All posts tagged investment adviser

Form ADV Part 2A Item 14.A requires advisers to disclose compensation from non-clients received for providing investment advisory services to clients, as well as resulting conflicts and how the adviser addresses such conflicts. Compensation can include situations where the investment adviser obtains some type of financial incentive for recommending certain investments to a client. These arrangements could potentially impair an investment adviser’s ability to provide impartial advice.

The Asset Management Unit of the SEC has undertaken an enforcement initiative to shed more light on undisclosed compensation arrangements between investment advisers and brokers. For instance, on September 2, 2014, the SEC instituted administrative proceedings against an investment adviser, The Robare Group, Ltd., and its founders.

According to the SEC’s order, Robare Group committed fraud when it failed to disclose to clients that it was party to a compensation agreement with a broker-dealer that entitled Robare Group to a percentage of every dollar its clients invested in certain mutual funds offered by the broker-dealer. The SEC charged that this arrangement was not adequately disclosed to investors. For a number of years, Robare Group completely failed to disclose the arrangement on its ADV. Even though Robare Group eventually revised its ADV to disclose the arrangement, they failed to properly identify the potential conflicts of interest created by the arrangement. Moreover, the SEC took issue with way Robare Group described the arrangement. Robare Group disclosed that it “may” receive compensation from the broker when it was already receiving payments.

This should be an important lesson to investment advisers. Given the SEC’s recent emphasis on the subject, investment advisers should carefully scrutinize the way it discloses economic benefits to clients to make sure the disclosure is accurate and complete.

If you need assistance or have questions about disclosure of economic benefits, the Investment Advisor Rep Syndicate has experience with various investment advisor compliance issues.

Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or blogs have become popular mechanisms for companies to communicate with the public. Social media allows companies to communicate with clients and prospective clients, market their services, educate the public about their products, and recruit employees. Social media converts a static medium, such as a website, where viewers passively receive content, into a medium where users actively create content. However, this type of interaction poses certain risks for investment advisers and this topic has been a hot button for securities regulators.

The SEC previously issued a National Examination Risk Alert on investment adviser use of social media. As a registered investment adviser, use of social media by a firm and/or related persons of a firm must comply with applicable provisions of the federal securities laws, including the laws and regulations under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”). The Risk Alert noted that the various laws and regulations most affected by social media are anti-fraud provision, including advertising, compliance provisions, and recordkeeping provisions. Advisers Act Rule 206(4)-7 requires firms to create and implement social media policies, and periodically review the policy’s effectiveness.

Anti-fraud provisions with respect to advertising are probably most affected by the use of social media. All social media use and communications must comply with Rule 206(4)-1. While advertising policies should already be included in a firm’s compliance manual, such policies may not be sufficient enough to address some of the concerns with advertising in the context of social media. Establishing a specific policy to address social media may be prudent.

The area of advertising that has caused the most confusion is the prohibition on the use of testimonials. The SEC has previously defined testimonial to include a statement of a client’s experience with, or endorsement of, any investment adviser. Firms and IARs must ensure that third-party comments on their social media sites do not constitute a testimonial. Furthermore, the SEC vaguely discussed whether the popular “like” function on many social media sites would be deemed a testimonial:

“[T]he staff believes that, depending on the facts and circumstances, the use of “social plug-ins” such as the “like” button could be a testimonial under the Advisers Act. Third-party use of the “like” feature on an investment adviser’s social media site could be deemed to be a testimonial if it is an explicit or implicit statement of a client’s or clients’ experience with an investment adviser or IAR. If, for example, the public is invited to “like” an IAR’s biography posted on a social media site, that election could be viewed as a type of testimonial prohibited by rule 206(4)-1(a)(1).”

The types of policies that firms must create concerning advertising and testimonials depend greatly on the function of a specific website. For instance, approving the firm or IARs use of certain websites may turn on whether that website allows for review and approval of third-party comments before such comments are posted on the site or whether the “like” function can be disabled. A firm’s monitoring capabilities and the latitude it wants to provide employees with respect to personal use of social media cannot be ignored either.

