Articles Tagged with Broker-Dealer

FINRA has announced a new self-reporting initiative covering potential violations by its Member Firms of various rules governing share class recommendations relating to 529 Plans. See FINRA Regulatory Notice 19-04 (Jan. 28, 2019). Similar to the SEC’s recent self-reporting initiative regarding mutual fund share class selection in connection with 12b-1 marketing fees (which we have blogged about last month and in May of 2018), this new FINRA initiative (the “Initiative”) offers potential leniency in return for Member Firms coming forward to self-report likely violations pursuant to the terms of the Initiative.

529 Plans are tax-advantaged municipal securities that are structured to facilitate saving for the future educational needs of a designated beneficiary. While the sale of 529 Plans is governed by the rules of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (“MSRB”), FINRA is responsible for enforcing the MSRB’s rules. These rules, in turn, require that recommendations of 529 Plans be suitable in light of the customer’s investment profile, and that Member Firms selling 529 Plans have a supervisory system in place to achieve compliance with the MSRB’s rules.

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On December 20, 2018, two days before the recent partial federal government shutdown began, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations announced its 2019 Examination PrioritiesAs discussed previously, the shutdown resulted in the SEC operating at a quite minimal level.  Now that the shutdown is over, registered investment advisers and broker-dealers can likely expect OCIE to fully implement the following examination priorities.

OCIE listed six examination priorities for 2019: (1) matters of importance to retail investors, especially seniors and investors saving for retirement; (2) compliance and risk in registrants who are tasked with overseeing critical market infrastructure; (3) focus on FINRA and MSRB; (4) digital assets; (5) cybersecurity; and (6) anti-money laundering.  According to OCIE, this is not an exhaustive list, and one can expect OCIE to cover other issues in its examinations.  However, OCIE has concluded that these issues “present potentially heightened risk to investors or the integrity of U.S. capital markets.” Continue reading

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.”

On October 31, 2018 the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority published Regulatory Notice 18-37, which announces the commencement of the 2019 Renewal Program for registered investment advisers and broker-dealers.  The 2019 Renewal Program is set to begin on November 12, 2018.  On that day, FINRA will release Preliminary Statements to all registered firms via E-Bill.  Firms are required to remit full payment of their Preliminary Statements by December 17, 2018.

The Preliminary Statements contain various fees for renewal of state registrations and notice filings.  For individuals who are renewing their broker-dealer registrations, FINRA will assess a fee of $45.  For investment adviser firms and their representatives who are renewing their registrations, any IARD system fees will be featured on their preliminary statements.  For FINRA-registered firms that have one or more branch offices, FINRA will assess a renewal fee of $20 per branch.  FINRA will, however, waive one branch renewal fee for each FINRA-registered firm.

Firms may pay their Preliminary Statement fees via E-Bill, a wire transfer, or a check.  FINRA’s preferred method of payment is E-Bill.  If a firm does not pay the Preliminary Statement fees by December 17, it will be charged a late renewal fee.  The late fee will amount to either 10 percent of a firm’s final renewal assessment or $100, whichever is greater, but the late fee can be no more than $5,000.  FINRA also warns firms that failure to pay the Preliminary Statement fees by the December 17 deadline could result in the firms becoming unable to do business in the areas where they are registered.

As we recently highlighted, the Securities and Exchange Commission took enforcement action against three registered investment advisers for violating the pay-to-play rule applicable to advisers under the Investment Advisers Act.  Broker-dealers should be aware that in 2017 the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority announced the approval of  modifications to two rules – Rules 203 and 458, imposing similar prohibitions and limitations on capital acquisition brokers (“CABs”).  A CAB is a FINRA member firm that participates in a restricted amount of activities, such as “advising companies on capital raising and corporate restructuring, and acting as placement agents for sales of unregistered securities to institutional investors under limited conditions.”  The rules will implement “’pay-to-play’ and related recordkeeping rules to the activities of member firms that have elected to be governed by the CAB Rules.”  The new rules went into effect on December 6, 2017. Continue reading

The Department of Labor (DOL) last week published a final rule extending the transition period of the Fiduciary Rule and delaying the second phase of implementation from January 1, 2018 to July 1, 2019. The DOL stated that the primary reason for delaying the rule was to give the DOL necessary time to review the substantial commentary it has received under the criteria set forth in the Presidential Memorandum issued in February of this year, as well as to consider possible changes or alternatives to the Fiduciary Rule exemptions and to seek input from the SEC and other securities regulators.

