The SEC recently announced fraud charges, and sought an emergency asset freeze against a pastor who was accused of exploiting church members, retirees, and laid-off autoworkers. Apparently, he mislead these people by purportedly selling them on a successful real estate business.

The pastor cloaked his fraud in faith-based rhetoric, including references to the bible and suggestions that he was praying for investors. As a result, his defrauded investors thought that he was more trustworthy than a banker, investing nearly $7 million in this scheme.

Money and calculator
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The message here is that fraud lurks everywhere and that affinity schemes are alive and well. Unfortunately, for those defrauded, they had access to public information that may have helped them avoid the fraud.

Neither the pastor nor his investment firm were registered with the SEC. A simple check on the SEC’s investor web side would have revealed no records for the pastor or his firm.

Undoubtedly, he would have still gotten some of those who checked, but look before you leap into an investment. Be wary of those who are focused on a particular group as a source of investing funds; it may be an affinity fraud.

 

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.

One of the outstanding issues relating to the Dodd-Frank Act was the SEC’s use of statutory power to regulate conduct that occurred prior to its enactment in July 2010.

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently decided that the SEC did not have the power to impose collateral bars on conduct pre-July 2010. Consequently, the SEC has now determined it will allow those respondents and/or defendants, who are subject to these collateral bars, to apply to have them vacated. See https://www.sec.gov/news/statement/commission-statement-regarding-bartko-v-sec.html. The SEC has determined that it will grant these requests after filing.

In sum, after years of uncertainty and actions predicated on a mistaken application of the Dodd-Frank Act, the SEC is rectifying this injustice, and those subject to this miscarriage of justice will now have some measure of recompense.

At Fox Rothschild, we are constantly advising clients regarding the peril of engaging in the securities industry without the proper license. In fact, we have developed materials to provide our clients with information about the process. See http://www.foxrothschild.com/content/uploads/2016/10/e-book-Horn-Badway-McCoy-Broker-Dealers-Registered-Investment-Advisers-and-Commodities-Futures-Registered-Entities-October-2016.pdf.

A recent case before the SEC has only confirmed this advice. The SEC barred a person from the securities industry, and required disgorgement in the amount of $400,000 because the person failed to register as a broker-dealer while selling private fund interests. The cited person communicated with investors, discussed the investment, handled funds, and received a commission when it sold notes issued by a third party fund, who then proceeded to go out of business. See https://www.sec.gov/litigation/admin/2017/34-80083.pdf.

In short, the SEC is not shying away from requiring broker-dealer registration, and people should think twice before proceeding with any securities activity.

Many people see the green of cannabis as a way to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. If you are going to invest in a legal (at a state level) cannabis business, you need to make sure that you know what you purchase.

Whistleblowers
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The SEC recently charged a company and its founder with promoting “record” revenue numbers to investors and touting itself as a leader in the cannabis industry, all the while it generated certain of its earnings from sham transactions through a secret corporate affiliate. The company and its principal agreed to settle the charges, with the principal agreeing to pay $12 million in disgorgement and penalties and accepting a bar from serving as an officer or director of a public company or participating in any penny stocks.

So what do these events tell us? First, there are potential big rewards through investing in this burgeoning industry. Second, there are people looking to take advantage of your desire for large profits.

Investing in these businesses is fine, but make sure your eyes are wide open. Ask question, perform due diligence, and ask more questions. You don’t want to see your investment go up in smoke.

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
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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.

There is an old saying: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”  It seems every few years (usually, the result of a political shift) we see the states become more involved in securities enforcement.  Our current time is now subject to this cyclical experience.

The SEC and the North American Securities Administrators Association (“NASAA”), the state securities regulators, have signed a memorandum of understanding (“MOU”) to share information so as to assist each other in monitoring compliance over, among other things, the new crowdfunding rules and fraud.  http://nasaa.cdn.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/MOU.pdf.  The SEC and NASAA’s individual members — the states– will use this information in investigations, examinations, and any proceeding or civil action.  The SEC and NASAA believe this new MOU continues their long-standing partnership over enforcement and compliance issues.

However, we should not be fooled by this MOU.  This is not a simple sharing of information, but, essentially, it will be a license for state securities regulators to obtain more information, resulting in more  aggressive and common state prosecutions.  Ironically, the federal securities laws were an attempt to unify and facilitate the capital raising process by having one set of rules and laws.  However, given the political vagaries of our system, these arrangements could and, most likely, will result in the balkanization of our securities markets and practices.

 

 

The SEC recently issued regulatory guidance for robo-advisors. This guidance focuses on what robo-advisors must do to meet their disclosure obligations.

Among other things, the SEC has recommended robust disclosures in the following areas:

  1. The use of algorithms, overrides, third parties, fees and client information.
  2. The limits on use of the robo-advisor model to ensure adequate disclosures.
  3. Adequate and clear investment questionnaires to ensure suitability of investments.

Robo-advisors are a growing trend. Thus, it is only logical that the SEC would provide such guidance. Now that the SEC has spoken, it is on you to ensure that you take the message to heart; or learn the hard way.