The SEC has outlined various factors that should be considered by an investment adviser when evaluating the effective of their compliance program. These factors are:

  • Usage and content guidelines and restrictions on IAR use of social media whether on behalf of the firm or for personal use;
  • Mechanisms for approval of social media use and content;
  • Monitoring of social media use by the firm and IARs and the frequency of monitoring;
  • Consideration of the function or risk exposure of specific social media sites;
  • Establishing training and requiring IAR certification;
  • Whether access to social media poses information security risks; and
  • Firm resources that can be dedicated to implementation of social media policies.

There are various considerations firms must take into account when establishing social media policies or evaluating the effectiveness of its existing policies. If your firm needs assistance, the Investment Adviser Rep Syndicate can assist with creation or review of such policies.

Being a fiduciary to clients means acting in the client’s best interest and putting their interest before yours and others. Sometimes knowing what is in the client’s best interest can get foggy so establishing certain guidelines can help protect you, your client, and your representatives.
In accordance with Rule 204A-1 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, RIA’s registered with the SEC are required to maintain a written code of ethics that outline the fiduciary duties and standards of conduct of the RIA and its representatives. State registered RIA’s may also be required to develop a code of ethics consistent with state regulations.
It’s important to keep in mind that in creating a code of ethics, the SEC and various state regulations set minimum requirements.  The following items are required in an RIA’s code of ethics under Rule 204A-1:
  • A standard of business conduct which reflects the fiduciary obligations to clients;
  • Provisions requiring all advisers’ and supervised persons’ compliance with applicable federal securities laws;
  • Protection of material non-public information of both the adviser’s securities recommendations, and client securities holdings and transactions;
  • Periodic reporting and reviewing of access persons’ personal securities transactions and holdings;
  • Adviser’s approval before an access person can invest in an IPO or private placement;
  • Duty to report violations of the code of ethics;
  •  A written acknowledgment that all supervised persons received the code of ethics; and
  • Recordkeeping provisions.
RIAs often set higher standards that work to reinforce the values or business practices of the company.  Rule 204A-1 does not require detailed measures to be included into every code because of the vast differences among advisory firms.  However, the SEC has offered guidance and recommendations on additional best practices that advisors should consider incorporating into its code of ethics.  The following list contains additional safeguards that are commonly implemented by other advisers:
  • Prior written approval before access persons can place a personal securities transaction (“pre-clearance”);
  • Maintenance of lists of issuers of securities that the advisory firm is analyzing or recommending for client transactions, and prohibitions on personal trading in securities of those issuers;
  • Maintenance of “restricted lists” of issuers about which the advisory firm has inside information, and prohibitions on any trading (personal or for clients) in securities of those issuers;
  • “Blackout periods” when client securities trades are being placed or recommendations are being made and access persons are not permitted to place personal securities transactions.
  • Reminders that investment opportunities must be offered first to clients before the adviser or its employees may act on them, and procedures to implement this principle.
  • Prohibitions or restrictions on “short-swing” trading and market timing.
  • Requirements to trade only through certain brokers, or limitations on the number of brokerage accounts permitted;
  • Requirements to provide the adviser with duplicate trade confirmations and account statements; and
  • Procedures for assigning new securities analyses to employees whose personal holdings do not present apparent conflicts of interest.
Another issue that may be important to include in your code of ethics is provisions concerning gifts and entertainment since giving or receiving gifts between a client and adviser may create the appearance of impropriety.  Gift and entertainment provisions usually contain reporting requirements and a prohibition of accepting gifts over de minimus values, such as $100.
While the above requirements and recommendations generally encompass an adviser’s fiduciary duty as it relates to conflicts of interests, advisers have additional fiduciary duties to clients that should be memorialized in a code of ethics as well.  For example, and what might appear obvious to some, advisers cannot defraud or engage in manipulative practices with a client in any way.  Advisers also have a duty to have a reasonable, independent basis for the investment advice provided to a client and to ensure that investment advice meets the client’s individual objectives, needs, and circumstances.  Advisers are also expected to stay abreast of market conditions.  Clients should be provided with all material information related to their investments or investment strategy and should be adequately informed of the risks associated with those investments.  The depth of the explanation of those risks or strategy depends on the client’s level education and experience.
The buck doesn’t stop with establishing a written code of ethics, however.  Implementation and enforcement of your code of ethics are just as crucial.  This also includes educating your representatives.  Rule 204A-1 does not mandate specific training procedures but ensuring that your representatives understand their obligations and their fiduciary duties is imperative.  Thus, periodic training with new and existing employees is not only in your best interest, but also the interest of your employees and clients.  Finally, you should annually review your code of ethics to determine if there are any areas of deficiency or whether changes need to be made.

