OCC Releases its Risk Appetite Statement

On April 12, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) released its Risk Appetite Statement, which sets boundaries of acceptable levels of risk in key areas of agency operations.  The OCC stated that:  “By clearly articulating the acceptable level of risks within our operations, agency management and employees have clearer signposts by which to guide their decisions, and external stakeholders can better understand OCC actions in the context of the risks facing the agency.”

These new guidelines were issued as the OCC has signaled a willingness to work with banks as they develop tools for working with financial technology products.  On March 31, the OCC published its perspective on “responsible innovation in the federal banking system” at the same time as it solicited feedback on what more it could do to support innovation.  In publishing its Whitepaper on Supporting Responsible Innovation in the Federal Banking System:  An OCC Perspective, Comptroller of the Currency Thomas J. Curry stated that:  “Innovation holds much promise. . . . Innovation is not free from risk, but when managed appropriately, risk should not impede progress.”

FinCEN Proposes Funding Portals Regulations under Bank Secrecy Act

On April 4, 2016, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, a bureau of the Department of the Treasury (“FinCEN”), proposed amendments to the definitions of ‘‘broker or dealer in securities’’ and ‘‘broker-dealer’’ under the regulations implementing the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”). This rulemaking would amend those definitions explicitly to include “funding portals” that are involved in the offering or selling of “crowdfunded securities” pursuant to Section 4(a)(6) of the Securities Act of 1933. The consequence of those amendments would be that funding portals would be required to implement policies and procedures reasonably designed to achieve compliance with the BSA Act requirements currently applicable to brokers or dealers in securities. FinCEN stated that:  “The proposal to specifically require funding portals to comply with the Bank Secrecy Act regulations is intended to help prevent money laundering, terrorist financing, and other financial crimes.”  Written comments of this proposal must be submitted on or before June 3, 2016.

The Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, enacted into law on April 5, 2012, established the foundation for a regulatory structure for startups and small businesses to raise funds by offering and selling securities through “crowdfunding” without having to register the securities with the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) or state securities regulators.  In order to take advantage of this exemption for offerings of crowdfunded securities, an issuer must use the services of an intermediary that is either a broker registered with the SEC or a “funding portal” registered with the SEC.

Federal District Court Rules against Designation of MetLife as a “SIFI” under Dodd-Frank Act

On March 30, the D.C. federal District Court ruled against the designation by the Financial Stability Oversight Counsel (“FSOC”) of MetLife as a “systemically important financial institution” under the Dodd-Frank Act.  The FSOC has designated just four non-banks as SIFIs, but MetLife was the only one to file a lawsuit protesting it.

The overall impact of the ruling remains unclear, however, because it is under based on longstanding concerns about the protection of the firm’s proprietary business information and it widely anticipated that the FSOC will appeal the ruling.

FINRA Reports on Digital Investment Advice

On March 15, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (commonly referred to as “FINRA”) issued a Report that emphasizes that offerings of digital investment advice requires sound governance and supervision, including effective means of overseeing the suitability of recommendations, conflicts of interest, customer risk profiles and portfolio rebalancing.  The Report also outlines lessons for investors and states that training and education are crucial for financial professionals who use digital investment advice tools.  FINRA is the regulatory authority that is responsible, under the supervision of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, for the oversight of broker-dealers.

This Report is the most comprehensive commentary and guidance issued to date by any U.S. regulator regarding digital investment advice.  It merits careful consideration.

Although the rules discussed in the Report apply directly to broker-dealers, rather than investment advisers, the Report addresses the duties applicable to investment management services provided by broker-dealers as well as investment advisers.  Therefore, we expect that the principles and rules set forth in the Report are comparable to those that the SEC will apply to investment advisers that provide digital investment advice.  ReportPress Release.

Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection Issues Policy on No-Action Letters

On February 18, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a new policy statement on No-Action Letters.

Under the Policy, Bureau staff, in its discretion, would issue no-action letters (NALs) to specific applicants in instances involving “innovative financial products or services that promise substantial consumer benefit where there is substantial uncertainty whether or how specific provisions of statutes implemented or regulations issued by the Bureau would be applied.”

A NAL would advise the recipient that, subject to its stated limitations, the staff has no present intention to recommend initiation of an enforcement or supervisory action against the requester with respect to a specified matter. However, NALs would be subject to modification or revocation at any time at the discretion of the staff, and may be conditioned on particular undertakings by the applicant with respect to product or service usage and data-sharing with the Bureau. Also, NALs would be nonbinding on the Bureau, and would not bind courts or other actors who might challenge a NAL recipient’s product or service, such as other regulators or parties in litigation.

SEC Approves Interim Final Rules Implementing Two Provisions of the FAST Act

On January 13, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it approved interim final rules implementing two provisions of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, adopted by Congress in December, that revise financial reporting forms for emerging growth companies and smaller reporting companies.

The Congressionally mandated rules revise Forms S-1 and F-1 to provide that as long as emerging growth companies’ registration statements include all required financial information at the time of the offering, they will be allowed to omit certain historical period financial information prior to the offering.  In addition, the rules revise Form S-1 to allow smaller reporting companies to use incorporation by reference for future filings the companies make under the federal securities laws after the registration statement becomes effective.

The interim final rules also include a request for comment on whether the rules should be expanded to include other registrants or forms.

The rules will become effective when published in the Federal Register and the public comment period will remain open for 30 days following their publication.

