Articles Tagged with SEC

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

FINRA has alerted its Member Firms to be on the watch for a fraudulent phishing email scheme targeted at compliance personnel. A phishing scheme typically uses email or some other type of electronic message to trick the recipient into clicking a malicious link or infected file attachment by mimicking a message from a trustworthy party. This particular scheme employs an email purportedly originating from an Anti-Money Laundering compliance officer at an otherwise apparently legitimate Indiana-based credit union. The email—which was received recently by a number of FINRA Member Firms—specifically targets compliance personnel by appearing to be a communication regarding an attempted transfer of money by a client of the recipient’s firm to the credit union which has been placed on hold due to concerns about potential money laundering. The scam is designed to get the recipient to open an attachment, which, according to FINRA “likely contains a malicious virus or malware designed to obtain unauthorized access to the recipient’s computer network.”

FINRA noted the following additional aspects of the fraudulent email that recipients should be alert for:

  • An otherwise legitimate reference to a provision of the USA Patriot Act allowing financial institutions to share information with each other.
  • An actual email address that appears to be from Europe, rather than the U.S.-based credit union.
  • Numerous instances of poor grammar and sentence structure.

Continue reading

At this time of year, it is important for registered investment advisers to assure that they are in compliance with federal and/or state rules requiring them to monitor their supervised persons’ security holdings and transactions for compliance with the firm’s code of ethics. Even seasoned compliance professionals will encounter questions regarding application of the rule from time to time. While this article is no substitute for a detailed analysis of the rule and its application to a specific firm and its supervised persons, an overview of the rule may be helpful.

As background, all SEC-registered investment advisers are required to adopt a Code of Ethics, which must describe the standards of conduct expected for representatives of the firm and address conflicts that arise from personal trading by advisory personnel. This federal requirement, which governs SEC-registered advisers only, derives from SEC Rule 204A-1, which took effect in 2005. Since then, many state securities administrators have adopted identical or similar requirements, either by adopting SEC Rule 204A-1 “by reference”—i.e., verbatim—into state law, or by crafting similar “me too” provisions. Accordingly, if your firm is SEC-registered, it will be bound by Rule 204A-1; but, if your firm is currently a state-registered adviser, it may be bound by the same or similar requirements. Continue reading

Demonstrating its regulatory interest in the robo adviser industry, on December 21, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an Order Instituting Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings against Wealthfront Advisers, LLC, a registered investment adviser which uses a software-based “robo adviser” platform in servicing its clients. The action is the second case against robo advisers filed on the same day. Wealthfront submitted an offer of settlement in light of the proceeding.

According to the SEC’s Order, Wealthfront utilizes a proprietary tax loss harvesting program (“TLH”) to help its clients garner tax benefits. These tax benefits would typically come through selling assets at a loss, which could potentially be used to reduce income or gains and create a lower tax liability. From October 2012 onward, Wealthfront has featured whitepapers on its website that provide information about the TLH strategy. Continue reading

As the partial federal government shutdown, which began at midnight on December 22, 2018, now approaches its fifth week, we write to update our readers on the shutdown’s specific impact on the SEC and securities regulatory activities.  While we have previously discussed many of these points with our clients who currently have matters pending before the SEC, below is more general information regarding the SEC’s most significant functions.

The SEC was able to operate fully and conduct regular business for a limited number of days following the commencement of the general federal shutdown, but was forced to effectively close its doors on December 27, 2018.  Since then, the agency has been operating at a very minimal level with a skeleton crew of staffers able to respond to only emergency situations.  As described on the SEC’s home page, the remaining staff is available to respond only to “emergency situations involving market integrity and investor protection, including law enforcement.”  The vast majority of the SEC’s employees have been furloughed and are not reporting to work at this time.  That said, we note that a number of familiar online filing platforms, such as EDGAR, IARD, and CRD, all remain fully operable. Continue reading

On December 21, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an Order Instituting Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings against Hedgeable, Inc., a registered investment adviser.  Hedgeable utilizes a “robo adviser” program, which it offers to individuals, small business owners, trusts, corporations, and partnerships through both its website and social media.  The SEC’s Order alleges that from about 2016 through April 2017, Hedgeable made various misleading statements in advertising and performance data.  Hedgeable submitted an offer of settlement in order to resolve the proceeding.

