its latest Risk Alert, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) heeds advisers and broker/dealers to take a fresh look at their policies and procedures in the area of electronic customer record storage in light of shortcomings discovered by OCIE’s staff as part of recently-conducted regular examinations. These shortcomings include weak or misconfigured security settings on a network storage device that, in the worst-case event, could result in unauthorized access to customer information.

OCIE Risk Alerts are highly useful resources for compliance professionals to consider as these published notices serve as a window into not only the recent experiences of OCIE staffers out in the field, but also the thinking of OCIE management as to where it will be directing its staff to focus on in future examinations. In other words, if the management of OCIE warrants it important enough to publish a Risk Alert on an particular topic, registrants can be assured that future exams will likely focus on deficiencies in that area.

This most recent Risk Alert zeros-in on deficiencies uncovered by examiners with respect to how advisers and brokers are protecting their customers’ electronic records—specifically, records kept in the “cloud” or on other types of networked storage solutions. OCIE defines cloud storage as the “electronic storage of information on infrastructure owned and operated by a hosting company or service provider.” Obviously, such storage systems may be especially vulnerable to hacking or other nefarious activities, and as such, warrant robust protections. Continue reading

A recent decision handed down by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals in a case involving SEC action against an adviser for failure to disclose material conflicts of interest provides potentially significant precedent for SEC enforcement proceedings going forward. See The Robare Group, Ltd., et al. v. SEC, No. 16-1453, (D.C. Cir. April 30, 2019). The Robare decision is a mixed bag for the SEC in that, while it affirmed the SEC’s findings of negligence against the adviser under one section of the Advisers Act, it threw out the SEC’s findings that the adviser “willfully” violated a second Advisers Act provision based on the same negligent conduct. Notably, the Court predicated its holding against the SEC on negligent behavior and willful behavior being “mutually exclusive.” The significance of this holding is that the SEC has traditionally applied a standard of willfulness in enforcement proceedings that falls short of the level of intent required by Robare. Accordingly, unless Robare is reversed or modified, the SEC will be forced to reconsider its prior practice of assuming that all voluntary conduct constitutes “willful” behavior going forward.

Robare involved an appeal by a Houston-based adviser, The Robare Group (“TRG”), of SEC administrative findings that TRG had violated Advisers Act Sections 206(2) and 207, and Rule 206(4)-7 under the Advisers Act, as a result of TRG’s inadequate disclosure of a “revenue sharing” arrangement with Fidelity Investments, whereby Fidelity compensated TRG in return for TRG clients investing in certain funds offered on Fidelity’s online platform. While TRG received approximately $400,000 over an eight year period from Fidelity under this arrangement, the SEC alleged that, during that same period, TRG failed (at first entirely and then inadequately) to disclose to its clients and to the SEC the compensation received from Fidelity and the conflicts of interest arising from that compensation.

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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

On February 19, 2019, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio granted a consent judgment against John Gregory Schmidt, a former Wells Fargo Advisors Financial Network (FINET) advisor.  The Securities and Exchange Commission had filed a complaint against Schmidt in September 2018, alleging that Schmidt sold securities that belonged to some of his retail brokerage customers and covertly used the proceeds from those sales to conceal shortfalls in customer accounts.  According to the SEC’s complaint, Schmidt sent his customers fake account statements which overstated their account balances in order to cover up his conduct.  This case demonstrates the need for broker-dealers and registered investment advisers to adopt and enforce policies that effectively give them the ability to detect the use of such fraudulent statements.

Schmidt worked as a registered representative and the branch manager of a FINET office from about December 2006 through October 2017.  By October 2017, he had about 325 retail brokerage customers, many of whom were retirees who were dependent on withdrawals from their accounts to pay living expenses. Continue reading

With annual compliance reviews in full swing this time of year, we write today to remind advisory firms to be sure to assess the sufficiency of their policies and procedures in the ever-developing area of electronic messaging.  Our note comes on the heels of a recent Risk Alert on this topic issued by the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations or “OCIE,” which exhorts advisory firms to take a fresh look at their current compliance policies in light of the particular risks of non-compliance posed by the firm’s usage of electronic messaging.

“Electronic messaging,” as discussed in OCIE’s Risk Alert, refers to such mediums as text/SMS messaging, instant messaging, personal email, and personal or private messaging, but specifically excludes firm-wide email.  Notably, OCIE’s exclusion of firm email from analysis in the Risk Alert should not be read as diminishing an adviser’s compliance obligations to capture, store, and periodically review firm email communications.  Rather, as OCIE explains, “firms have had decades of experience complying with regulatory requirements with respect to firm email” and it is not as problematic from a compliance standpoint as compared to some of the newer technologies that run on third-party applications or platforms.  Continue reading

On February 4, 2019, the Commissioner of Securities of the State of Georgia and the Office of the Secretary of State announced its intent to amend the rules governing examination requirements for registered representatives of a broker-dealer and investment adviser representatives.  According to the Commissioner, the primary purposes of these amendments are to harmonize Georgia’s rules with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s new rules implementing the Securities Industry Essentials (“SIE”) Exam and to update the requirements regarding examinations to applicants.  The SIE Exam, which tests a FINRA registration applicant’s knowledge of securities-related topics, was launched to simplify FINRA’s qualification examination program after the program’s efforts to address new securities products and services resulted in FINRA offering multiple exams with immense content overlap.  FINRA also launched the SIE Exam in order to provide greater consistency and uniformity to the securities industry application process.

The State of Georgia requires applicants for registration as a registered representative of a broker-dealer and/or an investment adviser representative to take certain prerequisite examinations.  Georgia Rule 590-4-5-.02 details the examination requirements for registered representatives, while Georgia Rule 590-4-4.09 details the examination requirements for investment adviser representatives.

The proposed amendments to Rule 590-4-5-.02, detailing registered representative examinations, would require an applicant applying for registration as a broker-dealer to present proof to the Commissioner that its personnel have passed at least one of a list of specified examinations within a two-year period preceding the date of the application.  The amendments also eliminate the Series 87 Research Principal Examination as a potential examination that could be passed.  The amendments also would provide that an applicant who is applying to be a registered representative would need to present the Commissioner with proof that he or she has passed the required examinations within either a two-year period immediately preceding the application date or a four-year period in the case of an applicant who has taken the SIE Exam.  The amendments also provide that the Commissioner “may reserve the right to find the applicant qualified by other examinations or significant and comprehensive experience in the securities business.”

At this time of year, it is important for registered investment advisers to assure that they are in compliance with federal and/or state rules requiring them to monitor their supervised persons’ security holdings and transactions for compliance with the firm’s code of ethics. Even seasoned compliance professionals will encounter questions regarding application of the rule from time to time. While this article is no substitute for a detailed analysis of the rule and its application to a specific firm and its supervised persons, an overview of the rule may be helpful.

As background, all SEC-registered investment advisers are required to adopt a Code of Ethics, which must describe the standards of conduct expected for representatives of the firm and address conflicts that arise from personal trading by advisory personnel. This federal requirement, which governs SEC-registered advisers only, derives from SEC Rule 204A-1, which took effect in 2005. Since then, many state securities administrators have adopted identical or similar requirements, either by adopting SEC Rule 204A-1 “by reference”—i.e., verbatim—into state law, or by crafting similar “me too” provisions. Accordingly, if your firm is SEC-registered, it will be bound by Rule 204A-1; but, if your firm is currently a state-registered adviser, it may be bound by the same or similar requirements. Continue reading