NEW REGISTRATION RULES FOR MUNICIPAL ADVISORS

As they were required to do under the Dodd-Frank Act, the SEC announced that it has now voted to adopt permanent rules requiring municipal advisors to register.  Previously, and immediately after Dodd-Frank,  municipal advisors were placed under a temporary registration requirement, and following it, more than 1,100 municipal advisors registered with the SEC.

The permanent rule, the SEC says, will address the long concern about the fallout from losses suffered, in part, by municipalities purchasing complex derivatives products and relying on the advice from unregulated advisors — advisors, who municipalities may not have been aware, may have had conflicts of interest.   In addition to defining the term “municipal advisor,” and who is exempted from that definition, the rule  identifies when a person is considered to be providing “advice.”   For example, the SEC says, other than general giving information, a  person recommending to a municipal entity advice based on a particular need related to municipal financial products or related to the muncipalities’ issuance of municipal securities would be considered providing muncipal advice. 

The SEC’s Press Release states that the new rules will be effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

SEC Risk Alert: Options Trading That Evades Short-Sale Rule Requirements

risk managementShort sale activity continues to be a significant focus of the SEC, particularly when it involves short sales without delivery, or “failures to deliver.”

The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) has now  issued a new Risk Alert raised by its examination staff’s observation that some options trading strategies are being used to evade the short-sale rule, Rule 10b-21.  The alert addresses the need for customers, broker-dealers and clearing firms to be aware of options trading activity that could be used to avoid complying with the close-out requirements of Reg SHO.

Under the rule,  it is fraudulent to sell an equity security if it deceives a person participating in the transaction about the seller’s  intention or ability to deliver the security by settlement date.  Rule 10b-21 covers such situations where a seller deceives a broker-dealer, participant of a registered clearing agency, or a purchaser about its intention to deliver securities by settlement date, and the seller then fails to deliver securities by settlement date.  The violative activity would include broker-dealers (including market makers) acting for their own accounts.  Broker-dealers could also be held liable for aiding and abetting a customer’s fraud under Rule 10b-21.

In addition to addressing, with examples, trading strategies that could be used to circumvent Reg SHO requirements, and other helpful ways that OCIE has observed that some firms have used to effectively detect and prevent violation of the rule, the alert provides summary guidance covering (a) Reg SHO Close-out Requirement; (b) Reg SHO Locate Requirement; (c) Rule 10b-21; (d) Key Trading Terms and Concepts; and (d) Option Activity Related to Hard to Borrow and/or Threshold Securities.

ACHIEVING “BEST EXECUTION” AND RECENT SEC ENFORCEMENT

Two SEC enforcement cases last week demonstrate (i) how using affiliated brokerage on an agency or principal basis raises potential conflicts of interest  when dealing with ” best execution” concerns , and (ii) the importance of having robust best execution policies and procedures and then following them.  In both cases, the SEC sanctioned investment advisers for not heeding these concerns in failing to seek best execution on client trades placed through in-house brokerage divisions.

While the duty of an adviser or fund to seek best execution may not expressly be stated in the federal securities laws, to the extent they are typical, these cases tend to follow a pattern:  An SEC best execution enforcement action might involve the SEC’s examination staff first finding that a firm failed to disclose compensation on client brokerage, failed to adequately its brokerage practices or failed to properly disclose to clients the adviser’s best execution policies and procedures.  The two recent cases are no exception.

In the first case against A.R. Schmeidler & Co. (ARS), a dually registered investment adviser and a broker-dealer, the SEC found that ARS failed to reevaluate whether it was providing best execution for its advisory clients when it negotiated more favorable terms with its clearing firm.  This resulted in ARS retaining a greater share of the commissions it received from clients, a best execution violation.  The SEC found that the firm also failed to implement policies and procedures reasonably designed to prevent the best execution violations.  To settle the SEC charges, ARS agreed to pay disgorgement of $757,876.88, prejudgment interest of $78,688.57, and a penalty of $175,000.  The firm also must engage an independent compliance consultant, and had to consent to a censure and cease-and-desist order.

