Risky Business: SEC Risk Alert Highlights Broker-Dealers’ Anti-Money Laundering Miscues and Encourages Firms to Beef Up Protection

Ben Franklin once said “by failing to prepare, you prepare to fail.” Based on the SEC’s latest risk alert concerning broker-dealers’ anti-money laundering (AML) compliance (or lack thereof), some firms would be well served to heed Mr. Franklin’s advice.

The SEC specifically seeks to examine broker-dealers’ compliance with the various regulations and laws governing firms’ AML obligations. The risk alert highlights the SEC’s observations relating to firms’ deficiencies concerning (a) AML policies and procedures and internal controls; and (b) suspicious activity reporting (SAR). The SEC’s emphasis on AML should come as no surprise, as the SEC has previously included it as an exam priority. FINRA has additionally provided broker dealers with extensive AML guidance.

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Recent State Fiduciary Duty Developments: Idaho, North Dakota and Ohio

Idaho and North Dakota have adopted wholesale the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ (NAIC) model suitability standard. Ohio also finalized its proposed rule adopting the NAIC model rule. This brings to six the number of states that have adopted the NAIC model (Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Michigan, North Dakota and Ohio), and three others have proposed to do so (Kentucky, Maine, and Nebraska).

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SEC Exams for 2021 to Focus on Climate and ESG, Reg BI, Crypto, & More

The SEC’s Division of Examination’s (formerly OCIE) annual announcement of its exam priorities is always noteworthy. It provides helpful insight into this division’s thinking and can serve as a roadmap for regulated entities to focus their compliance and supervision planning. The announcement of these priorities is even more important following a change in the presidential administration and the changes at the Commission that inevitably follow. Not surprisingly, the recently announced Division of Examination priorities for 2021 (summarized below) align with the Biden Administration’s policy priorities and key trends in the financial landscape.

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FINRA’s Focus on Variable Annuity Switches Continues

On January 8, 2021, without admitting or denying the findings, VALIC Financial Advisors, Inc., (VALIC) entered into a settlement with FINRA Enforcement, through an Acceptance, Waiver and Consent (AWC) where the factual allegation was that between January 1, 2017, and October 31, 2018, the broker-dealer failed to “establish a reasonably designed system and written supervisory procedures for the surveillance of rates of [Variable Annuities] exchanges and for corrective action in the case of inappropriate exchanges, in violation of FINRA Rules 2330(d), 3110, and 2010.” VALIC agreed to a censure and a $350,000 fine. See VALIC Financial Advisors, Inc. AWC No. 2018060548501.

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Recent State Fiduciary Duty Developments: Eight States Have Proposed or Finalized Best Interest Standards for Annuity Producers

In recent months, eight states — Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Ohio — have proposed or finalized rules setting forth a best interest standard for annuity producers in recommending annuities to their customers. Each state has designed its rule to follow the NAIC’s model regulation concerning suitability in annuity transactions, which requires producers to act in the consumer’s best interest without placing the producer’s financial interest ahead of the consumer’s. The rule also requires producers, prior to recommending an annuity, to disclose the scope and terms of their relationship to the consumer, how the producer is being compensated, and any material conflicts of interest. Notably, the rule does not create a fiduciary obligation or relationship with the consumer, and producers are not subject to civil liability for breaching any fiduciary standard of conduct.

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The Second Phase of the SEC’s Reg BI Exams

Closing out 2020, the SEC’s Division of Examinations (OCIE) issued a Statement on Recent and Upcoming Regulation Best Interest Examinations. There the Division of Examinations announced its intention “to begin its next phase [of Reg BI examinations] by conducting more focused examinations … beginning in January 2021.”

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The DOL’s Fiduciary Interpretation and Exemption: Impact on Rollover Recommendations

On December 18, 2020, the Department of Labor published its expansion of the fiduciary interpretation and exemption for conflicted advice in the Federal Register. (Prohibited Transaction Exemption 2020-02, Improving Investment Advice for Workers and Retirees.) The exemption will be effective on February 16, 2021. The interpretation is effective immediately.

Since the effective date for the exemption is after the inauguration of the Biden administration, it is almost certain that the effective date will be further delayed. During that delay, we think it is likely the exemption will be revised or possibly withdrawn. But, it is just as likely that the expanded definition of fiduciary advice for rollover recommendations will be retained and possibly expanded. That could make life more difficult for broker-dealers, investment advisers and insurance companies. While these rules will affect all of those industries, this article focuses on the impact of the likely outcomes on broker-dealers.

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