We have made it a point previously in this blog to track developments of the SEC’s Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI), even speculating more aggressive enforcement actions could be coming due to certain Reg BI deficiency letters sent to firms late last year. Since Reg BI went into effect in June 2020, however, many have waited with bated breath to see what enforcement of the regulation would look like in practice. While the SEC has pursued some cases regarding firms missing deadlines and omitting certain information in disclosure documents, it had taken no further action until June. On June 15, 2022 the SEC finally took its first substantive Reg BI action by filing a civil regulatory complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against Western International Securities, Inc. and five of its brokers for allegedly selling a risky debt security, known as corporate L Bonds, to its retail customers. The Complaint invokes Section 15l-1(a) of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 — Regulation Best Interest — and seeks to enjoin the Defendants from the acts, practices and courses of business described in the Complaint.
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In connection with the 2022 SIFMA C&L Seminar, the Best Interest Compliance Team submitted a white paper entitled “Having a Senior Moment: Recent Legislation and Rules to Protect Seniors from Financial Exploitation,” that was made available to conference attendees on a mobile app.
As its title suggests, our paper covers recent laws and regulations passed to protect senior investors. We specifically cover: (1) the Senior Safe Act, a law passed to provide immunity to financial institutions/advisors who disclose financial exploitations; (2) FINRA Rule 2165, which allows FINRA members to place temporary holds on the disbursement of funds or securities; (3) an SEC No Action Letter relating to FINRA Rule 2165; (4) FINRA Rule 4512, which requires member firms to make reasonable efforts to obtain a trusted contact person on customers’ accounts; (5) FINRA Rule 3241 which attempts to minimize conflicts where a registered person is named as a beneficiary or executor to their customer’s estate; and (6) “Report and Hold Statutes” that have been passed in a number of states and that require/encourage broker-dealers to report any suspicions of financial abuse. As part of our white paper, we also prepared a 50-state survey of the states that have passed Report and Hold Statutes.
On March 30, 2022, the SEC issued “Staff Bulletin: Standards of Conduct for Broker-Dealers and Investment Advisers Account Recommendations for Retail Investors” (SEC Retail Standards Bulletin). This guidance builds on prior SEC guidance regarding Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI) and the SEC’s “Main Street” initiatives impacting investment advisory firms since the SEC’s self-reporting “Share Class Selection Disclosure Initiative” announced just over four years ago. In the intervening years, the SEC issued a FAQ “Regarding Disclosure of Certain Financial Conflicts of Interest Related to Investment Adviser Compensation” and issued the Reg BI rulemaking package that included the “Commission Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers.” This blog has covered all of these developments and, regarding the once separate standards of conduct for brokerage and investment advisory firms, described the developing convergence of these standards as they apply to retail investors.
A common phrase to abide by in the New Year is “out with the old, in with the new.” FINRA’s 2022 Report on its Examination and Risk Monitoring Program (the “Report”), however, contains a combination of old and new priorities. We previously previewed the Report.
Old priorities, once again included, are: Anti-Money Laundering, Reg BI and Form CRS, and cybersecurity.
New risk areas include: firm short positions and fails-to-receive in municipal securities; trusted contact persons; funding portals and crowdfunding offerings, disclosure of routing information; and portfolio margin and intraday trading.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.” FINRA may be all of these in 2022, as FINRA CEO Robert Cook announced FINRA’s laundry list of priorities during a SIFMA Q&A last week. Below are some of the highlights from his Q&A.
Exam Time: Annual Exam and Risk Monitoring Findings
While Mr. Cook advised the “ink isn’t dry” on the 2022 priorities, he suggested broker-dealers can expect more of the same, with some new additions. New topics for examination will include: trusted contact person, disclosure of order routing, and intra-day trading.
Benjamin Franklin once said “don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” While that is always prudent advice, the Department of Labor (DOL) believes it’s best to grant an extension to investment advisors and broker-dealers to comply with the full terms of the Prohibited Transaction Exemption 2020-02 (PTE 2020-02), beyond the current December 21, 2021, deadline. A previous blog post covered the scope of the PTE and provided guidance on compliance.
Massachusetts’ Secretary of the Commonwealth, William Galvin, is taking on Robinhood for violating Massachusetts’ new fiduciary duty rule for broker-dealers. In December 2020, Galvin filed a 24-page regulatory complaint, seeking to ban the popular trading app for violating the State’s strict fiduciary duty rule that requires broker-dealers to act in the best interest of their clients. Galvin raised three different violations against Robinhood that allegedly fell short of the new strict fiduciary standard. This new rule, passed in February 2020, was created in response to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI), which Massachusetts believed did not go far enough. Reg BI bars brokers from putting their own financial interest above those of their clients, but fails to define what it means to act “in the customers’ best interest” or mandate that brokers recommend a single best product. While Reg BI requires the disclosure and mitigation of conflicts of interest, Massachusetts felt this requirement was also lacking. Galvin stated that Reg BI is “basically a souped-up version of the suitability standard,” and felt a new State rule was necessary to protect the growing crowd of young investors in the State. During this past year, due to COVID-19 and other meme-based investment activities on the application, Robinhood accumulated over 3 million new users in the first four months of 2020. Galvin’s concerns revolve around the 500,000 customers in Massachusetts, with accounts totaling over $1.6 billion.
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.
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.
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.”