The Syndicate can assist with your firm in the following ways: (1) drafting or establishing a code of ethics; (2) reviewing your current code to assure it complies with applicable state or federal laws; (3) implementing training programs; and (4) analyzing your firm’s implementation procedures to ensure compliance with the codes provisions.

The Securities and Exchange Commission regulates larger investment advisers under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (the “Act”). In a previous posting, we noted that perhaps the most significant provision of the Act is Section 206, which prohibits advisers from defrauding their clients and which has been interpreted by the Supreme Court as imposing on advisers a fiduciary duty to their clients. See Transamerica Mortgage Advisors, Inc. (TAMA) v. Lewis, 444 U.S. 11, 17 (1979) (“[T]he Act’s legislative history leaves no doubt that Congress intended to impose enforceable fiduciary obligations.”).

A number of obligations to clients flow from the fiduciary duty imposed by the Act, including the duty to act in the clients’ best interests, to fully disclose any material conflicts the adviser has with its clients, to seek best execution for client transactions, to provide only suitable investment advice, and to have a reasonable basis for client recommendations. SeeRegistration Under the Advisers Act of Certain Hedge Fund Advisers, SEC Release No. IA-2333Status of Investment Advisory Programs under the Investment Company Act of 1940, SEC Release No. IA-1623.

From these fiduciary obligations arises the duty to properly explain investments or an investment strategy to clients. Where a financial adviser provides advice about investments, “a fiduciary duty is breached when the client is encouraged to purchase an investment with a level of risk that is not appropriate for the client, or is not properly informed of the speculative nature of an investment.” Sakai v. Merrill Lynch Life Ins. Co., C-06-2581 MMC, 2008 WL 4193058 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 10, 2008) (citing Vucinich v. Paine, Webber, Jackson & Curtis, Inc., 803 F.2d 454, 460-61 (9th Cir.1986) (holding that broker had fiduciary duty to fully inform client of nature and risks of selling short, “in terms capable of being understood by someone of [client’s] education and experience.”)).

“A fiduciary must provide a proper disclosure and explanation of the investment activity, and should warn a client to exercise caution if an investment presents a greater risk than tolerable, given the client’s goals and circumstances.” Id.see also Gochnauer v. A.G. Edwards & Sons, Inc., 810 F.2d 1042, 1049-50 (11th Cir. 1987) (finding that where adviser assisted clients in establishing speculative option trading account, “[a] more studied opinion of the risks of option trading in light of the [clients’] then-existing investment objective was owed by [the adviser] to [his clients]. This he failed to do, in breach of his fiduciary duty.”); In re Old Naples Sec., Inc., 343 B.R. 310, 324 (Bankr. M.D. Fla. 2006) (stating that “failing to disclose and fully explain the risk of an investment to an investor can be a breach of the broker’s fiduciary duty.”); Rupert v. Clayton Brokerage Co. of St. Louis, Inc., 737 P.2d 1106, 1109 (Colo. 1987) (“A broker who becomes a fiduciary of his client must act with utmost good faith, reasonable care, and loyalty concerning the customer’s account, and owes a duty . . . to keep the customer informed as to each completed transaction, and to explain forthrightly the practical impact and potential risks of the course of dealing in which the broker is engaged.”).

