SEC Proposes a “Best Interest” Standard for Broker-Dealers

On April 18, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission proposed a set of rules and interpretations regarding the standard of conduct that broker-dealers owe to their investing customers, and reaffirming and clarifying the standard of conduct owed to customers by investment advisers.

The SEC’s proposal is the newest development in an ongoing effort to clearly define and determine the standards to which financial professionals are held. In 2010, the Dodd-Frank Act delegated authority to the SEC to propose a uniform fiduciary standard across all retail investment professionals. Rather than wait for the SEC to do so, however, in 2016 the Department of Labor (DOL) promulgated its own fiduciary rule. As previously discussed here, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently struck down the DOL rule.

According to SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, the Commission’s recent proposal is the outcome of extensive consideration and is intended to enhance investor protection by applying consistent standards of conduct to investment advisers and broker-dealers. The SEC’s proposal, spanning over 1,000 pages, has three main components:

Regulation Best Interest: First and foremost, the SEC proposal includes a new standard of conduct for broker-dealers that would be enacted through a set of regulations entitled, “Regulation Best Interest.” Although the term “Best Interest” is not defined in the proposal, the regulations would require a broker-dealer to act in the best interest of its retail customers when making investment recommendations, and prohibit it from putting its own financial interests first. To discharge this duty, a broker-dealer must comply with three specific obligations:

(1) Disclosure obligation – a broker-dealer must disclose key facts about its relationship with its customers, including material conflicts of interest.

(2) Care obligation – a broker-dealer must exercise reasonable diligence, care, skill and prudence to understand any recommended product, and have a reasonable basis to believe that a product and series of transactions are in the customer’s best interest.

(3) Conflict of interest obligation – a broker-dealer must establish, maintain and enforce policies and procedures to identify, disclose and mitigate or eliminate conflicts of interest.

Guidance for Investment Advisers: In addition to enhancing the standard of conduct for broker-dealers, the SEC reaffirmed its view that investment advisers owe their clients fiduciary duties. The SEC’s proposal seeks to gather, summarize and reaffirm existing guidance in one place.

Form CRS: The Commission also proposed a new disclosure document, Form CRS (Client or Customer Relationship Summary), which would provide retail investors with information regarding the nature of their relationship with their investment professional. The proposed Form CRS would be a standardized, short-form disclosure highlighting services offered, legal standards of conduct, possible customer fees, and certain conflicts of interest. In addition, the proposal limits a broker-dealer’s ability to identify itself as an “adviser” unless it is registered with the SEC as an investment adviser, so as not to cause confusion among investors.

Takeaways

In the wake of the controversy launched by Dodd-Frank and the DOL rule, and on the heels of the Fifth Circuit’s rejection of that rule, the SEC has taken a bold step in the direction of increased regulation of broker-dealers. The SEC’s proposal will undoubtedly impact the way broker-dealers make recommendations to their customers, although to what extent may depend on whether broker-dealers were already adapting to the DOL rule before it was overturned by the Fifth Circuit. The SEC will seek public comment on its proposal over the next 90 days, giving interested parties time to dig into the extensive materials. Indeed, several Commissioners acknowledged that questions about the applicable standards remain, suggesting that changes to the proposal will be forthcoming.

D.C. Circuit Holds PCAOB Improperly Denied Target of Investigation Access to Expert Assistance

A D.C. Circuit panel unanimously ruled that the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (“PCAOB”) acted unlawfully by denying former Ernst & Young partner Marc Laccetti his right to bring an accounting expert to an investigative interview. The March 23rd decision in Laccetti v. Securities & Exchange Commission potentially throws the validity of many pending PCAOB investigations into question and provides important procedural rights to the subjects of those investigations.

Laccetti was investigated and sanctioned by the PCAOB in connection with Ernst & Young’s audit of Taro Pharmaceutical Industries, Ltd.’s 2004 financial statements. The PCAOB’s rules provide witnesses interviewed by the PCAOB the right to be represented by counsel. However, the PCAOB had interpreted that rule as limited to lawyers only. Accordingly, when Laccetti was interviewed during the PCAOB’s investigation, the PCAOB permitted Lacetti to be accompanied by an in-house Ernst & Young lawyer but refused his request that an Ernst & Young accounting expert also be present. The PCAOB advised Laccetti that he and his counsel could consult with an expert before or after testifying, but that the presence of any technical expert was “not appropriate” at the interview. Following that interview, in a decision subsequently affirmed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), the PCAOB fined Laccetti $85,000 and suspended him from the accounting profession for two years. READ MORE

Fifth Circuit Vacates Department of Labor’s Fiduciary Rule

Last week, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit struck down the U.S. Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) “Fiduciary Rule,” a controversial measure that redefined exemptions to Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) provisions concerning fiduciaries. The DOL’s rule, promulgated in April 2016, consisted of a package of seven interrelated rules, and it sparked controversy by redefining how brokers and other financial professionals serve consumers. First, the Fiduciary Rule reinterpreted the ERISA term “investment advice fiduciary,” heightening the fiduciary duty for these financial professionals to a “best interest” standard for their clients with ERISA plans and individual retirement accounts (“IRAs”). This “best interest” standard marked a significant departure from the prior standard for brokers, which required them to recommend investments that were merely “suitable” for their clients. Second, the Fiduciary Rule created a “Best Interest Contract Exemption,” which allowed financial professionals to avoid prohibited transactions penalties as long as they contractually affirmed their fiduciary status. READ MORE

Looking Out for Main Street: SEC Focuses on Retail, Cybersecurity and Cryptocurrency

The Commissioners and senior officials of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC” or “Commission”) addressed the public on February 23-24 at the annual “SEC Speaks” conference in Washington, D.C. Throughout the conference, many speakers referred to the new energy that SEC Chairman Jay Clayton had brought to the Commission since his confirmation in May 2017. The speakers also seemed relieved that the SEC was finally operating with a full set of commissioners since the recent additions of Robert J. Jackson, Jr. and Hester M. Peirce. Clayton’s address introduced the main refrain of the conference: that the SEC under his leadership is focused on the long-term interests of Main Street investors. Other oft-repeated themes included the challenges presented by cybersecurity and the fast-paced developments in cryptocurrency and blockchain. To address these shifts in focus, the Enforcement division plans to add more resources to the retail, cybersecurity and cryptocurrency spaces.

Following are the key litigation and enforcement takeaways.

Main Street Investors

Commissioner Kara Stein picked up on Clayton’s Main Street investors focus when she asked whether increasingly complex and esoteric investments, such as product strategies and structures that utilize derivatives, were appropriate for retail investors. She explained that it was not a question whether the financial industry could develop and sell these products, but whether it should. She said it was not clear that financial professionals fully understood the products they were selling, and that even if brokers and advisers made disclosures regarding the potential outcomes and risks to investors, complete disclosures might not even be possible due to the products’ complexity. Both SEC and FINRA Enforcement have brought actions related to the sales practices of inverse and leveraged ETFs, as well as the purchase and sale of complex products. Stein opined that gatekeepers needed to remember the real people behind every account number when they were advising clients on how to handle these types of products.

Steven Peikin, Co-Director of the Division of Enforcement, described the SEC’s Share Class Selection Disclosure Initiative as one way in which Enforcement was trying to help Main Street investors. The Initiative was created to address the problem of investment advisers putting their clients into higher fee share classes when no fee or lower fee classes were available. The SEC is incentivizing advisers to self-report this issue by promising not to impose any penalties, and only requiring them to disgorge their profits to investors. Peikin encouraged investment advisers to take advantage of this opportunity, indicating that if the Commission learned that an adviser had engaged in this conduct and did not self-report, it would be subject to significant penalties. The Chief of the SEC’s Broker-Dealer Task Force shared that AML programs and SAR-filing obligations are also a priority for the Enforcement division and OCIE exams. READ MORE

FINRA Enforcement Head Explains Why Enforcement “Isn’t Rocket Science”

In a speech at the SIFMA AML Conference last week, FINRA Head of Enforcement Susan Schroeder openly explained the “straightforward framework” that Enforcement uses when making decisions about enforcement actions. The context for Schroeder’s speech was FINRA’s merger of two separate enforcement departments, resulting from FINRA head Robert Cook’s “listening tour” and FINRA’s recent self-evaluation, but Schroeder’s explanation appeared to be more of a response to broader industry complaints about FINRA Enforcement’s lack of consistency and transparency in its charging and sanctions decisions.

If that was Schroeder’s mission, she was successful. She identified the goals of enforcement actions, and justified FINRA’s use of its enforcement tool based upon harms to investors and perceived market risks. Overarching Schroeder’s speech was the principle that firms should know “what to expect from their regulator” so they know “how to shape their behavior in order to comply with the rules.” In this spirit of transparency, Schroeder identified the various principles or factors that FINRA Enforcement considers when evaluating enforcement actions and sanctions. Those principles should provide a vocabulary for firms and their counsel to assess and question FINRA’s enforcement activities.

Here are the principles in Schroeder’s own words:

Is this enforcement action appropriate? According to Schroeder, enforcement actions should be brought to “fix something that is broken or to prevent future misconduct, either by the same respondent or by another individual or firm.” Enforcement is not the only means FINRA has to fix something, and it is not always the “right tool” to use. To determine whether enforcement action is the appropriate regulatory response, FINRA will ask: READ MORE

SEC’s OCIE Announces 2018 Areas of Focus

On February 7, 2018 the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) announced its 2018 National Exam Priorities. The priorities, formulated with input from the Chairman, Commissioners, SEC Staff and fellow regulators, are mostly unchanged from years past (New Year, Similar Priorities: SEC Announces 2017 OCIE Areas of Focus, Orrick.com). However, the publication itself is presented in a more formal wrapper that begins with a lengthy message from OCIE’s leadership team describing the Office’s role and guiding principles, including that they are risk-based, data-driven and transparent, and that they embrace innovation and new technology.

2018 Priorities

OCIE’s principal 2018 priority, not surprisingly, appears to be the protection of retail investors, including seniors and those saving for retirement. OCIE specifically stated that it will focus on the disclosure of investment fees and other compensation received by financial professionals; electronic investment advisors – sometimes known as “robo-advisors”; wrap fee programs in which investors are charged a single fee for bundled services; and never-before-examined investment advisors. As to the latter, OCIE indicated that in the most recent fiscal year, it examined approximately 15 percent of all investment advisors, up from 8 percent five years before. It remains to be seen whether that increasing trend will continue.

Noting that the cryptocurrency and initial coin offering (ICO) markets “present a number of risks for retail investors,” OCIE included them as a priority for the first time. Examiners will focus on whether financial professionals maintain adequate controls and safeguards over the assets, as well the disclosure of investment risks.

Other 2018 priorities are compliance and risks in critical market infrastructure; cybersecurity protections, which OCIE states are critical to the operation of our markets; and anti-money laundering programs. In addition, OCIE has prioritized its examinations of FINRA and MSRB to ensure that those entities continue to operate effectively as self-regulatory organizations subject to the SEC’s oversight. READ MORE

No Direct Cause, No Restitution

A recent federal appellate decision shows there are limits to the ability of a regulator to claim monetary sanctions for statutory violations. Last week the 11th Circuit held that investors whose losses were solely associated with registration violations by their fraudster traders were not entitled to a restitution award – because such losses had not been proximately caused by the registration violations.

In an enforcement action brought by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the 11th Circuit affirmed a Florida district court’s findings that two companies and their CEO committed fraud by falsely representing to some investors that they had purchased physical metals on their behalf (when they had actually purchased futures), and violated the registration requirements of the Commodities Exchange Act (CEA) by trading in futures without registering as futures commission merchants. The district court had awarded restitution for losses arising from both of these violations. While the 11th Circuit upheld the restitution award of approximately $1.5 million based on the fraudulent misrepresentation, it vacated the award of approximately $560,000 based on the failure to register, holding that this violation did not proximately cause the investors’ losses. READ MORE

Financial Derivatives Intermediaries Who Trade Virtual Currencies Face the NFA’s Enhanced Reporting Requirements

Derivatives regulators continue to take actions that pull virtual currencies – also known as digital currency or cryptocurrency, the best known of which is bitcoin – into their regulatory schemes. In December, the National Futures Association (NFA), the futures industry’s self-regulatory organization, issued three Notices to Members that expand the notification and reporting requirements for futures commission merchants (FCMs), introducing brokers (IBs), commodity pool operators (CPOs) and commodity trading advisers (CTAs) trading in virtual currencies and related derivatives. In issuing these directives, the NFA cited the fact that a number of CFTC-regulated trading venues were in the process of offering derivatives on virtual currency products and stated that it was expanding the notification and reporting requirements due to the volatility in the underlying virtual currency markets.

