Articles Tagged with SEC

In this first quarter of the year, most investment advisers are working diligently to complete and file their annual updating amendment to Form ADV, including Part 2A, commonly called the “Brochure.” One of the most important requirements in drafting a Brochure is to make sure that all conflicts of interests, together with a description of how the conflict is mitigated or addressed, are fully and fairly disclosed. An administrative action brought by the SEC and settled last week illustrates, and should serve to underscore, the importance of identifying and disclosing such conflicts.

The SEC charged registered investment adviser Moors & Cabot (“M&C”) with breaching its fiduciary duty to investment advisory clients by failing to disclose conflicts of interest relating to revenue sharing payments and other financial incentives that the adviser received from two clearing brokers. The financial benefits included discounts, incentive credits and shared revenue that were contingent upon M&C meeting certain thresholds in total assets maintained in FDIC-insure bank deposit cash sweeps. M&C also received a share of margin interest the clearing firms charged to M&C’s clients who maintained margin loans. M&C also received a portion of postage and handling fees that one of the clearing brokers charged to its clients.

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For the majority of investment advisers registered with either the SEC or state regulators, annual updating amendment season is once again upon us. Advisers whose fiscal year ends on December 31 are required to file their Form ADV annual amendment within 90 days or by March 31, 2023.

While investment advisers are under a continuing obligation to update their disclosure documents when certain or material information becomes inaccurate, the annual update is a universal requirement designed to ensure that the filing information for investment advisers is up to date. This serves an important function in that it allows clients and potential clients to review the publicly filed ADVs for investment advisers on FINRA’s BrokerCheck and the SEC’s IADP. Additionally, regulators review the filings and the underlying analytics to track industry trends, plan examination targets, and conduct regulatory sweeps.

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The Securities and Exchange Commission recently announced the filing of an administrative proceeding against a registered investment adviser and the investment advisers owner/CCO for failing to adopt compliance policies and procedures, a Code of Ethics, and for failing to conduct annual reviews of the same. The advisory firm is Two Point Investment Management, Inc., based in Pittsford, New York. The SEC found that the violations occurred over a 10-year period starting when the adviser first registered with the SEC in 2012.

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The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently released a Staff Bulletin regarding the Standards of Conduct for Broker-Dealers and Investment Advisers Account Recommendations for Retail Investors. Since the adoption of Regulation Best Interest, or Reg BI, in 2019, the SEC has issued guidance and best practices for adoption of the policies and procedures expected for compliance with the regulation. We have previously written about the best interest standard applied to retirement rollover recommendations and the SEC’s announcement of the first enforcement case being filed under Reg BI.

The Staff Bulletin, presented in a Q&A format, provides the SEC’s views on how financial professionals can fulfill their obligations to retail investors when making account recommendations. The obligations discussed include the applicable standard for making account recommendations, factors to consider when making account recommendations, how and when cost is a factor, retirement rollover considerations, client account preferences, and developing and implementing a compliance plan reasonably designed to address Reg BI.

While Reg BI and the investment adviser fiduciary standard differ, the SEC points out that both standards require an account recommendation to be in the client’s best interest and prohibits an investment adviser from placing its interest ahead of a client’s interest. Additionally, the SEC states that a firm that does not evaluate sufficient information about a retail investor, it will not have the ability to form a reasonable basis to believe its account recommendations are in the retail investor’s best interest.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently released the 2022 Examination Priorities from the Division of Examinations, formerly known as the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations. This annual release provides insight into the areas that the SEC plans to highlight when examining investment advisers during the coming year.

While the SEC notes the continued impact of COVID-19 on investment advisers and the investment industry, the SEC reported an increase in examinations conducted during FY21, with the total number of completed examinations close to the pre-pandemic levels of FY19.

For FY22 examinations, the SEC will place a significant focus on (1) private funds; (2) environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing; (3) standards of conduct: Regulation Best Interest (Regulation BI), fiduciary duty, and Form CRS; (4) information security and operational resiliency; and (5) emerging technologies and crypto-assets. Many of these focus areas, such as ESG and Regulation BI, are carried over from previous years and mark a multi-year emphasis for the SEC.

Last month, the SEC commenced an administrative enforcement action that highlights the significance of its change in guidance over the use of “hedge clauses” in investment advisory agreements. Recall that in IA-5248, the SEC’s 2019 interpretive release that addressed the standard of conduct for investment advisers, the Commission withdrew the 2007 No-Action Letter previously issued in Heitman Capital Management, LLC (Feb. 12, 2007) (“Heitman Letter”). Prior to IA-5248, the Heitman Letter had frequently been relied upon by investment advisers to permit the use of hedge clauses, or clauses purporting to limit an adviser’s liability, as long as the clause contained an affirmative statement that it should not be construed to waive unwaivable claims under federal and state securities laws. Because the SEC concluded that the Heitman Letter had been often misconstrued, IA-5248 expressly withdrew it.

