After having proudly served for decades, and surviving a dramatic face-lift in 2012 (when old NASD Rule 2310 was replaced by shiny new FINRA Rule 2111), it seems that the “suitability rule,” as we’ve come to know it, has, at long last, been quietly sent out to pasture by FINRA.  Although the title of Reg Notice 20-18 – “FINRA Amends Its Suitability . . . Rule . . .  in Response to Regulation Best Interest” – suggests that the suitability rule has only been amended, not replaced, that would not be a fair reading of what happened.  In fact, with the exception of a few specific circumstances,[1] suitability has been relegated to the clearance rack of regulatory rules.  Here is how FINRA phrased its epitaph:

Reg BI’s Care Obligation addresses the same conduct with respect to retail customers that is addressed by Rule 2111, but employs a best interest, rather than a suitability, standard, in addition to other key enhancements.  Absent action by FINRA, a broker-dealer would be required to comply with both Reg BI and Rule 2111 regarding recommendations to retail customers. In such circumstances, compliance with Reg BI would result in compliance with Rule 2111 because a broker-dealer that meets the best interest standard would necessarily meet the suitability standard.  To provide clarity on which standard applies and to avoid unnecessary duplication, FINRA has amended Rule 2111 to state that it will not apply to recommendations subject to Reg BI.

The problem I have, having read dozens of articles and attended a bunch of pandemic friendly webinars on Reg BI, is figuring out the practical impact of complying with Reg BI.  I mean, if you are a registered rep with retail customers, what, if anything, do you need to do differently to demonstrate compliance with Reg BI vs. Rule 2111?  Upon closer look, I am beginning to think that it may not amount to much.

Consider, as a starting point, this language from the SEC’s Reg BI Release:

We emphasize that what is in the “best interest” of a retail customer depends on the facts and circumstances of a recommendation at the time it is made, including matching the recommended security or investment strategy to the retail customer’s investment profile at the time of the recommendation, and the process for coming to that conclusion. Whether a broker-dealer has complied with the Care Obligation will be evaluated based on the facts and circumstances at the time of the recommendation (and not in hindsight) and will focus on whether the broker-dealer had a reasonable basis to believe that the recommendation is in best interest of the retail customer.

Later in the same release, the SEC used this “matching” concept in the very same way:

In circumstances where the “match” between the retail customer profile and the recommendation appears less reasonable on its face (for example, where a retail customer’s account objective is preservation of income and the recommendation involves higher risk, or where there are more significant conflicts of interest present), the more important the process will likely be for a broker-dealer to establish that it had a reasonable belief that the recommendation was in the best interest of the retail customer and did not place the broker-dealer’s interest ahead of the retail customer.

Read these excerpts and see if you agree with me that this concept of “matching” is, basically, exactly what RRs and BDs do today under Rule 2111 when making suitability determinations.  The same two-step process that has always existed.   First, under FINRA Rule 2090, you “use reasonable diligence . . . to know (and retain) the essential facts concerning every customer.”  Those “essential facts” are outlined in Rule 2310(a):  “the customer’s age, other investments, financial situation and needs, tax status, investment objectives, investment experience, investment time horizon, liquidity needs, risk tolerance, and any other information the customer may disclose to the member or associated person in connection with such recommendation.”  Then, armed with those facts, you “match” the customer to a recommendation.  If the recommendation is a mismatch, e.g., because it is too risky for a customer with a conservative risk tolerance, or provides no liquidity for a customer with liquidity needs, or has a lengthy pay-off for a customer with a much shorter time horizon, then the recommendation may not be suitable.

Seems like the same conclusion will be true under Reg BI, but instead of calling the recommendation “unsuitable,” the regulators will simply say it was not in the customer’s best interest.  Maybe this isn’t quite the sea change that people maintain.

Granted, however, not everything will be the same.  Importantly, while Reg BI, like Rule 2111, requires that a recommendation “must be based on information reasonably known to the associated person (based on her reasonable diligence, care, and skill) at the time the recommendation is made,” it goes beyond that.  Because Reg BI requires that a recommendation be in the retail customer’s best interest, in addition to “matching” the recommendation to the customer’s suitability profile, an RR must also “exercise reasonable diligence, care, and skill to consider reasonably available alternatives offered by the broker-dealer. This exercise would require the associated person to conduct a review of such reasonably available alternatives that is reasonable under the circumstances.”

