Articles Tagged with Broker-Dealer

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

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