Broker-Dealer Regulation

The SEC recently announced that it charged a former broker with knowingly or recklessly trading unsuitable investment products for five customers and taking $170,000 for one of those customers. These charges follow a prior SEC Investor Alert warning about excessive trading and churning as well as another one focused on the risks associated with exchange-traded notes.

The broker must not have read those two alerts. According to the SEC, the broker enriched himself by systematically disregarding client investor profiles. He repeatedly traded in risky, unsuitable and volatile products like leveraged exchange-traded funds and exchange-traded notes.

Money and calculator
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This case provides a number of lessons that firms should take away. Specifically, the SEC publishes Investor Alerts for a reason. The SEC is doing your work for you by flagging an issue for investors, as well as firms.

The second thing that this case hammers home is that firms must be more diligent in their broker supervision. As part of the firm’s ordinary surveillance, it should have flagged the unsuitable sale of highly volatile products to relatively unsophisticated clients.

A valuable thumb rule to follow is that as the sophistication of the products increases so should the sophistication of the customer buying those products. Although this rule of thumb will not completely stop all bad brokers, it will go a long way toward flagging those brokers before they cause harm to your clients and liability for your firm.

 

In Notice to Members 17-13, FINRA announced changes to its sanction guidelines. In other words, FINRA has listed its new top hits that it is pursuing. Two items bear particular attention.

First, FINRA has introduced a “new principal consideration that examines whether a respondent has exercised undue influence over a customer.” This guideline reinforces FINRA heightened focus on senior investors and those who may be otherwise vulnerable, such as those with diminished capacity.Core Values

Second, FINRA has introduced a “guideline related to borrowing and lending arrangements between representatives and customers.”   This guideline is particularly alarming in as much as it suggests that associated persons are actively engaging in such transactions even though firms uniformly ban them.

Notice to Members 17-13 is a strong guidepost for your supervision and compliance teams. The guidelines highlight growing problems in FINRA’s eyes. This is a cue that you should be ever vigilant for the same conduct. Otherwise, you may be the focus of the new sanction guideline that addresses systemic supervisory failures.

Contrary to what the title may suggest, I am not referring to students who are about to graduate from high school or college. Instead, this post is about that group of our society who all too often (based upon my years of defending broker-dealers) are claimants in FINRA arbitrations; senior investors.

As part of its ongoing effort to protect seniors, FINRA recently introduced Rule 2165 and amended Rule 4512. Both rules reflect a growing trend to provide greater protection to seniors.

Rule 2165 allows a member firm who reasonably believes that senior financial exploitation may be occurring to hold for up to 15 business days the disbursement of money or securities from a senior’s account. This rule gives a firm a safe harbor to take action when it reasonably suspects such exploitation. The firm can extend the hold an additional 10 days.

24752961 - grunge rubber stamp with text disclosure,vector illustration
24752961 – grunge rubber stamp with text disclosure,vector illustration

At the same time, FINRA amended Rule 4512 (providing for the firm to make a reasonable effort to obtain the name of a trusted contact person to place on a newly opened account) further defined the trusted person to be someone that the customer authorized the firm to contact and disclose information to in the event that there is possible financial exploitation. Importantly, the firm is only obligated to make a reasonable effort to obtain this information.

So what does all of this mean for the industry? For one, I do not think that FINRA has to paint you a picture to show you how serious it is taking financial exploitation of seniors. Considering the ongoing greying of the baby boomers, this focus will likely become even more heightened as the years pass.

The SEC recently published its latest investor bulletin. The SEC publishes these from time to time to bring awareness to the investing public on certain issues.

The current bulletin notes that the investor.gov web page provides a number of resources for the investing public, which include:

  1. The ability to check on an investment professional.
  2. Self-education about various products.
  3. To learn about online tools to make investing a simpler process.
  4. To learn how to avoid investment fraud.
  5. To stay current with SEC resources.
  6. To start researching public companies.
  7. To consider fees associated with investing.
  8. To gain an understanding of how the market works.
  9. To plan for retirement.
  10. To find SEC contact information.Core Values

For investment professionals, you should be asking yourself why the SEC has issued such guidance. I think that the easy answer requires you to look yourself in the mirror. Apparently, the SEC does not think you are doing a good enough job educating your clients.

The fact that the SEC thinks these are important areas of interest should be notice to you to make sure your own house is in order. Are you doing enough to educate your clients on most of these topics? If not, you may want to revisit your customer service before the SEC does it for you.

Last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission proposed Rule Amendments to Improve Municipal Securities Disclosures.  According to the SEC, these rule amendments are intended to “improve investor protection and enhance transparency in the municipal securities market”.  24752961 - grunge rubber stamp with text disclosure,vector illustrationRule 15c2-12 would be amended to add two new event notices:

– Incurrence of a financial obligation of the issuer or obligated person, if material, or agreement to covenants, events of default, remedies, priority rights, or other similar terms of a financial obligation of the issuer or obligated person, any of which affect security holders, if material; and

– Default, event of acceleration, termination event, modification of terms, or other similar events under the terms of the financial obligation of the issuer or obligated person, any of which reflect financial difficulties.