A good example of the application of the fiduciary duty to explain comes from Faron v. Waddell & Reed, Inc., 930 S.W.2d 508 (Mo. App. E.D. 1996).  Although this case involves a broker-dealer as opposed to an investment adviser, Missouri imposes an unambiguous fiduciary standard on broker-dealers.  In Faron, the client approached a registered representative of the broker-dealer inquiring whether he could obtain money from a trust to purchase a new home. He asked whether it would “cost any money.” Id. at 510. After he consulted with the registered representative he felt assured he could get the money and the transaction would result in no cost to him. He did not specifically consider tax ramifications nor did he directly ask about tax consequences. He assumed Waddell & Reed was lending the money to him to use, at no cost. However, instead of a loan the transaction actually consisted of a redemption of mutual funds. Id. He obtained the $250,000 from Waddell & Reed, returning the same amount within the required 21 days. The client’s accountant discovered the tax liability in the amount of approximately $32,000 while preparing an income tax return. The accountant brought it to the attention of the client, who brought suit against Waddell & Reed.

The trial court granted summary judgment for Waddell & Reed, finding that Waddell & Reed had no duty to provide tax information because none was requested.  On appeal, the court noted:

In Missouri, stockbrokers owe customers a fiduciary duty. This fiduciary duty includes at least these obligations: to manage the account as dictated by the customer’s needs and objectives, to inform of risks in particular investments, to refrain from self-dealing, to follow order instructions, to disclose any self-interest, to stay abreast of market changes, and to explain strategies. Implicit in these obligations is a duty to disclose to the customer material facts.

Id. at 511 (emphasis added).

The court of appeals found that Waddell & Reed was privy to information and had expertise not yet proven on summary judgment to be equally or reasonably available to the client. In particular, the registered representative was aware of details of the transaction which consisted of a redemption of mutual funds, while the clients understood the transaction to amount to a short-term loan. Id. Waddell & Reed had a duty to manage the account according to the client’s expressed needs and objectives, to bridge finance by use of trust assets with “no loss whatsoever,” if possible, or to inform the client of the costs. Id. The client communicated his concerns about possible costs associated with the proposed transaction to the registered representative. The client was not told how the transaction would occur but was told it would not cost any money. The court of appeals concluded that what was meant by “costs” in the discussions between the parties remained uncertain. This implicated an unresolved question of fact, making summary judgment for Waddell & Reed inappropriate. Id.

In sum, the fiduciary duty standard requires that the client be properly informed of the nature of an investment or investment strategy. What is necessary in order to meet this standard will depend on the facts and circumstances of each case. A more in depth explanation of the risks of an investment or investment strategy will be necessary where the client’s related education and experience is minimal. Similarly, a more detailed explanation of strategy will become necessary where the strategy being implemented is more speculative in nature. Whether the fiduciary duty to explain has been met will usually be a question of fact to be decided by the judge, jury, or arbitrator after hearing all of the evidence.

Earlier this month, The Investment Adviser Rep Syndicate interviewed Ms. Patricia Struck, Chair-Person of the Investment Adviser Section for the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) and the Administrator of the Division of Securities of the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions.  The interview, relevant to state and SEC registered Investment Adviser Representatives and Registered Investment Advisers is posted below.

 

 

The Syndicate:    Let’s start with the basics – What is NASAA?

Patricia Struck:   The North American Securities Administrators Association is oldest international organization devoted to investor protection. It’s a voluntary association whose membership consists of 67 state, provincial, and territorial securities administrators in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Canada, and Mexico.

 

TS:                   For how long have you been the administrator of the Wisconsin Division of Securities?

PS:                   I’ve been the administrator since 1995.

 

TS:                   What advisers do the states regulate as opposed to the SEC?

PS:                   Generally, the states regulate “small” (with assets up to $25 million) and “mid-sized” (with assets up to $100 million) advisers.  Of the 28,366 advisers currently on IARD, more than 17,000 are state advisers. The rest of the universe – nearly 11,000 advisers – are SEC advisers.

 

TS:                   It is my understanding that NASAA has different “working groups”. Is there a working group  focused on the advisory as opposed to the broker industry?

PS:                   NASAA has “sections” divided into 5 subject matter areas; one of the five is the investment adviser section and another is the broker-dealer section. But while the sections are separate on paper, they work very closely together – especially the investment adviser and broker-dealer section.

 

TS:                   For how long have you been the head of NASAA’s Investment Adviser Section?

