Broker-Dealer Regulation

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.

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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.

 

 

In the hectic world of financial services, registered representatives and investment adviser representatives are always looking to increase their assets under management. At what cost? Are there situations where you would be better off just saying no to accepting that one additional client?

In my many years of defending representatives and advisers from customer complaints, the unqualified answer is yes; there are situations when you are better off just saying no. Any good risk avoidance program will provide for the proper screening/selection of prospective clients. I have addressed this very issue in a risk avoidance handbook.whistle

The key to this screening process is being able to sniff out the types of clients that you do not want to accept. For example, are you the fourth adviser that this client has come to in the last four years? Does the client profile not fit your personal/company investment philosophy? Does the client have unrealistic expectations on what she is expecting you to deliver?

If the answer to any of these questions is in the affirmative, there should be a huge stoplight in front of you flashing red. Any client who fits any of these descriptions is also the client most likely to bring a claim against an adviser.

So before you take on any client with a little money, be cautious. Are there red flags coming into the relationship? If so, just say no.

Every time that I start a FINRA arbitration, I find myself having the same internal debate; did we pick the right person to serve as the arbitration chair. Unfortunately, you will not know the answer to that question until after your arbitration begins, or, more likely, after the award is issued. FINRA has proposed a rule change to open up the filed for chair arbitrators.Conference Room

Under the proposed rule, attorneys can serve as public arbitrator chair with less experience than they were required to have in the past. Pursuant to this proposal, attorneys would only need to have served on at least one arbitration that went to an award and the complete chair training.

FINRA’s stated purpose for the rule is to “protect investors and the public interest” by increasing the pool of eligible chairpersons. This way, chairs would ideally no longer have to travel to serve as a chair.

In theory, this all makes sense. If there are more available chairs, then investors and the industry will be better served. But will this work?

In my view, much still falls on the parties to critically review the CVs of potential chairs and do your due diligence. Call other lawyers who have had arbitrations with that person. Do some research of the professional backgrounds of the potential chair. After all, just because a lawyer passes FINRA’s vetting processing does not mean that you would want that person as your chair.

Over the years that I have defended broker-dealers and investment advisors on customer-initiated claims, I have seen many things that would make any compliance officer cringe. One spine tingling (not in the good way) type of conduct is when an advisor engages his/her client when the client makes an informal complaint, instead of routing the complaint to compliance/supervision.whistle

So why is engagement against the rules of engagement? The most important reason is that engagement (aka arguing) may only make a simple customer service issues into a formal complaint. Rather than engage, my experience suggests that it is better to get the complaint (assuming it is in writing) to the proper person in compliance/supervision.

Dealing with an oral complaint is a little trickier because you are put on the spot. Nevertheless, the best course, as hard as it may be, is to try to defuse the situation by expressing that you understand the issue that is being raised, you will look into the issue and, finally, will respond further as soon as possible.

By defusing instead of engaging, you give all sides the opportunity to let cooler heads prevail. Many times a customer service issue can be easily addressed by taking a little time to consider the issues and formulate a response/course of action instead of blurting out the first thing that comes to mind; that is invariably the worst thing to say.

If you get a complaint; don’t jump to respond. Use your resources and formulate a well-reasoned response. Sometimes the client is wrong, but arguing with the client gets you nowhere except guaranteeing litigation.