Category Archives: SEC

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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“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

SEC: Ski Resort Operators Abused Immigrant Investor Program (EB-5)

The SEC recently announced it would pursue fraud charges and freeze the assets of the Jay Peak, Inc. Vermont ski resort. The SEC alleges that Ariel Quiros, of Miami, and William Stenger, of Vermont, conducted an illegal Ponzi-like scheme in connection with the funds raised for the resort. The total amount of money in question with these activities is $350 million, a large portion of which was raised through the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program, a program designed to incentivize foreign investment by promising a fast track to a green card.

According to the SEC, Quiros and Stenger diverted money from the ski resort project to other projects in an attempt to finance them. In addition, an alleged $50 million was spent on Quiros’s personal expenses, such as his personal income taxes and a luxury condominium. There appears to be little money left to fund the ski resort renovations.

Further, the actions of Quiros and Stenger could put many investors’ funds and immigration petitions in jeopardy. In order to get their green card the investors need to fund at least 10 new jobs, which may not happen here.

Given these charges, it is unclear whether investors who were considering committing capital to U.S. projects under EB-5 will still do so. It is also unclear as to whether this is a continuing problem or isolated incident.

Here’s the link to the SEC news release.  https://www.sec.gov/news/pressrelease/2016-69.html

 

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.

SEC Sues R.I. Agency and Wells Fargo Claiming They Misled Investors in Curt Schilling’s Video Game Company

The SEC has sued the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (RIEDC) and bond underwriter Wells Fargo alleging that RIEDC and Wells Fargo misled bond investors in connection with their investments in Curt Schilling’s failed video game company, 38 Studios. RIEDC had lured 38 Studios to Rhode Island with significant incentives, including the bond deal, only for 38 Studios to fail.

According to the SEC, investors, who poured $75 million into 38 Studios, were not told that it needed substantially more money to produce a video game. In addition, Wells Fargo allegedly failed to disclose that it had a side deal with 38 Studios, which presented a potential conflict of interest. When the company went belly up, the investors were left with the bag. Although neither Schilling nor his company is accused of any wrongdoing in the SEC action, they have been sued civilly.

Municipal finance deals face increased SEC scrutiny. This applies to issuers and underwriters. As SEC Director of Enforcement Andrew Ceresney has stated, “[m]unicipal issuers and underwriters must provide investors with a clear-eyed view of the risks involved in an economic development project being financed through bond offerings.”

SEC Laser-Focused on Conflicts Disclosures by Advisors and Broker-Dealers

In two recent cases, the SEC ordered JP Morgan Chase to pay over $270 million for what it deemed inadequate disclosures about certain conflicts of interest. When closely examined, these two cases illustrate just how detailed and granular the Commission can be when evaluating and prosecuting conflicts non-disclosure issues.

The Proprietary Funds Case

On December 18, 2015, the SEC announced that two J.P. Morgan wealth management subsidiaries had admitted wrongdoing (though no intentional violations) relating to the firm’s investment advisory business and agreed to pay $267 million.[1] Specifically, J.P. Morgan Securities LLC (JPMS) and JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. (JPMCB), preferred to invest clients in the firm’s proprietary mutual funds without properly disclosing this preference to clients. In addition, JPMS breached its fiduciary duty to certain wealthy clients when it did not inform them that they were being invested in a more expensive class of J.P. Morgan mutual funds shares than other available classes, or that JPMS preferred third-party-managed hedge funds that made certain “retrocession” payments to a J.P. Morgan affiliate.

The level of scrutiny applied in this case is striking. The SEC was initially focused on a possible charge that JPMS was improperly steering clients to house products so that it and its affiliates could make additional fees. JPMS’s Form ADVs, however, disclosed that JPMS “may have a conflict of interest in including affiliated [Mutual] Funds…because [JPMS] and/or its affiliates will receive additional compensation.” Further, in advance of opening an account, JPMS clients were specifically informed how much of their assets were to be allocated between proprietary mutual funds and third-party funds. Because of such disclosures, the SEC pivoted to the theory that there should have been an additional disclosure that JPMS “preferred” to invest client assets in proprietary products.

Holding the bank to this level of scrutiny seems severe; as noted, JPMS disclosed its incentive to put client money into house funds and these were discretionary accounts. Its “preference” for house funds seems axiomatic. All things considered, however, the penalty could have been far worse. Perhaps because of its cooperation and proactive remedial measures, J.P. Morgan was permitted to continue to provide these kinds of investment advisory services and was able to avoid the so-called automatic “bad actor” disqualification, which would have blocked it from the lucrative business of raising money for private companies, including hedge funds and startups. In addition, while the penalties and disgorgement are certainly significant, they amount to roughly one month of JPMS’s operating profits.

The Broker Compensation Case

In the second settlement, JPMS agreed to pay $4 million to resolve charges that it falsely stated on its private banking website and in marketing materials that individual advisors were compensated based on the performance of client investments, not on commission.[2] As it turned out, advisor compensation was not tied to investment performance; it consisted of a salary plus a bonus determined by a number of factors, none of which were performance based. Although it appears that no investor was harmed, the SEC believed that sanctions were warranted: “JPMS misled customers into believing their brokers had skin in the game and were being compensated based upon the success of customer portfolios.”[3]

Bottom Line

Based upon recent developments, it is clear that the SEC intends to look under every rock to see if all conflicts of interest, regardless of their severity, have been disclosed. Accordingly, firms should take a close look at their business practices and make sure their Form ADVs, websites, marketing materials and other disclosure documents accurately reflect those business practices.

[1] http://www.sec.gov/litigation/admin/2015/33-9992.pdf. The $267 million consisted of penalties, disgorgement and interest.

[2] https://www.sec.gov/litigation/admin/2016/33-10001.pdf. JPMS neither admitted nor denied any wrongdoing.

[3] https://www.sec.gov/news/pressrelease/2016-1.html.