The second case involved a CEO who also served as Chief Compliance Officer officer, Goelzer, and his Indianapolis-based dually registered firm Goelzer Investment Management (GIM).  The SEC found that GIM made misrepresentations in its Form ADV about the process of selecting itself as broker for advisory clients.  The SEC found that GIM failed to seek best execution for its clients by neglecting to conduct the comparative analysis of brokerage options described in its Form ADV, and recommended itself as broker for its advisory clients without evaluating other introducing-broker options as the firm represented it would.  Goelzer and GIM agreed to pay nearly $500,000 to settle the charges that included GIM paying disgorgement of $309,994, prejudgment interest of $53,799, and a penalty of $100,000.  The firm was also required to comply with certain undertakings, including the continued use of a compliance consultant and the separation of its chief compliance officer position from the firm’s business function.  Goelzer agreed to pay a $35,000 penalty, and Goelzer and GIM consented to censures and cease-and-desist orders.

What are some of the lessons for advisers and funds engaged in managing potential conflicts related to best execution?

While the SEC provides no specific definition of “best execution,” it has said that managers should seek to execute securities transactions for clients in such a manner that the client’s total cost or net proceeds in each transaction is most favorable under the circumstances. The determinative factor is not necessarily the lowest commission cost, but whether the transaction represents the best qualitative execution for the managed account.  So what  should advisers learn from these cases?    

  • Recognize the importance of having strong written policies and procedures that provide guidance concerning the quality of trade execution while, at the same time, attending client investment objectives and constraints.
  • Make sure that disclosures in Form ADV and elsewhere include information about trading and actual and potential trading conflicts of interest.
  • Document compliance with best execution policies and procedures and disclosures to clients.
  • Consider setting up a brokerage or trade management committee to review trade placement and best execution. The committee should address such topics as broker trading cost and execution, brokerage expertise and infrastructure and the broker’s willingness to explore alternative trading options.
  • Test for best execution, including possibly hiring a third party service provider to periodically assess the broker’s capacity to evaluate which competing markets, market makers, or electronic communication networks (ECNs) offer the most favorable terms of execution, the speed of execution, and the likelihood that the trade will be executed.   

There are numerous sources to consult when thinking about and developing best execution policies.  A few advisers might want to consider include:  Trade Management Guidelines (Nov. 2002), available at www.dfainstitute.org/standards/ethics/tmg; See Interpretive Release Concerning the Scope of Section 28(e) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Related Matters, Exchange Act Release No. 23170 (Apr. 23, 1986) (“1986 Soft Dollar Release”); Lori Richards, Valuation, Trading, and Disclosure: The Compliance Imperative, Remarks at the 2001 Mutual Fund Compliance Conference of the Investment Company Institute (June 14, 2001), available at www.sec.gov/news/speech/spch499.htm.   

In statements following these cases, the SEC warned all investment advisers with affiliated broker-dealers that it would hold them accountable to ensure clients are obtaining the most beneficial terms reasonably available for their orders.

THE UPWARD TREND IN MUNCIPAL SECURITIES CASE ENFORCEMENT

upwards-trendThe past two weeks has seen the SEC’s continued ratchet upward the number of enforcement actions against municipal securities participants for disclosure violations.

These enforcement actions also continue to ensnare an array of players in municipal securities transactions, that include underlying obligors, their chief executive officers, national and regional investment banks, the heads of public finance departments at several investment banks, as well as individual investment bankers at various levels of seniority, issuers, issuer officials, financial advisers, attorneys and accountants.

The cases have involved everything from  tax or arbitration-driven fraud, pay-to-play and public corruption violations, public pension accounting and disclosure fraud, valuation/pricing issues, and most recently, more offering offering and disclosure fraud, involving misleading statements or omissions in offerings.

Two recent enforcement actions illustrate this trend.  The first, SEC v. City of Miami, Florida and Michael Boudreaux, an SEC complaint filed in federal court in Miami alleged that the City of Miami, through its then Budget Director, charged that beginning in 2008, the City and the budget director made materially false and misleading statements and omissions concerning certain interfund transfers in three 2009 bond offerings totaling $153.5 million, as well as in the City’s fiscal year 2007 and 2008 Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports.  The City puportedly transferred a total of approximately $37.5 million from its Capital Improvement Fund and a Special Revenue Fund to the General Fund in 2007 and 2008 in order to mask increasing deficits in the General Fund.

The complaint alleged that the City and the budget director failed to disclose to bondholders that the transferred funds included legally restricted dollars which, under Miami’s city code, was not permitted to be commingled with any other funds or revenues of the City.  The defendants  also failed to disclose that the funds transferred were allocated to specific capital projects which still needed those funds as of the fiscal year end or, in some instances, already spent that money.  The transfers enabled the City of Miami to meet or come close to meeting its own requirements relating to General Fund reserve levels.  According to the SEC, the results of the transfers, meant that the City’s bond offerings were all rated favorably by credit rating agencies.

