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
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
On February 13, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it is accepting registrations for the National Compliance Outreach Seminar (“National Seminar”). The National Seminar, which is part of the SEC’s Compliance Outreach Program, is designed to help educate registered investment advisers’ chief compliance officers (“CCOs”), as well as their senior officers, about “various broad topics applicable to larger investment advisory firms and investment companies.” The National Seminar will take place on April 12, 2018 at the SEC’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., and it will last from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. ET. While only 500 participants can attend in person, a live webcast will be provided via www.sec.gov.
This year the National Seminar will include six panel discussions between SEC personnel, CCOs, and various other industry representatives. SEC personnel who participate in the panels typically include officers from the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations, the Division of Investment Management, and the Division of Enforcement’s Asset Management Unit, as well as officers from other SEC divisions or offices. CCOs and other senior staff in private advisory firms typically participate in the panels as well. Each of these panels reflects areas of concern which the SEC likely intends to prioritize in 2018. Continue reading
The amendments to Form ADV, Part 1 that became effective October 1, 2017 are presenting some registered investment advisers with unforeseen problems as we move into “annual amendment season” in 2018. As we previously highlighted among those changes to Form ADV is the requirement for advisers to disclose estimated percentages of assets held within separately managed accounts in twelve categories of assets.
Advisers with more than $10 billion in regulatory assets under management are required to report the same data as of mid-year and year-end. Smaller firms must report the same data as of year-end only.
This has not proved a simple exercise for some firms. Many have assumed that the custodians of their clients’ assets would readily be able to categorize their clients’ holdings and provide them reports summarizing the data. Continue reading
On February 7, 2018, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) published its Examination Priorities for 2018. The Examination Priorities cover “certain practices, products, and services that OCIE believes may present potentially heightened risk to investors and/or the integrity of the U.S. capital markets.” The five priorities that OCIE specifically listed are (1) issues crucial to retail investors, such as seniors and those saving for retirement, (2) compliance and risks in critical market infrastructure, (3) FINRA and MSRB, (4) cybersecurity, and (5) anti-money laundering programs. This is not an exclusive list, and OCIE invited comments concerning how it can adequately promote compliance.
OCIE intends to continue to make shielding retail investors from fraud a priority. OCIE plans to focus especially on senior investors and those saving for retirement. For example, examiners will pay particular attention to firms’ internal controls that are intended to monitor their representatives, especially in relation to products targeted at senior investors. OCIE will also focus on disclosure of the costs of investing, examination of investment advisers and broker-dealers who primarily offer advice through digital platforms, wrap fee programs, mutual funds and exchange traded funds, municipal advisors and underwriters, and the growth of the cryptocurrency and initial coin offering markets. 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
The Department of Labor (DOL) recently published its proposal to extend the transition period of the Fiduciary Rule and delay the second phase of implementation from January 1, 2018 to July 1, 2019. Currently only adherence to the impartial conduct standards is required for compliance with the Best Interest Contract (BIC) exemption during the transition period, as well as for certain other prohibited transaction exemptions issued or revised in connection with the Fiduciary Rule. Compliance with the full provisions of the BIC exemption and the other related exemptions is not required until the second phase of implementation of the Fiduciary Rule, which is currently set for January 1, 2018.
If adopted, the same requirements in effect now for compliance with the BIC exemption and related exemptions would remain in effect for the duration of the extended transition period. The DOL stated that the primary purpose for seeking to extend the transition period was to allow the DOL sufficient time to review the substantial commentary it has received and consider possible changes or alternatives to the Fiduciary Rule exemptions. The DOL noted its concern that without a delay in the applicability date, financial institutions would incur expenses attempting to comply with certain conditions or requirements of the newly issued or revised exemptions that are ultimately revised or repealed.
The DOL stated that it anticipates it will propose in the near future a “new and more streamlined class exemption built in large part on recent innovations in the financial services industry.” These recent innovations include the development of “clean shares” of mutual funds by some broker-dealers, which the DOL discussed approvingly in its first set of transition period FAQ guidance. “Clean shares” would not include any form of distribution-related payment to the broker, but would instead have uniform commission levels across different mutual funds that would be set by the financial institution. In this way, the firm could mitigate conflicts of interest by substantially insulating advisers from the incentive to recommend certain mutual funds over others. However, these types of innovations will take time to develop.