Currently, Rule 15c2-12 under the ’34 Act requires brokers, dealers, and municipal securities dealers that are acting as underwriters in primary offerings of municipal securities to reasonably determine, among other things, that the issuer or obligated person has agreed to provide to the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB) timely notice of certain events.  The proposed amendments are aimed to “provide timely access to important information regarding certain financial obligations incurred by issuers and obligated persons that could impact such entities’ liquidity and overall creditworthiness.”

There is a 60 day comment period, so firms that are affected by these new rules and wish to comment should consult with counsel as to the most effective way to provide feedback to the SEC.

According to a recent report of the Eversheds Sutherland firm, 2016 was a banner year for FINRA-assessed fines. FINRA collected a record $176 million in 2016. So what gives?

The increase in fines was attributable to two things. First, a significant number of fines in the $1 million plus range. Second, of those fines, a fair number were in excess of $5 million.

Money and calculator
Copyright: denikin / 123RF Stock Photo

Of particular note, the report shows that FINRA is seeking and obtaining very large fines even when there is limited or no measurable client harm. Historically, the lack of client harm was the siren call of a firm defending itself. In other words, no fine if there is no client harm.

So what does this all mean? For one, FINRA is pressing hard on enforcement even in the absence of client harm. It also reflects that FINRA is willing to go the distance so to speak to recoup the maximum fines possible.

I do not think that firms should anticipate FINRA taking 2017 off by any means. Now is as good a time as any to ensure that you have your compliance and supervision house in order. If not, break out the big checkbook. This one is going to hurt.

According to Bloomberg, Trump plans to order a review of Dodd-Frank, with an eye to significantly scale back the regulations.  Trump also plans to do away with the “fiduciary rule”, which requires retirement account advisers to perform in the best interests of their clients.

BoardThis confirms Trump’s goal to loosen regulations in the financial services industry.  While the Dodd-Frank review will not have an immediate impact, Trump’s order will stall the fiduciary rule from going into effect this April.  Trump is likely to face significant opposition to his efforts to dismantle Dodd-Frank, but will likely succeed in scaling back at least some of its regulations.

We will continue to monitor developments in this area and provide further updates as they unfold.

Like it has in the past, FINRA is sharply focused on examining brokers with a disciplinary past, including the identification and examination of such brokers being placed at the top of its 2017 exam priorities. Does this mean that firms cannot hire brokers with a past?

The short answer is no, but the longer is a bit more involved. A FINRA examination team is going to be conducting a quantitative analysis to review the broker’s test scores, number of prior employers and disciplinary history.Core Values

When FINRA finds such brokers, it will contact the employing firm’s compliance department to ensure that they know of this history. FINRA will also inquire about the type of supervision being used for the individuals. So what does this mean?

For one, you can hire individuals with a past, but you must do so with caution. That caution would necessarily entail placing such a broker on some form of heightened supervision for at least a period of time. At the end of that time, you can then consider removing or downgrading that supervision, assuming that the broker does not have any additional issues.

The key to remember is that FINRA’s goal is to protect the markets and the consumers who hire brokers who may have a past. Hiring brokers with a history and protecting consumers are not mutually exclusive. However, make sure you take special care in the decision to hire and then supervise such individuals because FINRA is watching.

In its never-ending effort to thwart senior investor fraud, FINRA recently proposed a new rule to the SEC. This proposal would require member firms to obtain the name of a trusted contact person for the customer’s account. The new rule would also allow firms to place temporary holds on the disbursement of funds or securities when there is a reasonable belief of exploitation, and notify the trusted contact of such a hold.

This proposed rule is consistent with the advice I have been giving clients over the years as senior issues became more and more prevalent. So what does the potential formalized rule mean for the business?Conference Room

It should come as a relief to firms to have this type of safeguard. It is a difficult situation to say the least when a firm is uneasy with what a family member may be doing with a senior client of the firm. This rule change will give you somewhat of an out.

The key for having this proposal work is for the right selection of the trusted contact person. Assuming such a person can be identified, I think that it is a good idea for that person to be designated as a fiduciary to the client on the account applications and the account coded so that this trusted person receives regular account statements regarding the senior account.

By doing this, you as a firm have a separate set of eyes on the account activity by someone who may know the family/personal dynamics better that you. Having that person designated as a fiduciary on the account documents also should lend you some protection in the event that the trusted person is not so trustworthy.

Either way, this new rule should be embraced a positive step to protect both firm and clients.

Consistent with the ongoing guidance/requirements from the SEC and FINRA, all firms must have and enforce data security policies and procedures.  Even the best policies and procedures may, however, not protect the firm in every instance.  So what do you do if there is a breach?19196909_s

One of the most important things to determine is what law governs.  In other words, if you have clients in all 50 states, it is possible that there are 50 different data breach laws that may be implicated.  Fox Rothschild LLP has a free app, Data Breach 411, which provides an overview of state data breach laws.

Knowing what you need to know is imperative when assessing a data breach.