Articles Tagged with SEC

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

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).

SEC Chairman Jay Clayton recently announced, on behalf of the Commission, a significant change in policy as to how the SEC will consider requests for disqualification waivers made by respondents in SEC enforcement proceedings where a settlement offer is being negotiated. We think that Clayton is to be applauded for this move as the new policy should prove to be a fairer and more efficient alternative to the status quo that has prevailed in recent years, most notably because it will give respondents a heightened degree of certainty regarding “collateral consequences” of an enforcement settlement.

First a bit of background. While the majority of SEC enforcement proceedings are resolved with a settlement agreement between the SEC and the respondent resulting in fines, restitution to investors, or other sanctions, a secondary or “collateral” consequence of the settlement may be statutory disqualification under the securities laws of the respondent (or an affiliate) from some otherwise permissible activity. A prime example is the so-called “bad-boy” provisions of Reg D, which, among other things, prohibit persons subject to SEC cease-and-desist orders or other SEC disciplinary orders from raising capital in a Reg D private placement. Another example is the prohibition on receipt of cash fees for solicitation under Rule 206(4)-3 of the federal Advisers Act where the solicitor is subject to certain SEC disciplinary orders. As noted by Clayton, “[t]he effects of these collateral consequences can vary widely depending on the scope of the businesses and operations of the entity and, in practice, range from immaterial to extremely significant.”  Continue reading

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

In its latest Risk Alert, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) heeds advisers and broker/dealers to take a fresh look at their policies and procedures in the area of electronic customer record storage in light of shortcomings discovered by OCIE’s staff as part of recently-conducted regular examinations. These shortcomings include weak or misconfigured security settings on a network storage device that, in the worst-case event, could result in unauthorized access to customer information.

OCIE Risk Alerts are highly useful resources for compliance professionals to consider as these published notices serve as a window into not only the recent experiences of OCIE staffers out in the field, but also the thinking of OCIE management as to where it will be directing its staff to focus on in future examinations. In other words, if the management of OCIE warrants it important enough to publish a Risk Alert on an particular topic, registrants can be assured that future exams will likely focus on deficiencies in that area.

This most recent Risk Alert zeros-in on deficiencies uncovered by examiners with respect to how advisers and brokers are protecting their customers’ electronic records—specifically, records kept in the “cloud” or on other types of networked storage solutions. OCIE defines cloud storage as the “electronic storage of information on infrastructure owned and operated by a hosting company or service provider.” Obviously, such storage systems may be especially vulnerable to hacking or other nefarious activities, and as such, warrant robust protections. 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.

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In a recent speech, an SEC Commissioner took the opportunity to voice her concern that the prevalence of non-public guidance now being conveyed by SEC staffers to certain market participants and their counsel is tantamount to what she terms “secret law” which, in her opinion, “crosses the line” of propriety.

SEC Commissioner Hester M. Peirce’s well-crafted speech, given in Washington at the recent SEC Speaks 2019 event, invokes imagery of the children’s novel The Secret Garden to posit her belief that the abundance and importance of non-public guidance being provided and relied upon by certain of the SEC’s divisions and offices has created a secret garden of its own within the SEC’s walls. As an example, she cites her hearing that “staff simply will not accept certain applications for entire categories of products or types of businesses for reasons not found in our rules.” Additionally, she notes hearing that “one particularly complex set of Commission rules does not matter much in practice because firms operate instead under a set of published and unpublished letters and other directives from staff.” She also references firms being examined “against the terms of draft no-action letters and notes of telephone calls with Commission staff.” In all of these cases, Peirce fears that the “line has been crossed” and that such activities amount to “secret law.”

That such “sub rosa guidance,” as she terms it, amounts to “secret law,” is in Peirce’s opinion undeniable. As she points out, while it is true that courts would be reluctant to defer to such staff guidance in a legal proceeding, it nonetheless does “as a practical matter, bind market participants, affecting the scope of their rights and obligations and limiting the range of permissible activities.”

The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations recently conducted examinations of privacy notices and safeguarding policies of SEC-registered investment advisers and broker-dealers adopted pursuant to Regulation S-P. As a result of these examinations, the SEC issued a Risk Alert identifying common deficiencies that are important to keep in mind when adopting, implementing and reviewing compliant privacy notices and effective safeguarding policies.

Regulation S-P requires financial institutions such as investment advisers and broker-dealers to adopt written policies and procedures to safeguard nonpublic personal client information. These policies must be reasonably designed to protect the confidentiality and security of nonpublic personal client information from any anticipated threats or hazards and any unauthorized access or use. The policies should address administrative, technical, and physical safeguards.

Investment advisers and broker-dealers must also provide initial and annual privacy notices to their clients describing the types of information collected and disclosed, the types of affiliated and non-affiliated third parties the information is disclosed to and, unless exempted from the opt-out notice requirement, an explanation of the client’s right to opt out of disclosure of nonpublic personal information to a non-affiliated third party. The privacy notice should also generally describe the firm’s safeguarding policies and procedures.