The second and most recent case, In The Matter of  West Clark Community Schools, a settled administrative cease-and desist proceeding, involved the West Clark Community Schools, an Indiana school district.  In 2005, the West Clark Community Schools contractually, in accordance with SEC rules, undertook to annually disclose certain financial information, operating data and event notices in connection with a $52 million municipal bond offering.  In 2007, the school district, in connection with a $31 million municipal bond offering, stated in public bond offering documents that it had not failed, in the previous five years, to comply in all material respects with any prior disclosure undertakings. That statement, the SEC alleged, as well as a Certificate and Affidavit signed by the School District attesting that the offering documents did not contain any untrue statement of material fact, was materially false.  To the contrary, the SEC found that between at least 2005 and 2010 the School District never submitted any of its contractually required disclosures.

As a result, the SEC claimed that the school district violated Section 17(a)(2) of the Securities Act and Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act and Rule 10b-5(b) thereunder.  In a separate, but related, settled cease-and-desist proceeding, In the Matter of City Securities Corporation and Randy G. Ruhl, the SEC found that City Securities, the underwiter, and an vice president of City Securities’ municipal bond department conducted inadequate due diligence and, as a result, failed to form a reasonable basis for believing the truthfulness of material statements in an the school district’s  official statement, resulting in City Securities offering and selling municipal securities on the basis of a materially misleading disclosure document.

In addition to being censured, City Securities was ordered to pay disgorgement and civil penalties.  The vice president was barred from the securities industry with a right to reapply after one year and ordered to pay disgorgement and civil penalties.

In July 2012, the SEC  issued a comprehensive report with recommendations aimed at helping improve the structure and enhance disclosure provided to investors for a municipal securities market that has grown to $3.7 trillion in municipal debt outstanding from a level of $361 Billion in 1981.  To that, add potential enforcement actions from the MSRB, states, and other SROs, and there’s little doubt that the enforcement action trend will escalate.

A Lesson From Ameriprise: Risk Mitigation With Third-Party Prospectus Delivery

Broker-dealers and other financial service firms using third-party service vendors, whether to reduce costs, enhance performance, and obtain access to specific expertise, and perform vital functions, sounds good in most instances.  But doing so is not without risks.

FINRA’s recent disciplinary action against Ameriprise, tagging it with a censure and fine of $525,000, is a reminder of inherent risks when firms fail to monitor outsourced service work to third parties.  In settling with Ameriprise (through an Acceptance Waiver and Consent, FINRA Case # 2011029100301) FINRA found that Ameriprise, in approximately 580,000 transactions, failed to timely deliver mutual fund prospectuses to its customers within three business days of their purchases.  FINRA also found Ameriprise to have failed to establish and maintain adequate supervisory systems and written supervisory procedures that should have reasonably monitored and ensured the timely delivery of mutual fund prospectuses — a requirement of Section 5(b)(2) of the Securities Act of 1933.

As FINRA noted, Rule 10b-10, promulgated under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, requires a broker-dealer to provide to the customer, in writing, certain information “at or before completion of such transaction” and that transactions are complete when they settle.  Rule 15c6-l(a) provides that securities transactions settle in three business days, unless otherwise specified.  Consequently, a broker-dealer must deliver a prospectus to a customer who has purchased a mutual fund no later than three business days after the transaction.

What are the compliance takeaways from the Ameriprise action?  How does a firm avoid or mitigate legal, reputational and operational risks to its business when dealing with outside vendors?

First, firms should make sure they hire qualified vendors and that such relationship are structured to avoid operational problems. Expectations on both sides need to be clearly articulated.  Second,  monitor frequently and document that the outsourced activity is being properly managed.*  Appropriate oversight ensures that the third-party program is meeting its regulatory purpose.  Third, document and make sure that the third-party has adequate internal controls.  Finally, make sure that the vendor has a contingency plan in the event of a disruption, and make sure that you do the same.

In the end, while day-to-day management of a service like sending the prospectus can, in some instances, be transferred to a third party, ultimate responsibility for any compliance requirement cannot be delegated and remains with the financial service firm.

*Outsourcing Financial Services Activities: Industry Practices to Mitigate Risks, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, October 1999, p. 5, available online.; Outsourcing By Financial Services Firms, Broker-Dealer Regulation (Second Edition) Practicing Law Institute, C.E. Kirsch.

With Settlements, Will the SEC Make Defendants Admit Guilt?

