On July 10, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission published five Orders Instituting Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings against two registered investment advisers, three investment adviser representatives, and Leonard S. Schwartz, a marketing consultant. The Orders allege that the respondents violated the Investment Advisers Act’s Testimonial Rule (275.206(4)-1(a)(1)). The SEC also alleged that another investment advisory firm, Romano Brothers & Company (“Romano Brothers”), violated the Testimonial Rule by posting two videos on YouTube featuring client testimonials. The Testimonial Rule provides that investment advisers and their representatives are forbidden from publishing, circulating, or distributing advertising materials that directly or indirectly refer to client experiences about the investment adviser and its services. The SEC considers publication of client testimonials fraudulent because testimonials typically present a biased evaluation of an investment adviser’s services. Continue reading
On June 4, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an Order Instituting Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings against deVere USA, Inc. (“deVere”), a registered investment adviser. The SEC’s Order alleges that deVere failed “to make full and fair disclosure to clients and prospective clients of material conflicts of interest regarding compensation obtained from third-party product and service providers.” The Order also alleges that deVere made inadequate disclosures in its Form ADV, did not conform its compliance program to its method of doing business, and did not follow compliance requirements adopted in its compliance manual. deVere submitted an offer of settlement in conjunction with the SEC’s Order. Continue reading
On May 16, 2018, SEC Co-Directors Stephanie Avakian and Stephen Piekin appeared before the Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Securities, and Investment, a subcommittee of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Financial Services. At this meeting, Avakian and Peikin emphasized the importance of the budget increases requested by the SEC in February of this year. The Commission’s Fiscal Year 2019 Congressional Budget Justification; Annual Performance Plan and Fiscal Year 2017 Annual Performance Report includes budget requests for each SEC division, including the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations. As part of OCIE’s budget request, the SEC requested funding for “13 restored positions to focus on examinations of investment advisers and investment companies.”
According to the SEC, the number of registered investment advisers, as well as the amount of assets that they manage, has significantly increased in the last few years. The SEC also anticipates that the number of registered investment advisers and the complexity of these investment advisers will continue to grow throughout 2018 and 2019. Moreover, a hiring freeze, which began at the beginning of 2017, has caused the number of compliance staff to decrease. The SEC anticipates that it will need funding to restore 100 positions that were lost because of the hiring freeze. Therefore, the SEC believes that without the requested funding, SEC staff will be unable to address its growing responsibilities adequately. Continue reading
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
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
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
On February 26, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an Order Making Findings and Imposing Remedial Sanctions and a Cease-and-Desist Order against EquityStar Capital Management, LLC, an unregistered investment adviser, and its owner, Steven Zoernack. According to the SEC’s Order, EquityStar and Zoernack offered and sold investment interests in two unregistered investment funds from about May 2010 to about March 2014. The SEC’s Order alleges that in the course of making these offers and sales, EquityStar and Zoernack “made material misrepresentations and omissions and engaged in a fraudulent scheme involving this and other deceptive conduct.”
Zoernack was tasked with writing and publishing marketing materials for the funds that EquityStar managed. In these marketing materials, Zoernack allegedly claimed that the funds’ manager, whose name was not disclosed, had “an impeccable and unblemished past record with the SEC.” According to the SEC, however, Zoernack was in fact the manager, and he had “two criminal fraud convictions, had previously filed for bankruptcy, and had numerous money judgments and liens against him.” The Order also claims that Zoernack made various efforts to hide his criminal record and negative financial history, including paying a search-engine manipulator to make positive information about him appear before negative information in search engine results. Continue reading