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
Last month three registered investment advisers settled with the Securities and Exchange Commission over charges they violated the pay-to-play rule, Investment Advisers Act Rule 206(4)-5. The Orders Instituting Proceedings were entered against EnCap Investments, L.P., Oaktree Capital Management, L.P., and Sofinnova Ventures, Inc. All three advisers submitted offers of settlement in connection with the Orders.
The Pay-to-Play Rule prohibits registered investment advisers and exempt reporting advisers from offering investment advisory services for compensation to a government entity for a period of at least two years after the investment adviser or a covered associate of the investment adviser makes a political contribution to an official of the government entity. An investment adviser violates the Pay-to-Play Rule regardless of whether the investment adviser intended to influence the government entity official. Continue reading
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
In June of this year, the Securities and Exchange Commission settled charges with 13 firms that serve as registered investment advisers to private funds for failing to file Form PF. The settling companies were: Bachrach Asset Management Inc., Bilgari Capital LLC, Brahma Management Ltd., Bristol Group Inc., CAI Managers & Co. L.P., Cherokee Investment Partners LLC, Ecosystem Investment Partners LLC, Elm Partners Management LLC, HEP Management Corp., Prescott General Partners LLC, RLJ Equity Partners LLC, Rose Park Advisors LLC, and Veteri Place Corp. According to the settlement orders, “the advisers failed to file annual reports on Form PF informing the agency about the funds they advise, including the amount of assets under management, fund strategy, performance, and use of borrowed money and derivatives.” 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
Investment advisers’ use of clients’ usernames and passwords to access their clients’ accounts to observe the accounts’ performance has come under scrutiny in recent years. In February 2017, the SEC Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) disclosed in a Risk Alert that investment advisers’ use of client usernames and passwords can create compliance issues with the Custody Rule. According to OCIE, an investment adviser’s “online access to client accounts may meet the definition of custody when such access provides the adviser with the ability to withdraw funds and securities from the client accounts.” Accessing a client’s account using a client’s username and password often results in an investment adviser being able to withdraw funds and securities.
The North American Securities Administrators Association (“NASAA”) has also observed in recent years that if an investment adviser logs into a client’s account using the client’s personal information, “the investment adviser is in effect impersonating this client and has the same access to the account as the client.” As a result, a number of issues arise when investment advisers use their clients’ personal information to gain access to online accounts, including custody, recordkeeping obligations, and potential violations of user agreements. 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
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority recently published a Regulatory Notice requesting comment regarding a proposed new rule pertaining to registered persons’ outside business activities. Among other things, the proposed rule would significantly alter a broker-dealer’s obligations with respect to a registered representative’s conduct of investment advisory business through an unaffiliated registered investment adviser.
FINRA decided to propose this new rule after a “retrospective review of FINRA’s rules governing outside business activities and private securities transactions, FINRA Rule 3270 (Outside Business Activities of Registered Persons) and FINRA Rule 3280 (Private Securities Transactions of an Associated Person).” FINRA determined that the rules “could benefit from changes to better align the investor protection goals with the current regulatory landscape and business practices.” As a result, FINRA proposed a new single rule that it claims will make registered persons’ duties in regards to outside business activities clearer and decrease nonessential obligations while enhancing investor protection.
If the proposed rule is adopted, it will replace Rules 3270 and 3280. The comment period ends on April 27, 2018. 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
In August of this year, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued an Order Instituting Cease-and-Desist Proceedings (“Order”) against Capital Dynamics, Inc. (“CDI”), a New York-based investment adviser. The SEC alleged that from March 2011 to July 2015, CDI allocated certain expenses to private funds it was advising when the funds’ governing documents did not authorize the funds to pay these expenses. CDI submitted an Offer of Settlement in conjunction with the Order.
According to the SEC’s complaint, CDI and its affiliates formed the private funds, collectively known as the “Solar Fund,” “to introduce a new investment program focused on clean energy and infrastructure.” The documents that governed the funds provided that CDI and the funds’ general partners were obligated to pay “normal operating expenses,” such as employee expenditures and fees for specified services. They could not charge these expenses to the funds. Continue reading