Reporting on Mary Jo White’s speech at a Wall Street CFO Network function, the Washington Post notes her comments about the long-simmering topic of failure of securities law violators to admit guilt when they settle with the SEC.  As a matter of practice, the SEC has routinely allowed defendants to settle cases “without admitting or denying wrongdoing.”  In light of public criticism and some pointed criticisms by judges handling these type settlements(See my December 15, 2011 blog post ), White wants to draw a sharper distinction between those cases where clear-cut misconduct is shown and those cases where wrongdoing or guilt is less clear.

The Washington Post article notes that “[i] an e-mail sent to the SEC staff earlier this week, the co-directors of the enforcement division said that cases in which the defendant engaged in “egregious intentional misconduct” may justify requiring an admission, as would the obstruction of an SEC investigation or “misconduct that harmed large numbers of investors.”

Despite public protestations, and some courts’ misgivings about allowing defendants to pay large fines to settle cases without admitting wrongdoing, wholesale changes in the settlement policy are unlikely.  Further, district courts have limited authority to change an executive branch agency’s decision to settle a claim, including the SEC’s “neither admit nor deny” policy.

Whether a sharper line is drawn or not, such settlements still serve an important public policy.  Similar to the rationale for plea bargaining in criminal cases, without being able to settle without admitting guilt, many defendants would not settle.   Some defendants would rather risk going to trial than admit guilt that might leave them open to other lawsuits, denial of insurance coverage, or higher insurance premiums.  Still other defendants,  lacking resources, might simply consider walking away from these cases.  The result — long investigations and trials with even harsher fines and sanctions that may go uncollected and waste limited resources.

 

Public Arbitrator Definition Excludes Mutual Funds and Hedge Funds

Effective July 1, 2013, add to the types of  individuals who are no longer eligible to serve as public arbitrators in FINRA arbitrations persons associated with, or registered through, a mutual fund or hedge fund.

The list has been growing and already includes  (i) attorneys and accountants who derive a certain percentage or a certain amount of their income from the securities industry, (ii) investment advisers, (iii) persons or spouses employed by entities involved in the securities industry, and (iii) directors or officers or spouses or an immediate family member of a person who is a director or officer of, an entity that directly or indirectly controls, is controlled by, or is under common control with, any partnership, corporation or other organization that is engaged in the securities business.

Despite complaints from some in the securities industry that the change means more arbitrators with less experience and education about how the securitie industry works, the rationale approved by the SEC and adopted under Codes of Arbitration Rules (Customer and Industry Codes) 12100(u)(3) and 13100(u)(3) for including these categories is just the opposite.  The change arises from complaints that certain arbitrators on FINRA’s public arbitrator roster are not perceived as public and may be biased because of their industry background and experience.  The exclusion is not permanent.   If the individual ends the affiliation that was the basis for the exclusion, they are eligible to serve as a public arbitrator  two calendar years after ending the affiliation.

The Consequences For Untimely Producing Records to Regulators

A recent SEC enforcement case illustrates again how an investment adviser’s  failure to  timely respond to SEC requests for books and records during an inspections and examinations can turn into an enforcement action.  The outcome should not surprise.  With the limited facts available, one wonders why the SEC’s restraint in bringing an action lasted as long as it did.  There are, however, a few important takeaways for advisers and their compliance professionals.

The case, In the Matter of  EM Capital Management, LLC and Seth Richard Freeman,  involves the SEC issuing an order instituting administrative and cease-and-desist proceedings against an adviser and its principal for failing, over a year and a half period, to furnish books and records to the Commission’s Investment Adviser/Investment Company examination staff.  The requested records included financial statements, e-mails, and documents relating to the adviser and a mutual fund it managed.

After repeatedly promising to produce the documents following repeated requests from the examination staff, the adviser ultimately did comply.  However,  by then, presumably, the Commision’s patience had finally worn thin, and the staff notified the adviser and its principal that the SEC was considering enforcement action against him and the firm.

The Commission alleged that the adviser violated, and the principal aided and abetted violations of Section 204 of the Advisers Act and Rule 204-2, thereunder.  These  regulations and rules require SEC-registered investment advisers to produce required books and records to the Commission’s staff. The adviser and principal were censured and jointly ordered to pay a civil penalty of $20,000.

