Articles Tagged with Fiduciary Duty

In a recently-announced administrative proceeding, the SEC has entered a permanent securities industry bar against Joseph B. Bronson, effectively preventing Bronson from ever again associating with any investment adviser, broker, dealer, or municipal securities dealer/advisor. The SEC Order barring Bronson—consented to by Bronson—comes on the heels of an August final judgment against Bronson and his former RIA, Strong Investment Management, obtained by the SEC in a civil case filed in a California federal district court. This final judgment against Bronson and his RIA was especially harsh as it found him and the firm jointly and severally liable for nearly $1 million in disgorgement plus $100,000 in prejudgment interest. Bronson was also individually ordered by the court to pay a $184,000 civil penalty.

The Bronson case is instructive as it highlights an especially egregious case of fraudulent conduct and fiduciary disregard in the form of a “cherry-picking” scheme that—while invisible to Bronson’s clients—did not go unnoticed by the regulators. In a nutshell, over a four-year period, Bronson utilized his firm’s omnibus trading account at two different broker/dealers to effect a bald-faced cherry-picking scheme, whereby he entered block trades via the omnibus account, waited to see the trades’ intra-day performance, and then disproportionately allocated the winning trades to his own personal accounts and the losers to client accounts. Continue reading

The SEC has just concluded settlement negotiations with two large RIA subsidiaries of the Bank of Montreal, resulting in a total settlement of almost $38 million—with $25 million of that in disgorgement. The SEC’s announcement and administrative order resolves enforcement proceedings against BMO Harris Financial Advisors, Inc. (“BMO Harris”) and BMO Asset Management Corp. (“BMO Asset”)(together, the “BMO Advisers”) involving conflicts of interest violations under the Advisers Act antifraud provisions.

The SEC’s administrative settlement with the BMO Advisers marks yet another significant action by the Commission against RIAs for failing to disclose material conflicts of interest. As fiduciaries, RIAs must seek to avoid conflicts of interest with clients, and, at a minimum, must fully disclosure all material conflicts. The SEC enforces violations of this requirement pursuant to Advisers Act Section 206(2), which prohibits RIAs from engaging in “any transaction, practice, or course of business which operates as a fraud or deceit upon any client or prospective client.” Continue reading

A number of state attorneys general have filed a lawsuit against the SEC, seeking to overturn the SEC’s recently adopted Regulation Best Interest or “Reg BI.” This not unexpected move comes in the wake of simmering discontent which has built up against Reg BI ever since its adoption on June 5th. In a nutshell, consumer advocate groups, state regulators and some high-ranking SEC officials all oppose Reg BI on the grounds that it doesn’t go far enough in imposing a more rigorous standard of conduct on broker-dealer firms. This lawsuit, filed in New York federal district court, ramps-up this disagreement considerably.

Reg BI, which this blog has discussed in some detail recently, is part of a comprehensive package of new rules and interpretations released by the SEC on June 5th. Specifically, the long-awaited Reg BI replaces the prevailing “suitability” standard of conduct applicable to broker-dealers and their registered representatives with a new “best interest obligation.” While under suitability, broker-dealers were only required to ensure that that their recommendations were “suitable” in light of a customer’s investment objectives and risk tolerance, the new best interest obligation requires that a broker-dealer always act in a customer’s “best interest.” Additionally, under Reg BI, the broker-dealer cannot place its interests ahead of a customer’s interests. Continue reading

In what is turning out to be a busy summer at the SEC for issuing new rules and interpretations applicable to RIAs, the Commission has just released detailed guidance clarifying the proxy voting obligations of SEC-registered advisers.  This latest release comes on the heels of the agency’s landmark package of releases issued on June 5th, which, for RIAs, included rules implementing the new Form CRS (a/k/a Form ADV, Part 3) and a major interpretive release clarifying the fiduciary duty owed to clients by all advisers.  This latest release aims to clarify an adviser’s obligations arising under Advisers Act Rule 206(4)-6 (“the Proxy Rule”) relating to voting proxies for clients, specifically in the context of using the services of a “proxy advisory firm.”

The Proxy Rule provides that it is a “fraudulent, deceptive, or manipulative act” for an SEC-registered adviser to “exercise voting authority with respect to client securities” unless the adviser adopts and implements written policies and procedures designed to ensure that such voting is done in the “best interest of clients.”  The Proxy Rule also requires certain disclosures be made to clients regarding any voting done for them.  Notably, the Proxy Rule does not require advisers to vote client securities.  Indeed, many advisers choose to escape the coverage of the Proxy Rule by simply not—in any instance—voting client securities.  However, for advisers exercising any voting authority over client securities—even one share—the Proxy Rule swings into effect.  Accordingly, all such advisers opting to vote client securities will need to be in full compliance with the Proxy Rule—and should pay close attention to the SEC’s new guidance on this matter. Continue reading

The SEC has filed fraud charges against a large ($85 billion AUM) registered investment adviser for its failure to disclose material conflicts of interest in connection with a “revenue sharing” arrangement with its clearing broker. The SEC’s Complaint against the adviser, Boston-based Commonwealth Equity Services, LLC, d/b/a Commonwealth Financial Network (“Commonwealth”), was filed in Massachusetts federal district court, and alleges that Commonwealth received over $100 million in revenue sharing from the clearing broker while failing to properly apprise its advisory clients of the full nature of the revenue sharing arrangement and the inherent conflicts of interest implicated by it. The Commonwealth case is just the latest in a string of actions by the SEC involving mutual fund share class selection by advisers and comes on the heels of the recent DC Circuit decision in the Robare case, which has likely emboldened the SEC somewhat.

