Articles Tagged with Broker-Dealer

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

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 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 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.”

FINRA has alerted its Member Firms to be on the watch for a fraudulent phishing email scheme targeted at compliance personnel. A phishing scheme typically uses email or some other type of electronic message to trick the recipient into clicking a malicious link or infected file attachment by mimicking a message from a trustworthy party. This particular scheme employs an email purportedly originating from an Anti-Money Laundering compliance officer at an otherwise apparently legitimate Indiana-based credit union. The email—which was received recently by a number of FINRA Member Firms—specifically targets compliance personnel by appearing to be a communication regarding an attempted transfer of money by a client of the recipient’s firm to the credit union which has been placed on hold due to concerns about potential money laundering. The scam is designed to get the recipient to open an attachment, which, according to FINRA “likely contains a malicious virus or malware designed to obtain unauthorized access to the recipient’s computer network.”

FINRA noted the following additional aspects of the fraudulent email that recipients should be alert for:

  • An otherwise legitimate reference to a provision of the USA Patriot Act allowing financial institutions to share information with each other.
  • An actual email address that appears to be from Europe, rather than the U.S.-based credit union.
  • Numerous instances of poor grammar and sentence structure.

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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