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Robinhood vs. Massachusetts’ Secretary of the Commonwealth: A Battle for the Ages over Massachusetts’ New Strict Fiduciary Duty Rule

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.

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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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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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Recent State Fiduciary Duty Developments: Alabama and Rhode Island Issue Regulations

Alabama and Rhode Island are the most recent states to issue regulations setting forth a best interest standard for annuity producers in recommending an annuity to their customers. Both regulations follow the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ (NAIC’s) model regulation by requiring producers to act in the consumer’s best interest and not place the producer’s financial interest ahead of the consumer’s. Prior to recommending an annuity, producers are required to disclose the scope and terms of their relationship with the consumer, how the producer is being compensated and any material conflicts of interest. Like the NAIC model regulation, the Alabama and Rhode Island regulations do 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.

The Alabama regulation is still in its proposed form, with comments due December 7, 2020. If finalized without delay, the regulation would take effect on January 1, 2021. The Rhode Island regulation has been finalized and takes effect on April 1, 2021. A copy of the updated state chart can be found here.

Documenting Rollover Recommendations: The DOL and SEC Requirements

The Department of Labor (DOL) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) are focusing on rollover recommendations and their impact on plan participants. The DOL has historically taken the position that a recommendation by a fiduciary advisor is subject to the ERISA prudent man rule and the duty of loyalty (known in combination as a best interest standard), and has recently expanded the definition of who is a fiduciary advisor. The SEC says that rollover recommendations by investment advisers and broker-dealers are subject to its best interest requirements. This article discusses the recent DOL guidance and the SEC’s Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI).

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SEC Roundtable on Reg BI and Form CRS

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) hosted a virtual roundtable in late October to discuss the Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI) and Form CRS. With a few months of observations from examinations since the June 30, 2020, compliance date, SEC and FINRA officials provided insights and tips for broker-dealer compliance with the new rules. The roundtable kicked off with brief remarks from SEC Chair Jay Clayton followed by a discussion among SEC staff from the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE); and the Divisions of Trading and Markets and Investment Management. FINRA staff also participated.

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Applicability of Regulation Best Interest to Retirement Plans

The SEC’s Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI) applies to recommendations by a broker-dealer to “retail customers.” As the term suggests, a retail customer is a “natural person” (or the legal representative of a natural person) who uses the recommendation “primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.” This means that advice given to legal entities and advice related to investing the assets of a business are not covered by the regulation. But what about recommendations provided to retirement plans?

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