PS:                   I just became chair of the section in October of 2013. This is my third term as chair.

 

TS:                   Can you give me some examples of some of the positions held by the folks in this section?  What exactly does this section seek to accomplish and how does it go about meeting those goals?

PS:             The section includes nearly 50 volunteers from across the US and Canada with vast expertise in the whole range of regulatory issues relating to investment advisers. Some are the administrators in their jurisdictions. Some are registration chiefs or lead examiners in their states. Many are examiners who perform exams in advisers’ offices. All have specific subject matter expertise in issues

 

TS:             As you know, the Investment Adviser Rep. Syndicate focuses on the training, compliance, and business goals of the representative rather than the RIA. What observations did you make in 2013 that would be of interest to advisory representatives?

PS:             In 2013, as state securities regulators assumed the increased regulatory oversight of investment advisers managing under $100 million in assets, NASAA released an updated series of recommended best practices that investment advisers should consider to minimize the risk of regulatory violations. These recommendations were based on the sample data reported by examiners in 44 state and provincial securities agencies between January and June 2013. The 1,130 reported examinations uncovered 6,482 deficiencies in 20 compliance areas, compared to 3,543 deficiencies in 13 compliance areas identified in a similar 2011 examination of 825 investment advisers.

As regulators, we are concerned about investor confusion stemming from the blurred lines between traditional brokerage, investment advisory, and financial planning services; partially because of the expectations the brokerage industry has set, and partially because of the marketing approach the industry uses – the proverbial ‘financial adviser’ who is your partner in retirement every step of the way. As long as the broker-dealer industry continues to engage in advice driven marketing the confusion will persist. That’s one reason why state securities regulators have long advocated that broker-dealers must be held to the fiduciary duty standard of care currently applicable to investment advisers and be required to place retail investor interests ahead of their own.

 

TS:             What are the section’s goals for 2014?

PS:             The section always strives to look for ways to enhance uniformity in investment adviser firm and investment adviser representative registration practices. We also will continue our ongoing efforts to support states in conducting investment adviser exams. And of course, we will review our existing “best practices” for IA firms to consider while developing their own compliance programs and evaluate whether additional practice areas are necessary.

 

TS:             How is the migration of RIA’s pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Act going?

PS:             The IA Switch, involving the transfer of more than 2,100 investment advisers from federal to state oversight, was one of the most significant achievements in the history of the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA).

The Switch stemmed from Section 410 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (the Dodd-Frank Act), which raised the assets under management (AUM) threshold for state regulation of investment advisers from $25 million to $100 million.

This report documents the work that went into the successful completion of the Switch.  http://www.nasaa.org/?s=switch+report

 

TS:             If there were three things you would like to see the Syndicate accomplish what would they be?

PS:             1. Helping IARs have a better understanding of the role of their state regulator

2. Helping to create an ongoing dialogue between the IAR and regulatory communities

3. Helping IARs appreciate investor confusion stemming from the blurred lines between traditional brokerage, investment advisory, and financial planning services – and work to cut through that confusion

 

TS:             What is the one thing you would be grateful to see investment adviser representatives take away from this interview?

PS:                   I would like them to appreciate that we are their partners in putting investors first. State securities regulators are accessible, both to investors and to the people we regulate. We work closely with the IAR communities in our states and appreciate the value and importance of communication. We share the same goal of providing the best level of service to investors. We’re in this together.

February 6, 2014 – According to NASAA (the North American Securities Administrator’s Association), their members performed over 1,000 audits of Investment Advisers in the first six months of 2013, resulting in over 6,000 deficiencies! The Syndicate, in its effort to proactively assist its members and provide education on business and regulatory matters, would like to direct your attention to an information website provided by the Missouri Securities Division for RIA’s and IAR’s. The website provides information about common deficiencies and how to avoid them and can be found here.  Having private counsel available by phone or in person during the audit and reviewing key information provided in the pre-audit packets regulators provide for most not-for-cause audits is also wise.  Audits can be stressful and time consuming, but being prepared will play a big role in reducing the stress and helping you reduce the potential number of deficiencies.