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

As the partial federal government shutdown, which began at midnight on December 22, 2018, now approaches its fifth week, we write to update our readers on the shutdown’s specific impact on the SEC and securities regulatory activities.  While we have previously discussed many of these points with our clients who currently have matters pending before the SEC, below is more general information regarding the SEC’s most significant functions.

The SEC was able to operate fully and conduct regular business for a limited number of days following the commencement of the general federal shutdown, but was forced to effectively close its doors on December 27, 2018.  Since then, the agency has been operating at a very minimal level with a skeleton crew of staffers able to respond to only emergency situations.  As described on the SEC’s home page, the remaining staff is available to respond only to “emergency situations involving market integrity and investor protection, including law enforcement.”  The vast majority of the SEC’s employees have been furloughed and are not reporting to work at this time.  That said, we note that a number of familiar online filing platforms, such as EDGAR, IARD, and CRD, all remain fully operable. 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

The Department of Labor (DOL) recently proposed a rule revising the definition of “employer” under Section 3(5) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) for purposes of sponsoring a multiple-employer plan (MEP). The proposed rule, which is in response to President Trump’s August 31, 2018 Executive Order directing the DOL to examine policies expanding access to MEPs, would make it easier for small businesses who meet certain requirements to pool their resources to form a MEP, thereby reducing administrative costs. Continue reading

In October 2018, the South Carolina Court of Appeals vacated a $540,000 civil penalty that the South Carolina Securities Commissioner had imposed against John M. McIntyre and his company, Silver Oak Land Management, LLC.  The Commissioner imposed the penalty upon a determination that McIntyre and Silver Oak Land Management had committed securities fraud in the offer, sale, and management of various limited liability company interests.  The Court of Appeals, however, found that in the course of a hearing the Commissioner conducted, the Commissioner did not grant McIntyre and Silver Oak Land Management adequate procedural due process. Continue reading

The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) periodically issues “Risk Alerts” highlighting common deficiencies encountered by its staff during routine investment adviser compliance exams. These Risk Alerts serve the dual purpose of providing advisers with both useful insight into the results of recent OCIE examination activity as well as advance warning of areas that OCIE may be paying closer attention to in the future. Accordingly, a recent Risk Alert issued by OCIE details the most common deficiencies the staff has cited relating to Rule 206(4)-3 (the “Cash Solicitation Rule” or “Rule”) under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. See National Exam Program Risk Alert, Investment Adviser Compliance Issues Related to the Cash Solicitation Rule (Oct. 31, 2018).

By way of background, the Cash Solicitation Rule prohibits SEC-registered investment advisers from paying a cash fee, directly or indirectly, to any person who solicits clients for the adviser unless the arrangement complies with a number of conditions specified in the Rule, including that the fee must be paid pursuant to a written agreement to which the adviser is a party. Notably, the Rule discerns between solicitors that are affiliated with the registered adviser versus those that are not, setting-up more comprehensive requirements for the latter third-party solicitors. For example, third-party solicitors must provide potential clients with both a copy of the adviser’s Form ADV Part II (or other applicable brochure) and a separate written solicitor’s disclosure document containing specific data about the solicitation arrangement—including the terms of the solicitor’s compensation. Moreover, with respect to third-party arrangements, the Rule obliges advisers to: (i) collect a signed and dated acknowledgment from every potential solicited client that such client has in fact received the adviser’s brochure and the solicitor’s disclosure document; and (ii) make a “bona fide effort” to ascertain whether the solicitor has complied with its duties under the Rule.

In this context, OCIE cited the following as the most noteworthy deficiency areas encountered by its front-line examiners:

The SEC routinely hears appeals arising from FINRA disciplinary proceedings, and in turn issues “Adjudicatory Orders” announcing its decisions. To the extent that these Orders are issued by vote of the full Commission, they stand as highly useful guidance to industry players on the thoughts of the SEC’s ultimate leadership. In a recent Adjudicatory Order, the SEC articulated its current position on Chief Compliance Officer (“CCO”) liability for securities regulatory violations, as well as the liabilities of other members of a securities firm’s senior management for failure to supervise the CCO. See Application of Thaddeus J. North for Review of Disciplinary Action Taken by FINRA, Order of the Commission, Rel. No. 34-84500 (Oct. 29, 2018).

The facts of the case involve findings by FINRA that the CCO (Mr. North) of a multi-office 50+ representative brokerage firm violated FINRA rules by failing to establish a reasonable supervisory system for the review of electronic correspondence, failing to reasonably review electronic correspondence, and failing to report a relationship with a statutorily disqualified person. Specifically, despite being the person responsible for reviewing the firm’s electronic communications, the record showed that for a roughly two-year period North completely failed to review any Bloomberg messages/chats (such messages making up 85% of the firm’s electronic communications). North testified that he “did not understand” his firm’s Smarsh e-mail retention/retrieval system, and further attributed his failure to review electronic communications to that activity being “boring.” Separately, North failed to either independently investigate or report to FINRA his knowledge of a material relationship between one of his firm’s registered representatives and a statutorily-disqualified person. This particular failure came despite North’s knowledge that the representative had paid the disqualified person over $150,000, had executed a services agreement with that person, and that FINRA was actively investigating the matter.

On these facts, the SEC upheld FINRA’s disciplinary action as “clearly appropriate” in light of North’s “egregious” conduct in “fail[ing] to make reasonable efforts to fulfill the responsibilities of his position.” Notably, “North ignored red flags and repeatedly failed to perform compliance functions for which he was directly responsible.”

In our previous post regarding state-registered investment advisers, we examined the landscape and discussed common deficiencies found in state adviser examinations.  In this post, we will discuss enforcement actions typically aimed at state-registered investment advisers, as well as current enforcement trends such as fraud pertaining to emerging markets and protection of senior investors.

Earlier in 2018, the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA)  published its 2018 Enforcement Report.  This report contains information and statistics regarding NASAA members’ enforcement actions in 2017 and highlights current trends in enforcement actions aimed at state-registered investment advisers.

According to the Report, NASAA members received 7,998 complaints that resulted in 4,790 investigations.  Once the investigations were completed, NASAA members initiated 2,105 enforcement actions, over half of which were administrative actions.  Criminal actions made up the second largest number of enforcement actions, followed by civil and other types of enforcement actions. Continue reading

This is the first of a two-part series dealing with the state-registered investment adviser industry.  In this first post we examine the landscape and discuss common deficiencies identified in state adviser examinations.

Relevant statistics can be found in the North American Securities Administrators Association’s 2018 Investment Adviser Section Annual Report.  The Report offers an overview of the state-registered investment adviser industry in the US and highlights the work that state regulators and NASAA’s Investment Adviser Project Groups completed in 2017. The report should be viewed as a useful tool for state-registered advisers to anticipate and correct deficiencies that are commonly cited by state regulators. Continue reading