Prior to the issuance of the Heitman Letter in 2007, the SEC had rather consistently prohibited the use of hedge clauses. The Heitman Letter, however, constituted a departure from that previous near-blanket prohibition. In Heitman, the SEC staff stated that the use of a hedge clause that limits the adviser’s liability except for gross negligence or willfulness may under some circumstances be permitted, depending on “all the surrounding facts and circumstances.” Among the circumstances to be considered were whether it was written in plain English, whether it had been highlighted and explained to the client personally, whether there was a heightened explanation of the types of claims that were not waived, and whether impacted clients had access to other professional “intermediaries” upon whom they relied. After the Heitman Letter, the use of hedge clauses by investment advisers proliferated, not always consistently with the Heitman guidance.

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On July 13, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) published an order instituting administrative cease-and-desist proceedings against TIAA-CREF Individual & Institutional Services, LLC (“TIAA”). TIAA consented to this order without admitting or denying the findings except as to jurisdiction and subjection matter. The SEC’s order alleges TIAA failed to properly disclose conflicts of interest and made materially misleading statements concerning rollover recommendations they made to clients over a five-year period from 2013 to 2018.

TIAA’s policies and procedures required their investment adviser representatives, who were also dually registered as registered representatives, to present clients with four options regarding rollover recommendations when providing financial planning services. The options were:

  1. Leave client assets in their employer-sponsored retirement plans;
  2. Rolling the assets into a self-directed individual retirement account;
  3. Rolling over the assets to a new employer’s plan; or
  4. Cashing out the account value/taking a lump-sum distribution.

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Over the last five years, cybersecurity has consistently been a top priority of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”). We have written about the SEC’s focus on cybersecurity in July 2020 and January 2020. With an additional enforcement action in June, the SEC is continuing to signal that firms regulated by the SEC need to have appropriate risk management and cybersecurity controls in place. While this case study isn’t directly related to Investment Advisers, they would be wise to learn lessons from this story.

First American Financial Corporation (“First American”) is a real estate settlement services provider. In that capacity, they store certain non-public personal information (“NPPI”) of real estate purchasers and sellers. In an internal audit in 2018, an error was caught that certain NPPI stored by First American was not stored securely.

Subsequently, First American conducted a vulnerability test which culminated in a written report in January 2019. In the report, information security personnel determined that certain website URLs that First American provided to people could be replaced with different numbers to create access to NPPI that was unauthorized. Continue reading ›

Rule 206(4)-1 under the Investment Advisers Act, known as the “Marketing Rule,” becomes effective on May 4, 2021. Full details of the new rule and the related amendments to the Books and Records Rule and for ADV can be reviewed in the SEC’s adopting release. The new rule changes many aspects of the current guidance applicable to advertising by SEC-registered investment advisers, some of which is drawn from no-action letters and other informal releases. Advisers must come into compliance with the new rule within eighteen months of the effective date or by November 4, 2022. Firms may choose to come into compliance at any time between the effective date and the compliance date, but the SEC has warned that RIAs may not choose to implement parts of the new rules at different times. Rather, a firm must implement and be prepared to comply with the entirety of the new rule on a single date within the eighteen-month compliance period. The rule does not, on its face, apply to state-registered RIAs, who should continue to follow the rules applicable to the states in which they conduct business. Some state rules mirror or adopt the SEC advertising rules in some respects.

One of the most important changes relates to using what has historically been referred to as “testimonials,” or statements by clients regarding their experience with an adviser. The current rule 206(4)-1, titled “Advertisements by Investment Advisers,” states that any advertisement by an adviser that uses a “testimonial of any kind” is deemed fraudulent, deceptive or manipulative. Although “testimonial” is not defined in the current rule, the SEC consistently interpreted the term as a statement of a client’s experience with, or endorsement of, an investment adviser. Under the new rule, however, testimonials as traditionally understood are permitted as long as firms comply with a number of requirements. Continue reading ›

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission yesterday issued long-anticipated changes to the rules governing marketing for RIAs, including managers of private funds. The changes are designed to modernize the rules to account for the era of digital communication and other marketplace “evolutions.” The rule changes also impact firms’ uses of testimonials and paid solicitors.

By a 5-0 vote, the amendments will replace prior separate rules into a single comprehensive rule that deals with advertising and solicitation. The replaced rules date back to the 1970s and earlier.

By and large, the rules allow for more flexibility. For instance, instead of a blanket prohibition of testimonials, the new rule permits testimonials if certain disclosures are made. These disclosure requirements dovetail with the emphasis on preventing conflicts of interests that was the focus of last year’s IA Release 5248, relating to advisers’ fiduciary duty. The rules also create additional questions related to marketing on Form ADV Part 1.

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