In February, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Enforcement Division announced the Share Class Selection Disclosure Initiative (the “SCSD Initiative”), encouraging investment advisers to self-report violations of federal securities laws. Specifically, the SEC is concerned with protecting advisory clients from undisclosed conflicts of interest related to 12b-1 fees charged by advisers. The SEC requests that investment advisers self-report violations of the federal securities laws relating to certain mutual fund share class selection issues prior to June 12, 2018, in exchange for more lenient treatment regarding the violations. A detailed explanation of Eligibility for the SCSD Initiative is available here. In May, the SEC also published a list of frequently asked questions and answers related to the SCSD Initiative.

Under Section 206 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, investment advisers have a fiduciary duty to act in their clients’ best interests. Included is an affirmative duty for the adviser to fully disclose all material facts, such as conflicts of interest. The SEC is concerned with conflicts associated with mutual fund share class selection, which the SCSD Initiative aims to address. In the SCSD Initiative, the SEC cautions that investment advisers must be mindful of their duties when recommending and selecting share classes for clients. Of particular concern are conflicts related to 12b-1 fees earned in the selection of classes of funds – conflicts which must be disclosed to clients. As explained by the SEC, a conflict of interest arises when an adviser receives compensation for selecting a more expensive mutual fund share class for a client when a less expensive share class for the same fund is available and appropriate. Such a conflict of interest must be disclosed. Compensation received either directly or indirectly through an affiliated broker-dealer is subject to scrutiny under the SCSD Initiative. As such, if the adviser failed to disclose a conflict of interest associated with the receipt of 12b-1 fees by the adviser, its affiliates, or its supervised persons for investing advisory clients, such funds are subject to disgorgement, and civil monetary penalties may be appropriate.  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

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

Last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an Order Instituting Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings against Valor Capital Asset Management, LLC, a registered investment adviser, and its owner, Robert Mark Magee.  The SEC’s Order alleges that between July 2012 and May 2015, Magee “disproportionately allocated profitable or less unprofitable trades from Valor’s omnibus trading account to his personal accounts, while disproportionately allocating unprofitable or less profitable trades to Valor client accounts,” a practice known as “cherry-picking.”  Valor and Magee each submitted offers of settlement in conjunction with the Order.

According to the SEC’s Order, Valor had discretionary authority pertaining to the client accounts that were in Magee’s cherry-picking scheme.  Since Magee was Valor’s sole owner and employee, he was tasked with making trades and allocations for Valor’s clients’ accounts.  The SEC alleged that over a three-year period Magee mainly distributed the most unprofitable trades to clients’ accounts and mainly distributed the most profitable or less unprofitable trades to his own account.  The SEC also alleged that whenever Magee bought a block of securities using Valor’s omnibus account, he would delay allocating the block of securities “until after the relevant security’s intraday price changed.”  If the price increased, Magee allegedly would make a sale and allocate the trade to his own account, obtaining a gain.  If the price decreased, Magee allegedly would sell the security that same day and allocate the trade to Valor clients, resulting in a loss.  Alternatively, he would hold the security and allocate the purchase to Valor clients, which gave them an unrealized first-day loss. Continue reading

Following its publication of a Risk Alert in late 2017 detailing findings from examinations of municipal advisers, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) continues to examine municipal advisers in 2018.  In 2014, OCIE established the Municipal Advisor Examination Initiative to perform an examination on municipal advisers who recently registered for the first time.  OCIE performed over 110 examinations in the course of the Initiative and found that many municipal advisers did not have adequate knowledge of regulatory requirements for municipal advisers.  As a result, many municipal advisers were found not to be in adequate compliance with regulatory requirements pertaining to registration, recordkeeping, and supervision.  OCIE hoped that in publishing the 2017 Risk Alert, municipal advisers will be compelled to evaluate their policies and procedures to find possible areas for improvement.

Municipal advisers are obligated to register with the SEC pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank Act”).  The SEC established its municipal adviser registration rules in September 2013, and the rules became effective in July 2014.  The Dodd-Frank Act also established the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (“MSRB”), which exercises regulatory authority over municipal advisers.  OCIE’s examinations of municipal advisers covered “compliance with regulatory obligations including registration, statutory fiduciary standard of care, fair dealing, recordkeeping, and supervision, among other things.”  OCIE discovered that the most common deficiencies among municipal advisers related to registration, books and records, and supervision requirements. Continue reading

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority recently published a Regulatory Notice requesting comment regarding a proposed new rule pertaining to registered persons’ outside business activities.  Among other things, the proposed rule would significantly alter a broker-dealer’s obligations with respect to a registered representative’s conduct of investment advisory business through an unaffiliated registered investment adviser.

FINRA decided to propose this new rule after a “retrospective review of FINRA’s rules governing outside business activities and private securities transactions, FINRA Rule 3270 (Outside Business Activities of Registered Persons) and FINRA Rule 3280 (Private Securities Transactions of an Associated Person).”  FINRA determined that the rules “could benefit from changes to better align the investor protection goals with the current regulatory landscape and business practices.”  As a result, FINRA proposed a new single rule that it claims will make registered persons’ duties in regards to outside business activities clearer and decrease nonessential obligations while enhancing investor protection.

If the proposed rule is adopted, it will replace Rules 3270 and 3280.  The comment period ends on April 27, 2018. Continue reading