SEC Announces 2016 Examination Priorities

On January 11, the SEC announced its Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations’ (OCIE) 2016 priorities.  New areas of focus include liquidity controls, public pension advisers, product promotion, and two popular investment products – exchange-traded funds and variable annuities.  The priorities also reflect a continuing focus on protecting investors in ongoing risk areas such as cybersecurity, microcap fraud, fee selection, and reverse churning.

The 2016 examination priorities address issues across a variety of financial institutions, including investment advisers, investment companies, broker-dealers, transfer agents, clearing agencies, and national securities exchanges.  Areas of examination include:

  • Retail Investors –  OCIE will continue several 2015 initiatives to assess risks to retail investors seeking information, advice, products, and services to help them plan for and live in retirement. It also will undertake examinations to review exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and ETF trading practices, variable annuity recommendations and disclosure, and potential conflicts and risks involving advisers to public pension funds.
  • Market-Wide Risks –  OCIE will continue its focus on cybersecurity controls at broker-dealers and investment advisers.  New initiatives for 2016 include an evaluation of broker-dealers’ and investment advisers’ liquidity risk management practices, and firms’ compliance with the SEC’s Regulation SCI, designed to strengthen the technology infrastructure of the U.S. securities markets.
  • Data Analytics – OCIE’s enhanced ability to analyze large amounts of data will assist examiners’ ongoing initiatives to assess anti-money laundering compliance, detect microcap fraud, and review for excessive trading.  Data analytics also will help examinations focused on promotion of new, complex, and high-risk products.

The published priorities for 2016 are not exhaustive and may be adjusted in light of market conditions, industry developments and ongoing risk assessment activities.

SEC Issues Staff Report on Accredited Investor Definition

On December 18, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a staff report (the “Report”) on the definition of “accredited investor” set forth in Rule 501(a) of Regulation D under the Securities Act of 1933. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act directs the Commission to review the accredited investor definition as it relates to natural persons every four years to determine whether the definition should be modified or adjusted. Staff from the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Economic and Risk Analysis prepared the Report in connection with the first review of the definition.

The Report examines the history of the accredited investor definition and considers comments on the definition received from a variety of sources, including public commenters, the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee and its Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies. The Report considers alternative approaches to defining “accredited investor,” provides staff recommendations for potential updates and modifications to the existing definition and analyzes the impact potential approaches may have on the pool of accredited investors.

The primary recommendations of the Report are:

  • The Commission should revise the financial thresholds, requirements for natural persons to qualify as accredited investors and the list-based approach for entities to qualify as accredited investors.
  • The Commission should revise the accredited investor definition to allow individuals to qualify  as accredited investors based on other measures of sophistication besides their net worth and income.

The Report suggests detailed alternate approaches to implementing these recommendations.

The Commission is inviting members of the public to provide comments on the accredited investor definition, generally, and specifically on the staff recommendations contained in the Report, although a deadline for submitting comments has not been set.

Advisory on Effective Risk Management Practices for Purchased Loans and Purchased Loan Participations

On November 6, 2015, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation issued an Advisory (the “Updated Advisory”) (FIL-49-2-15) to update information contained in the FDIC Advisory on Effective Credit Risk Management Practices for Purchased Loan Participations (FIL-38-2012).  The Updated Advisory addresses purchased loans and loan participations and reminds FDIC-supervised institutions of the importance of underwriting and administering these purchased credits as if the loans were originated by the purchasing institution. The Updated Advisory also reminds institutions that third-party arrangements to facilitate loan and loan participation purchases should be managed by an effective third-party risk management process.  This Financial Institution Letter applies to all FDIC-supervised banks and savings associations, including community institutions.

Of particular relevance to the marketplace lending industry, is that the Updated Advisory is applicable to banks that rely on to perform risk management functions when purchasing: loans and loan participations, including out-of-territory loans; loans to industries or loan types unfamiliar to the bank; leveraged loans; unsecured loans; or loans underwritten using proprietary models.  Letter.

SEC Adopts Rules to Permit Crowdfunding: Proposes Amendments to Existing Rules to Facilitate Intrastate and Regional Securities Offerings

On October 30, the Securities and Exchange Commission adopted final rules under Title III of the JOBS Act (“Regulation Crowdfunding”) to permit a company to offer and sell securities through crowdfunding transactions that raise a maximum aggregate amount of $ 1 million in a 12-month period.  Title III of the JOBS Act, enacted on April 5, 2012, created a federal exemption from the requirement that securities offerings be registered under the securities laws.  In the words of the Commission:   “Crowdfunding is an evolving method of raising capital that has been used to raise funds through the Internet for a variety of projects.”

Specifically, Regulation Crowdfunding permits individuals to invest in securities-based crowdfunding transactions subject to certain investment limits.  In addition to limiting the amount of money an issuer can raise using the crowdfunding exemption, the rules impose disclosure requirements on issuers for certain information about their business and securities offerings, and create a regulatory framework for the broker-dealers and funding portals that facilitate the crowdfunding transactions.

The Commission also proposed amendments to existing Rule 147 under the Securities Act of 1933 to modernize the rule for intrastate offerings to further facilitate capital formation, including through intrastate crowdfunding provisions.  The proposal also would amend Securities Act Rule 504 to increase the aggregate amount of money that may be offered and sold pursuant to the rule from $1 million to $5 million and apply bad actor disqualifications to Rule 504 offerings to provide additional investor protection.

Regulation Crowdfunding and its related forms will be effective 180 days after they are published in the Federal Register. The forms enabling funding portals to register with the Commission will be effective Jan. 29, 2016.

The SEC is seeking public comment on the proposed rule amendments for a 60-day period following their publication in the Federal Register.

A copy of Regulation Crowdfunding and Adopting Release (33-9974) can be found here.