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And Now for the SEC’s First Substantive Reg BI Action

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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Having a Senior Moment

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.

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The Convergence Continues: SEC Staff Bulletin on Standards of Conduct for B-Ds and RIAs

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.

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Reg BI: What’s Going On and What May Happen Next?

SEC Chair Gary Gensler has not publicly stated much regarding Reg BI since Spring of this year. Generally, though, the messaging from SEC leadership regarding the Division of Examinations and the Division of Enforcement continues to be aggressive. In the retail investor area, for example, in late August Chair Gensler appointed Barbara Roper, the Director of Investor Protection for the Consumer Federation of America, as a Senior Advisor to the Chair. Turning back to Reg BI specifically, what we continue to hear out of the SEC is that Chair Gensler’s regime is going to play the Reg BI “hand that it has been dealt” aggressively.

On November 4, 2021, SEC Commissioner and former Acting Chair Allison Herren Lee gave a speech at ACLI’s CLE 2021 Conference on Life Insurance Products entitled “A Call to Action: Recommendations for Complying with Reg BI.” Commissioner Herren Lee covered several Reg BI topics, including what constitutes a recommendation and mitigation. Regarding recommendations, she noted that the Commission’s supplemental materials accompanying Reg BI speak of a “call to action” that may be viewed as influencing an investor to invest in or trade a particular security being enough to constitute a recommendation. On this topic, she emphasized the importance of the account opening process. Commissioner Herren Lee also addressed mitigation, in particular to manage the risk of an associated person putting their interests ahead of their customers, perhaps due to limitations in the firm’s products menu.

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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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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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The SEC’s CCO Guidance Month

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) released guidance on several platforms in a 30-day period in 2020 regarding certain views on the important role and potential liability risks of chief compliance officers (CCOs). The SEC’s focus on the role of compliance is not new but sometimes the SEC’s support for compliance has not appeared to extend beyond the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE). In this article, we analyze the guidance provided by each source.
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