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.

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.

 

Revenue Sharing Arrangements to Get Heightened SEC Scrutiny

Investment advisers and broker-dealer should be aware that SEC through its Asset Management Unit has commenced an initiative aimed at shedding more light on revenue-sharing arrangements between investment advisers and brokers.

The SEC has announced that it will continue to focus enforcement and examination efforts on uncovering arrangements between advisers and broker-dealers where advisers receive undisclosed compensation and conceal such conflicts of interest from clients.

The Commission recently instituted a settled administrative proceeding against  Focus Point Solutions and The H Group, two Portland, Oregon-based investment advisory firms, and their owner over their failure to disclose to clients a revenue-sharing agreement and other potential conflicts of interest.

The SEC’s investigation found that the two firms and their owner failed to disclose to customers that they were receiving revenue-sharing payments from a brokerage firm that managed a particular category of mutual funds being recommended to Focus Point’s clients.  Since Focus Point received a percentage of every dollar that its clients invested in the mutual funds, there was an incentive to recommend these funds over other investment  opportunities in order to generate additional revenue for the firm.

 As part of the arrangement , the broker agreed to pay Focus Point for all client assets that Focus Point invested in certain mutual funds.  In exchange, Focus Point agreed to provide certain custodial support services to the broker.  The SEC found that the agreement created incentives for Focus Point to favor a particular category of mutual funds over other investments.

 Focus Point also provided misleading information about its fee structure to  trustees of a mutual fund Focus Point for whom was seeking approval to become the sub-adviser.  During the sub-adviser to the fund hiring process,  Focus Point told the trustees that Focus Point would not receive any compensation beyond its sub-advisory fee.  This was not true.  Unbeknownst to the trustees, Focus Point had an arrangement with the fund’s primary adviser whereby the primary adviser would compensate Focus Point.

As part of the SEC’s Order entered in the case, Focus Point, The H Group and its owner were censured and agreed to pay a combined $1.1 million to settle the case.