According to the Order, Hedgeable launched a so-called “Robo-Index” to present comparisons of its performance against that of two unaffiliated robo advisers.  These comparisons were featured on both Hedgeable’s website and various social media sites.  The SEC found that Hedgeable’s method of preparing the Robo-Index had significant material issues.  For example, the SEC found that data from 2014 and 2015 only featured data from a small pool of Hedgeable client accounts and excluded over 1,000 other client accounts.  The SEC alleged that, because of the small sample sizes, the data likely reflected “survivorship bias,” stemming from the fact that the sample size likely only contained clients who received higher than average returns compared to Hedgeable’s other clients.  The SEC also determined that Hedgeable’s calculation methods did not correctly estimate expected returns for a standard client of the other two robo advisers.  Hedgeable allegedly produced the data in the Robo-Index using estimations of the other robo advisers’ trading models rather than using the robo advisers’ actual models. Continue reading

Following several enforcement actions brought against registered investment advisers that received 12b-1 fees when institutional shares were available to be purchased in clients’ advisory accounts, in February of this year the Securities and Exchange Commission announced an initiative under which firms could self-report the receipt of “avoidable” 12b-1 fees since 2014.  Under the so-called Share Class Selection Disclosure Initiative (SCSDI), advisers who self-reported receiving 12b-1 fees under those circumstances would be subject to an SEC enforcement action but would receive favorable treatment in such a case. Such favorable treatment included no recommended civil penalties as long as the firm agreed to disgorge all avoidable 12b-1 fees received.

In order to participate in the SCSDI, however, firms were required to report to the SEC by June 12, 2018. In announcing the SCSDI, the SEC indicated that firms that did not self-report may be subjected to harsher sanctions if their practice was later discovered.

In recent weeks through information available through clearing firm data and public sources the SEC has identified RIAs that may have received 12b-1 fee but chose not to self-report. Some of these firms are receiving subpoenas or requests for information and testimony.  Whether the failure to report was justified and/or the original receipt of the 12b-1 fees were not improper are questions that the SEC Enforcement Staff will be evaluating during its investigations.  In some limited circumstance a firm might be able to justify receipt of the questioned fess, and also might be excused from or ineligible for the self-reporting initiative. Continue reading

The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) periodically issues “Risk Alerts” highlighting common deficiencies encountered by its staff during routine investment adviser compliance exams. These Risk Alerts serve the dual purpose of providing advisers with both useful insight into the results of recent OCIE examination activity as well as advance warning of areas that OCIE may be paying closer attention to in the future. Accordingly, a recent Risk Alert issued by OCIE details the most common deficiencies the staff has cited relating to Rule 206(4)-3 (the “Cash Solicitation Rule” or “Rule”) under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. See National Exam Program Risk Alert, Investment Adviser Compliance Issues Related to the Cash Solicitation Rule (Oct. 31, 2018).

By way of background, the Cash Solicitation Rule prohibits SEC-registered investment advisers from paying a cash fee, directly or indirectly, to any person who solicits clients for the adviser unless the arrangement complies with a number of conditions specified in the Rule, including that the fee must be paid pursuant to a written agreement to which the adviser is a party. Notably, the Rule discerns between solicitors that are affiliated with the registered adviser versus those that are not, setting-up more comprehensive requirements for the latter third-party solicitors. For example, third-party solicitors must provide potential clients with both a copy of the adviser’s Form ADV Part II (or other applicable brochure) and a separate written solicitor’s disclosure document containing specific data about the solicitation arrangement—including the terms of the solicitor’s compensation. Moreover, with respect to third-party arrangements, the Rule obliges advisers to: (i) collect a signed and dated acknowledgment from every potential solicited client that such client has in fact received the adviser’s brochure and the solicitor’s disclosure document; and (ii) make a “bona fide effort” to ascertain whether the solicitor has complied with its duties under the Rule.

In this context, OCIE cited the following as the most noteworthy deficiency areas encountered by its front-line examiners: