Category Archives: investment advisers act

Supreme Court Holds 5-Year Statute of Limitations Applies to SEC Disgorgement

On June 5, 2017, by unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that disgorgement – a remedy that generated $3 billion in 2015 – is a “penalty” thereby subjecting it to the 5-year statute of limitations that applies to any “action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise.” Kokesh v. SEC, No. 16-529, slip op. at 1 (June 5, 2017) (quoting 28 U.S.C. §2462). The Court’s decision relieved Kokesh of a $30 million disgorgement order entered in the lower court.

The SEC had argued that disgorgement is a different animal – it simply places the defendant in the same position as he or she would have been but for the offense. The Court strongly disagreed noting the deterrent qualities of disgorgement, which is a hallmark of a penalty, “[s]anctions imposed for the purpose of deterring infractions of public laws are inherently punitive.” Id. at 8. The Court observed that the victims (if there are any) of a securities law violation need not participate in the enforcement action and may not even support it. In addition, money that is disgorged to the Treasury often stays there; i.e., there is no absolute requirement that the money that is recovered be distributed to the purportedly aggrieved investors.

Going forward, the SEC is faced with having to speed up its investigations and charging decisions.  That can be a challenge, especially in complex cases where the Enforcement Division would prefer to thoroughly build out a case in advance.

Here is the decision:

https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/16-529_i426.pdf

 

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Senate Bill Would Increase SEC Penalties To $1 Million And Up

Under a Senate bill, the SEC would be able to administratively impose a maximum $1 million per violation penalty on individuals and a maximum $10 million per violation penalty on financial firms for the most serious (e.g., fraud, deceit) violations.  The current levels are substantially lower — at $181,071 for individuals and $905,353 for firms — though the SEC is empowered to go to federal court to get the equivalent of the ill-gotten gains in a given case.

Under the proposed measure, the SEC would not have to go to federal court to get large remedies, though the total remedy per violation would be capped – the maximum penalty for an individual could not exceed, for each violation, the greater of (i) $1 million, (ii) three times the gross pecuniary gain, or (iii) the losses incurred by victims as a result of the violation.  The maximum amount that could be obtained from entities could not exceed, for each violation, the greater of (i) $10 million, (ii) three times the gross pecuniary gain, or (iii) the losses incurred by victims as a result of the violation.

In addition, individuals and firms that were found civilly or criminally liable for securities law violations in the 5 years leading up to a new violation could face up to three times the new caps, e.g., penalties of $3 million/$30 million.

It is important to note that SEC administrative or “in-house” courts have faced substantial constitutional challenges recently and are often considered subject to agency bias.  At a minimum, it is clear that the SEC courts lack some of the procedural safeguards provided in federal court.  If the Senate bill becomes law, the SEC will have significantly increased leverage in negotiations with respondents not only because of the amounts involved but because the Enforcement staff would not need to go to federal court to get such amounts.

 

 

Trump Administration May Suspend DOL Fiduciary Rule

The DOL Fiduciary Rule, effective April 2017, is among the items that the new administration may put on hold upon taking office in January 2017. Once effective, the Rule makes all financial advisers providing rollover and other advice to retirement investors “fiduciaries” required to put retail customers’ interests before the advisers’ interests in getting compensated. Broker-dealers, investment advisers, and mutual fund complexes have already sunk millions of dollars into upgrading and changing their compliance and business models in anticipation of the Rule.

At the center of the Rule is the so-called “Best Interest Contract” Exemption or BIC. It permits fiduciaries to enter into prohibited transactions (e.g., accepting commissions in connection with providing rollover and other investment advice) if the financial firm and professional enter into a BIC with the customer, provide certain disclosures, adhere to Impartial Standards of Conduct, charge only “reasonable” compensation, and acknowledge fiduciary status.

Due to its complexity and related compliance costs, some firms have announced that they will not be opening new commissions-based retirement accounts. Others have said that they will continue to open such accounts but will make continuous efforts to review accounts for the appropriateness of commission-based versus fee-based compensation based on a number of factors (e.g., the amount of trading in the account).

The new administration may ask the SEC to step in and issue a unifying rule covering investment advice to retirement accounts. Currently, the SEC’s regime for registered investment advisers under the 1940 Investment Advisers Act provides that investment advisers (who typically charge a percentage of assets under management) are fiduciaries. Such advisers may enter into conflicted transactions if adequate disclosures are made to the customers and if not otherwise prohibited by law.

By contrast, SEC Rules do not impose a fiduciary duty on brokers who provide rollover and other advice to retirement accounts in return for a commission. Brokers charging a commission for transactions are not considered fiduciaries and are instead held to the lesser “suitability” standard.

Regardless of whether the DOL Rule survives, the kinds of changes and industry introspection that have occurred are probably not a complete waste of time and money. FINRA and the SEC are already monitoring investment advisers and broker-dealers for conflicted transactions and policies with respect to compensation. For example, FINRA tends to take a very broad view of whether an investment recommendation, including a rollover recommendation, is “suitable”. Further, the plaintiffs’ litigation bar has long been asserting claims for breach of fiduciary duty in FINRA arbitrations even in the technical absence of such a duty.

Bottom line: regardless of the durability of the DOL Rule, advisers and their firms should continue evaluating their business practices to conform to a “best interests” standard.

For further discussion, here is a recent article from The Hill:

http://thehill.com/policy/finance/305287-financial-adviser-rule-could-be-in-trumps-crosshairs

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Nothing Succeeds Like Success” Unless “Success” Is Based On Inflated AUM

Having substantial assets under management (AUM) can really boost an investment adviser’s ability to attract new money. Accordingly, there is tremendous pressure to report strong numbers to the investing public, including through news sources (e.g., Barron’s top advisors list). As one adviser has found out, the price of inflating such AUM numbers can be millions in dollar in fines and a permanent bar from the industry.

Specifically, an SEC Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) has found that Dawn Bennett and her firm falsely claimed between $1 – $2 billion in AUM when the most she ever had was $400 million. Ms. Bennett made such claims on a radio show she hosts and to Barron’s magazine in order to secure “top Barron’s advisor” recognitions for three years. In addition, Ms. Bennett provided performance information based upon “model portfolios” while representing that such returns were actual customer returns. Ms. Bennett and her firm also face FINRA customer arbitrations relating to the above issues as well as alleged account churning.

In its decision, the ALJ fined Ms. Bennett $600,000 and her firm $2.9 million. The ALJ also ordered $556,000 in disgorgement and imposed a permanent industry bar finding that Ms. Bennett “is not fit to remain in the industry in any capacity.”

Bottom line — while the temptation to inflate performance is very strong, especially in this competitive market, advisors who make false statements do so at their own peril.

Here is a link to the ALJ opinion — https://www.sec.gov/alj/aljdec/2016/id1033jeg.pdf

SEC to Increase Focus on Advisor Fee Disclosures

The SEC’s investor advocate, Rick Fleming, has told Congress that one of the SEC’s focuses in the coming budgetary year (starting October 2016) will be the quality of advisor and broker dealer fee disclosures. The SEC is concerned that such disclosures (referencing things like advisory, trailer, administrative, “regulatory,” and custodial fees) are confusing to retail investors who don’t know industry parlance. Broker dealers are likely to be paying extra attention to the quality of their disclosures, not only because of this initiative but because the “best interests” standard under the DOL’s fiduciary rule will take effect in April 2017.  For further discussion, please see the link below.

http://www.investmentnews.com/article/20160701/FREE/160709997/sec-investor-advocate-fleming-targets-fees-charged-by-advisers

Auditing the Auditor: SEC Charges Firm With Inadequate Surprise Exams

On April 29, 2016, the SEC brought and settled charges that an accounting firm, Santos, Postal & Co. (“Santos”) and one of its principals, Joseph Scolaro (“Scolaro”), performed inadequate surprise exams of one of their investment advisor clients, SFX Financial (“SFX”), the president of which stole over $670k from SPX clients. Santos and Scolaro neither admitted nor denied the allegations in the SEC Order but consented to its entry and to disgorgement and penalties totaling over $55,000. Santos and SColaro agreed to be suspended from practicing before the SEC, which includes preparing financial reports and audits of public companies. Santos and Scolaro are permitted to apply for reinstatement after one and five years, respectively.

Because SFX was deemed to have custody of client assets under SEC Rule 206(4)-2 (the “Custody Rule”), SFX was required to hire an independent accountant (Santos) to perform surprise audits. The Custody Rule seeks to protect clients from asset misappropriation by investment advisors (e.g., Ponzi schemes). Accordingly, among other things, Santos was supposed to contact SFX’s clients to verify that they were aware of the contributions and withdrawals into and out of their accounts as reflected in SPX’s records. According to the SEC Order, Santos failed to actually contact clients about such transactions.

The SEC previously announced charges against SFX’s president Brian Ourand, who was later found by an administrative judge to have misappropriated funds from client accounts in violation of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. Ourand was ordered to pay disgorgement of $671,367 plus prejudgment interest and a $300,000 penalty, and was barred from the industry. SFX and its CCO separately agreed to settlements.

The SEC’s Order relating to Santos and Scolaro can be found here:

https://www.sec.gov/litigation/admin/2016/34-77745.pdf

It’s Here! DOL Issues Final Fiduciary Rule

The long awaited and much contested DOL Rule imposing a fiduciary duty on brokers providing advice to retirement accounts is now final. Though it provides a significant runway for implementation (at least a year), the Rule is already changing business models from small brokerages right up to the biggest wirehouses.

The Big Change

Under current rules, brokers, for the most part, operate under a standard that only requires advice to clients to be suitable, but not necessarily in the client’s bests interests. Investment advisers, by contrast, are always operating under a best interests fiduciary duty standard.

The DOL, with strong support from the White House, has moved to plug this gap by using its powers to issue a best interests standard for ALL advisers providing advice over retirement plans. (Such plans are defined as 401(k)s and other employer-sponsored plans, IRAs and other tax-deferred accounts, such as health savings accounts.) The Rule is supposed to provide increased protection for retail investors, who the DOL says are more likely to use brokers on commission than their more expensive counterpart – investment advisers paid as a percentage of assets under management.

While it was already the case that brokers providing repeated investment advice (e.g., asset allocation and rebalancing advice) for a fee had a fiduciary duty, the new DOL Rule broadens the definition to include even one-time investment consultations or recommendations. Rollover recommendations also would be considered fiduciary advice.

Potential Impact 

The potential impact on brokerage houses and their representatives is immense.  For one thing, investors who bring suit or arbitrations against their representatives will have a broader claim basis – representatives could be personally liable for losses caused by a breach of the best interests duty. 

Fiduciaries also are subject to potentially large excise taxes for engaging in prohibited transactions, unless they qualify for an exemption. ERISA currently prohibits fiduciaries from completing transactions that involve conflicts of interest unless they disclose the conflicts and operate under the oversight of an independent fiduciary.

Commissions/Annuities Still Ok

The Rule permits brokers to charge commissions provided they comply with the Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE) and other requirements. BICE permits a firm to charge commissions if the adviser and the client enter into a contract that specifies that all advice be in the best interests of the client, clearly discloses all conflicts, directs the customer to a webpage disclosing the compensation arrangements entered into by the adviser and firm, and makes customers aware of their right to complete information on the fees charged. In addition, broker-dealers will need to have procedures in place to encourage advisers to make recommendations in the client’s best interests.

Finally, there was industry concern that the sale of certain financial products considered to be riskier or more expensive than others (i.e., annuities, insurance, and mutual funds) on commission would have been barred under the Rule. However, the Rule permits such sales under the BICE.