The Fiduciary Rule was enacted in April 2016, with its applicability date originally set for April 10, 2017. It also provided for a transition period through January 1, 2018 for compliance with certain new and amended Prohibited Transaction Exemptions (PTEs), including the new Best Interest Contract (BIC) exemption. The full requirements of the BIC exemption, including the written contract requirement for transactions involving IRA owners, are not required until the end of the transition period. Continue reading

On May 17, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (“SEC’s”) Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) published a Risk Alert pertaining to cybersecurity.  According to the Risk Alert, an extensive ransomware attack called WannaCry, WCry, or Wanna Decryptor “rapidly affected numerous organizations across over one hundred countries.”  In light of the WannaCry attack, OCIE is urging registered investment advisers, broker-dealers, and investment companies, to address cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

According to the Risk Alert and an alert published by the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Cert Alert TA17-132A, the hacker or hacking group who instigated the WannaCry attack obtained access to enterprise servers by way of exploiting a Windows Server Message Block vulnerability. WannaCry infects computers using software that encrypts data on a server using a .WCRY file-name extension, which prevents the rightful owner from accessing the data. Once infected, the ransomware software demands payment from the business in return for access to the business’ data. Microsoft released a patch to this vulnerability in March of 2017, but many users of Microsoft operating systems do not diligently update their software. Continue reading

The Department of Labor (DOL) recently released a final rule delaying by 60 days the implementation date of the DOL Fiduciary Rule from April 10th to June 9th. This is in response to President Trump’s February memorandum asking the DOL to review the impact of the DOL Fiduciary Rule and assess whether it negatively effects the ability of retirement investors to gain access to retirement information and financial advice. The DOL Fiduciary Rule seeks to assign fiduciary duties to all advisers to retirement investors by expanding the definition of fiduciary investment advice under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code (Code) to cover a wider array of advice relationships.

Under the DOL’s final delay rule, the revised definition of fiduciary investment advice and certain provisions of the Best Interest Contract (BIC) exemption will be implemented on June 9th. At that time, advisers acting as fiduciaries and engaging in transactions covered by the exemption must comply with the impartial conduct standards of the BIC exemption. The impartial conduct standards include providing investment advice in the best interest of the retirement investor, receiving only reasonable compensation, and not making any materially misleading statements. Continue reading

In February 2017, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc. (“FINRA”) published a Regulatory Notice asking for comment on proposed changes to FINRA Rule 2210, which governs communications with the public.  Under current Rule 2210, broker-dealers are not allowed to make communications that “predict or project performance, imply that past performance will recur or make any exaggerated or unwarranted claim, opinion or forecast.”  According to FINRA, the purpose of this rule is to prevent retail investors from relying on performance projections relating to individual investments, which tend to be deceptive.

However, FINRA has acknowledged that performance projections that are not based on how well an individual investment performed can be helpful to investors who are contemplating an investment strategy.  Furthermore, investment advisers are permitted to use performance projections in choosing an investment strategy for their clients, provided that the projections do not violate the Investment Advisers Act of 1940’s antifraud rules.  Therefore, FINRA proposed the amendments to Rule 2210 in order to allow broker-dealers to use projections in a way that benefits clients and to make the rules governing performance projections by broker-dealers and investment advisers more uniform. Continue reading

The Department of Labor (DOL) recently issued two new sets of FAQ guidance regarding the revised definition of fiduciary investment advice under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (Code), as well as the new prohibited transaction exemptions (PTEs). The first set of guidance is directed to retirement investors, not advisers, and answers basic questions investors may have regarding the new rule and how it will work. The second set of guidance is aimed at financial service providers and focuses mainly on the revised definition of fiduciary investment advice and the situations in which fiduciary duties will or will not attach under the new rule.

While the first set of FAQ guidance is not necessarily aimed at financial service providers, it did provide a few useful insights that I will briefly discuss here. The DOL stated that the new rule does not require advisers to indiscriminately move clients from commission-based accounts to fee-based accounts, and instead requires advisers to act in the client’s best interest when deciding what type of account to recommend. Regarding the best interest requirement, the DOL clarified that providing investment advice in a client’s best interest does not mean that advisers have a duty to find the best possible investment product for clients out of all the investments available in the marketplace. Continue reading