The lessons imparted from this and similar cases brought by the Commission are at least three-fold:

  1. Never refuse to produce documents that are subject to the SEC’s inspection powers. i.e. generally, with a few exceptions, Rule 204-2(e) of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”) requires advisers to maintain their books and records for at least five years, and maintained in an appropriate office of the adviser for the first two years.
  2. Delaying tactics is not a good idea since it probably raise more red flags for the examination staff that’s some rule violation may have occured.  If  additional time is needed to comply bring requests to the staff’s attention and make sure it and any extensions granted are documented.
  3. Despite the lesser sanctions in this case, advisers and their compliance personnel should never forget that, under Section 217 of the Advisers Act, willful failure to permit the SEC to inspect books and records is a felony, punishable by a fine of not more than $10,000 and imprisonment up to five years or both.
  4. Nothing stated above should suggest that advisers may not seek to limit the scope of books and records sought.  This includes, where appropriate, asserting relevant privileges against producing certain documents, seeking clarifications about unclear or open-ended requests, and objecting to burdensome and unreasonable production.

 

SEC 2012 Enforcement Actions Against Investment Professionals

In a press release yesterday, the Securities and Exchange Commission  announced enforcement results for its fiscal year ending September 30, 2012.

The results include the SEC having filed 734 enforcement actions, just one case shy of last year’s record of 735.  According to the Division of Enforcement, the cases,  involved everything from highly complex products, transactions, and practices, including those related to the financial crisis, trading platforms and market structure, to insider trading by market professionals.  In addition, orders were entered in some of these cases requiring the payment of more than $3 billion in penalties and disgorgement for the benefit of investors who were harmed.

Investment Advisers

As for investment advisers, the SEC filed 147 enforcement actions in 2012 against investment advisers and investment companies.  Several cases  resulted from the Division of Investment Management’s investment adviser compliance initiative involving advisers who failed to maintain effective compliance programs designed to prevent securities laws violations.

Other actions involving advisers included the SEC

Broker-Dealers

The Commission filed 134 enforcement actions related to broker-dealers — a 19 percent increase over 2011.  Enforcement actions included an action against a Latvian trader and electronic trading firm for their involvement in an online account intrusion scheme that manipulated the prices of more than 100 NYSE and Nasdaq securities; and an action against New York-based brokerage firm Hold Brothers On-Line Investment Services and three of its executives for allowing overseas traders to access the markets and conduct manipulative trading through accounts the firm controlled.

Municipal Securities

The number of enforcement actions related to municipal securities more than doubled since 2011. The SEC filed 17 actions related to municipal securities, including charging Detroit’s former mayor and treasurer in a pay-to-play scheme involving Detroit’s pension funds.  In another action, the SEC charged Goldman Sachs for violating municipal securities rules resulting from undisclosed “in-kind” non-cash contributions that one of its investment bankers made to a Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate.

 

Compliance Officers and In-house Attorneys Remembering Rule Number One

Back on July 25, 2011, we blogged about the importance attached to chief compliance officers’ understanding the regulatory framework and guiding principles for what it is they do.  As we said then,

“Rule Number One

: Your Job is to “Administer” the Compliance Program: The CCO’s job function as mandated by Rule 206(4)-7 (the “rule”) is limited to “administering” the investment adviser’s compliance policies and procedures. While the rule contains no explicit definition for what the term administering means, the rule makes one thing clear, it is the adviser who is legally required to “adopt and implement written policies and procedures reasonably designed to prevent violation” of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. What this means is that you are not the guarantor that your adviser will not experience a compliance failure. Nor is it necessarily true, from a supervisory perspective, that you are responsible for the compliance failures of others in the firm. To the contrary, the failure of a compliance program to find and remedy compliance problems can just as easily be viewed as evidence that the adviser’s compliance program, including its policies and procedures, are not effective.

This doesn’t mean that compliance personnel of an adviser can’t be sanctioned for not properly supervising employees. Of course, they can be and are sanctioned. However, the fact that you are a CCO does 

 

not, in and of itself, give you supervisory responsibility over your adviser’s personnel. In short, if you’re not supervising other advisory personnel, and you limit supervisory responsibility to persons who are part of the compliance staff, the Adopting Release to the rule makes clear that you aren’t necessarily liable for the supervisory lapses of your adviser. ……..”

The signficance of this rule is born out in an article appearing in AdviserOne entitled “” makes reference to a report prepared by the law firm of Sutherland Asbill tracking recent regulatory actions involving CCOs and in-house attorneys facing disciplinary actions covering everything from lapses involving  inadequate supervisory systems, anti-money-laundering (AML) compliance program, inadequate due diligence in private offerings, books and records violations to lying to regulators.

Understanding and remembering first what your role is as CCO or in-house counsel may prove to be the only thing separating you and a regulatory sanction.