The Commonwealth case involves a revenue sharing arrangement between Commonwealth and National Financial Services, LLC (“NFS”), an affiliate of mutual fund giant Fidelity Investments. Pursuant to that arrangement, NFS paid Commonwealth a percentage of the money paid to NFS by mutual fund companies in return for the right to sell their mutual funds through NFS. The money paid to Commonwealth by NFS under this arrangement, in turn, was directly related to the amount of Commonwealth client assets invested in certain share classes of specific funds offered on NFS’ platform. In other words, the more client assets placed by Commonwealth into particular funds and classes of those funds, the more revenue shared with Commonwealth. Continue reading

As part of its June 5th landmark issuance of multiple final rules and interpretive releases dealing with broker and advisory standards-of-conduct—which included the long-awaited Regulation Best Interest (or “Reg BI”) for broker/dealers—the SEC also published a detailed interpretive release clarifying and interpreting an investment adviser’s fiduciary duty (the “Fiduciary Release”). While this blog has already provided an analysis of the high-level contours of the SEC’s entire package of rules and releases, we now write to give readers a closer look at the Fiduciary Release, which should be of particular interest to the advisory community.

The Fiduciary Release is the culmination of a regulatory process begun on April 18, 2018, with the SEC’s publication of a draft release on advisory fiduciary duties. The SEC also published draft releases of Reg BI and the Form CRS Relationship Summary (“Form CRS”)(a new disclosure document for advisers and brokers) on that date as well. However, we note at the outset that, unlike the final Reg BI and Form CRS rules—which will not be implemented until June 30, 2020—the Fiduciary Release is effective upon formal publication in the Federal Register. Since that formal publication has already occurred, the Fiduciary Release is now effective. Additionally, we note that the Fiduciary Release is legally applicable to not only SEC-registered investment advisers, but also to state-registered advisers and other investment advisers that are exempt from registration under the federal Advisers Act.

The SEC’s stated objective in issuing the Fiduciary Release is to “reaffirm” and “clarify” the longstanding fiduciary duty of an investment adviser as expressed in section 206 of the Advisers Act. Recognizing that this fiduciary standard has been developed over decades via case law in the form of judicial opinions as well as through SEC enforcement proceedings and no-action letters, the SEC notes that the Fiduciary Release is not intended to be the “exclusive resource” for articulating the fiduciary standard. Importantly, the Fiduciary Release does not explicitly declare any revisions to the advisory standard of conduct (as does Reg BI vis-à-vis broker/dealers).

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

A recent decision handed down by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals in a case involving SEC action against an adviser for failure to disclose material conflicts of interest provides potentially significant precedent for SEC enforcement proceedings going forward. See The Robare Group, Ltd., et al. v. SEC, No. 16-1453, (D.C. Cir. April 30, 2019). The Robare decision is a mixed bag for the SEC in that, while it affirmed the SEC’s findings of negligence against the adviser under one section of the Advisers Act, it threw out the SEC’s findings that the adviser “willfully” violated a second Advisers Act provision based on the same negligent conduct. Notably, the Court predicated its holding against the SEC on negligent behavior and willful behavior being “mutually exclusive.” The significance of this holding is that the SEC has traditionally applied a standard of willfulness in enforcement proceedings that falls short of the level of intent required by Robare. Accordingly, unless Robare is reversed or modified, the SEC will be forced to reconsider its prior practice of assuming that all voluntary conduct constitutes “willful” behavior going forward.

Robare involved an appeal by a Houston-based adviser, The Robare Group (“TRG”), of SEC administrative findings that TRG had violated Advisers Act Sections 206(2) and 207, and Rule 206(4)-7 under the Advisers Act, as a result of TRG’s inadequate disclosure of a “revenue sharing” arrangement with Fidelity Investments, whereby Fidelity compensated TRG in return for TRG clients investing in certain funds offered on Fidelity’s online platform. While TRG received approximately $400,000 over an eight year period from Fidelity under this arrangement, the SEC alleged that, during that same period, TRG failed (at first entirely and then inadequately) to disclose to its clients and to the SEC the compensation received from Fidelity and the conflicts of interest arising from that compensation.

Continue reading

A recent pair of SEC enforcement Orders against registered investment adviser Talimco, LLC and its Chief Operating Officer Grant Rogers highlight the need for advisers to be ever-mindful of their fiduciary duties to both clients when effecting cross trades between such clients.

Cross trading occurs whenever an adviser arranges a securities transaction between two parties, both of whom being advisory clients of the firm. While “principal trading” (where the adviser buys or sells for its own proprietary account) and “agency cross trading” (where the adviser acts as a broker and receives compensation) are accorded heightened scrutiny and require additional disclosures and consents, this recent pair of Orders show that even ordinary cross trades can be highly problematic when one client is favored over another.

In this particular case, the SEC alleges that Talimco and Rogers went so far as to manipulate the auction price of a commercial loan participation in a sham transaction between two of its clients that distinctly advantaged one client over the other. 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