Specifically, the NFA’s notices:

  • direct each FCM for which NFA is the DSRO to immediately notify NFA if the firm decides to offer its customers or non-customers the ability to trade any virtual currency futures product. NFA also requires each FCM to report on its daily segregation reports the number of customers who traded a virtual currency futures contract (including closed out positions), the number of non-customers who traded a virtual currency futures contract (including closed out positions), and the gross open virtual currency futures positions (i.e. total open long positions, total open short positions);
  • direct each IB to immediately notify NFA if it solicits or accepts any orders in virtual currency derivatives. NFA also requires each IB that solicits or accepts orders for one or more virtual currency derivatives to notify NFA by amending its annual questionnaire, by answering this question: Does your firm solicit or accept orders involving a virtual currency derivative (e.g. a bitcoin future, option or swap)? In addition, starting with the current quarter, IBs that solicit or accept orders for virtual currency derivatives will also be required to report the number of accounts they introduced that executed one or more trades in a virtual currency derivative during each calendar quarter;
  • direct each CPO and CTA to immediately notify NFA if it executes a transaction involving any virtual currency (such as bitcoin) or virtual currency derivative (such as a bitcoin future, options or swap) on behalf of a pool or managed account. NFA’s Notice requires that CPOs and CTAs provide such notice by amending their annual questionnaire, to which NFA added questions that inquired, for CPOs, whether the firm operates a pool that has executed a transaction involving a virtual currency or virtual currency derivative and, for CTAs, whether the firm offers a trading program for managed account clients that have transacted in a virtual currency, or managed an account that transacted in a virtual currency derivative. In addition, beginning with the current quarter, the NFA is requiring CPOs and CTAs to report on a quarterly basis the number of their pools or managed accounts that executed at least one transaction involving a virtual currency or virtual currency derivative.

READ MORE

New Delaware Supreme Court Ruling on Excess Director Compensation: A Return to Formula Plans?

On December 13, 2017, in Re Investors Bancorp, Inc. Stockholder Litigation (“Bancorp”), the Supreme Court of Delaware held that when stockholders have approved an equity incentive plan that gives the directors discretion to grant themselves awards within a shareholder approved plan limit, and a stockholder properly alleges that the directors improperly exercised that discretion, then the stockholder ratification defense is unavailable to dismiss the suit, and the directors will be required to prove the entire fairness of the awards to the corporation.  The Bancorp case involved a generous shareholder approved plan limit and upholds the adage that bad facts make bad law.

In Bancorp, the company’s stockholders approved an equity plan for employees and directors that gave Bancorp Inc.’s board of directors discretion to allocate up to 30% of all option or restricted stock shares available under the plan as awards to themselves. After stockholders approved the equity plan, the board approved grants to themselves of just under half of the stock options available to the directors and nearly thirty percent of the shares available to the directors as restricted stock awards.

Each director’s grant far surpassed the median pay at similarly sized companies and the median pay at much larger companies. The awards were also over twenty-three times more than the median award granted to other companies’ non-employee directors after mutual-to-stock conversions. The court determined that the plaintiffs alleged facts that the directors breached their fiduciary duties by awarding excessive equity awards to themselves under the equity plan and that a stockholder ratification defense was not available for a motion to dismiss. READ MORE

The Best Defense Is a Good Offense: FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy Cements Importance of Compliance Programs

The Department’s revised FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy—which will be incorporated into the United States Attorneys’ Manual—builds on and makes permanent the Department’s 2016 FCPA Pilot Program. While much of the commentary on the revised policy has focused on the potential benefits of voluntary self-disclosure and cooperation after an issue arises, the policy also provides updated guidance to all companies on the hallmarks of an effective compliance and ethics program – an important and practical takeaway for compliance officers, in-house counsel, boards and executives.

DOJ’s Revised FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy Formalizes the 2016 FCPA Pilot Program

The Pilot Program set out to evaluate if the Department could motivate companies to voluntarily self-disclose FCPA-related misconduct, fully cooperate with the Fraud Section, and, where appropriate, remediate flaws in controls and compliance programs. One of the key components of the Pilot Program was the potential for substantial mitigation—including declination of prosecution in certain cases and, where warranted, a credit of up to a 50 percent reduction below the low end of the applicable U.S. Sentencing Guidelines’ fine range for companies that voluntarily self-disclose misconduct and cooperate and remediate to the Department’s satisfaction. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein expressed his satisfaction with the program’s results, which he heralded as a step forward in fighting corporate crime. He also noted that during the pilot period, the DOJ saw 30 voluntary disclosures to the FCPA Unit—compared to 18 during the previous 18‑month period.

In announcing the new formalized Policy, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein emphasized that the Department will continue to strongly encourage voluntary disclosures and set forth what he considers to be the revised Policy’s three key features: READ MORE