Articles Tagged with SEC

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.

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

A recent settled SEC Order with Wedbush Securities, Inc., a dually-registered investment adviser and broker-dealer, has resulted in a censure and $250,000 fine against that firm. The genesis of this rather harsh result is what the SEC alleges to be the firm’s lack of an ability to follow-up on obvious compliance “red flags” that, in this case, pointed to an extensive and long-running “pump and dump” scheme involving one of the firm’s registered representatives. Indeed, as noted by Marc P. Berger, Director of the SEC’s New York Regional Office, “Wedbush abandoned important responsibilities to its customers by looking the other way in the face of mounting evidence of manipulative conduct.”

The SEC’s regulatory requirements compel broker-dealers to adopt policies and procedures that are sufficiently tailored to determine whether their associated persons are violating the securities laws and to prevent them from violating the securities laws. Broker-dealers are also compelled to ensure that these policies and procedures are sufficiently implemented to discover and prevent securities law violations. Continue reading

Recognizing the “swiftly developing” digital asset marketplace—a loosely defined sector encompassing cryptocurrencies, virtual coins or tokens (including Initial Coin Offerings or “ICOs”), and other blockchain-related financial assets—the SEC’s Division of Investment Management (the “Division”) has commenced an open-ended request for public comment on how such crypto-assets impact its decades-old Advisers Act Custody Rule (Advisers Act Rule 206(4)-2). The Division’s request for comment comes in the form of a March 12, 2019 letter to the Investment Adviser Association (“IAA”), a lobbying/trade group representing the investment advisory industry.

By way of background, the Custody Rule sets up a number of requirements for SEC-registered investment advisers that have “custody” of a client’s funds or securities. Custody is defined as “holding, directly or indirectly, client funds or securities, or having any authority to obtain possession of them.” Notably, custody includes, among other things, any arrangement under which the adviser is authorized to withdraw client funds or securities, as well as acting as general partner, or in a comparable control position, for an investment fund. The four primary obligations of an adviser having custody are that the adviser must: (i) maintain those funds or securities with a “qualified custodian;” (ii) notify the client in writing of the qualified custodian’s name, address, and the manner in which the funds or securities are maintained; (iii) have a “reasonable basis” for believing that the qualified custodian sends an account statement, at least quarterly, to each client, identifying the amount of funds/securities and setting forth all transactions in the account; and (iv) arrange for an independent public accountant to conduct an annual surprise examination in order to verify the safekeeping of the client’s funds and/or securities. The Custody Rule provides a number of exemptions to some of the above requirements; most notably, one that allows investment fund advisers to avoid the surprise exam requirement so long as audited financial statements are distributed within 120 days of the end of the fund’s fiscal year.

In an effort to “further inform our consideration of how characteristics of digital assets impact the application of the Custody Rule,” the Division’s request for comment seeks public comment on a wide array of trenchant queries, including the following:

On February 19, 2019, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio granted a consent judgment against John Gregory Schmidt, a former Wells Fargo Advisors Financial Network (FINET) advisor.  The Securities and Exchange Commission had filed a complaint against Schmidt in September 2018, alleging that Schmidt sold securities that belonged to some of his retail brokerage customers and covertly used the proceeds from those sales to conceal shortfalls in customer accounts.  According to the SEC’s complaint, Schmidt sent his customers fake account statements which overstated their account balances in order to cover up his conduct.  This case demonstrates the need for broker-dealers and registered investment advisers to adopt and enforce policies that effectively give them the ability to detect the use of such fraudulent statements.

Schmidt worked as a registered representative and the branch manager of a FINET office from about December 2006 through October 2017.  By October 2017, he had about 325 retail brokerage customers, many of whom were retirees who were dependent on withdrawals from their accounts to pay living expenses. Continue reading

With annual compliance reviews in full swing this time of year, we write today to remind advisory firms to be sure to assess the sufficiency of their policies and procedures in the ever-developing area of electronic messaging.  Our note comes on the heels of a recent Risk Alert on this topic issued by the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations or “OCIE,” which exhorts advisory firms to take a fresh look at their current compliance policies in light of the particular risks of non-compliance posed by the firm’s usage of electronic messaging.

“Electronic messaging,” as discussed in OCIE’s Risk Alert, refers to such mediums as text/SMS messaging, instant messaging, personal email, and personal or private messaging, but specifically excludes firm-wide email.  Notably, OCIE’s exclusion of firm email from analysis in the Risk Alert should not be read as diminishing an adviser’s compliance obligations to capture, store, and periodically review firm email communications.  Rather, as OCIE explains, “firms have had decades of experience complying with regulatory requirements with respect to firm email” and it is not as problematic from a compliance standpoint as compared to some of the newer technologies that run on third-party applications or platforms.  Continue reading