Now this is something totally new.  You not only have to know what you’re recommending, you also have to know what you’re NOT recommending, just in case something else would have been, um, more suitable.  Happily (or unhappily, perhaps), the SEC has provided pretty loosy-goosy guidance regarding what this review of “available alternatives” must look like.  Indeed, they had the temerity to break out – again, ugh – that old standby, the dreaded “facts and circumstances” standard:  “What will be a reasonable determination of the scope of alternatives considered will depend on the facts and circumstances, at the time of the recommendation, including both the nature of the retail customer and the retail customer’s investment profile, and the particular associated persons or groups of associated persons that are providing the recommendations.”

I don’t want to get too deep in the weeds here, so I will cut this off by providing this nugget of good news from the SEC: “A reasonable process would not need to consider every alternative that may exist (either outside the broker-dealer or on the broker-dealer’s platform) or to consider a greater number of alternatives than is necessary in order for the associated person to exercise reasonable diligence, care, and skill in providing a recommendation that complies with the Care Obligation.”  So, take heart that you don’t necessarily need to know every stinkin’ product that your BD offers, or that any BD offers.

One last point about this Reg Notice, concerning quantitative suitability, a/k/a churning or excessive trading.  This is an age-old problem.  The legal framework of a churning case has been the same forever, consisting of three elements: (1) intent to defraud, (2) control of the account by the RR, and (3) excessive trading.  FINRA Rule 2111, not surprisingly, comported with that definition. Supplementary Material .05(c) requires that an RR have “actual or de facto control” over an account to be capable of churning it.  Well, not anymore.

According to the Reg Notice, “FINRA has also removed the element of control from the quantitative suitability obligation, a change that is consistent with Reg BI.”  What?

Sure enough.  Reg BI does not require control, either actual or de facto:

[T]he third component of the Care Obligation would require a broker-dealer to exercise reasonable diligence, care, skill, and prudence to have a reasonable basis to believe that a series of recommended transactions, even if in the retail customer’s best interest when viewed in isolation, is not excessive and is in the retail customer’s best interest when taken together in light of the retail customer’s investment profile. The Proposing Release noted that this requirement is intended to incorporate and enhance a broker-dealer’s existing “quantitative suitability” obligation by applying the requirement irrespective of whether a broker-dealer exercises actual or de facto control over a customer’s account, thereby making the obligation consistent with the current requirements for “reasonable basis suitability” and “customer specific suitability.

So now there is a major difference between, on the one hand, what courts and arbitration panels require to establish churning and, on the other hand, what FINRA and the SEC say is necessary.  I look forward to seeing how this plays out, as the “control” element often turns out to be the one on which Respondents hang their hats in defending churning cases.  If a Claimant no longer has to prove that element, these cases have just become much, much harder to defend.  But, since there is no private right of action for breach of a FINRA Rule, or Reg BI, it remains to be seen what standard will, in fact, be applied in churning cases after Reg BI becomes effective next week.

[1] Because Reg BI applies only to recommendations to “retail customers,” who are defined to be “a natural person, or the legal representative of such natural person, who receives a recommendation of any securities transaction or investment strategy involving securities from a broker-dealer and uses the recommendation primarily for personal, family, or household purposes,” Rule 2111 still applies, therefore to: (1) recommendations to institutional customers under specified circumstances, (2) entities and institutions (e.g., pension funds), and (3) natural persons who will not use recommendations primarily for personal, family, or household purposes (e.g., small business owners and charitable trusts).  FINRA also notes that some of its other rules “have a suitability or suitability-like component (e.g., FINRA Rule 2330 (Members’ Responsibilities Regarding Deferred Variable Annuities) and FINRA Rule 2360 (Options))” which are not impacted by the rule changes and will still be viable.

This will be a quick one, but I just had to get something off my chest before the weekend.  As you probably know, there is an election upcoming.  No, not that one, the one to elect certain members of FINRA’s Board of Governors.  That Board consists of 24 members, as follows:

  • Robert Cook, who is the Chief Executive Officer of FINRA;
  • 13 Public Governors;
  • one Floor Member Governor;
  • one Independent Dealer/Insurance Affiliate Governor;
  • one Investment Company Affiliate Governor;
  • three Small Firm Governors;
  • one Mid-Size Firm Governor; and
  • three Large Firm Governors.

Some of these seats are appointed, but others are subject to elections.  On August 7, one Large Firm Governor and one Small Firm Governor are up for election.  To make things easy on the membership when it comes to elections, FINRA has a Nominating Committee, whose job, according to FINRA’s website, is “nominating persons for appointment or election to the FINRA Board.”  In fact, they get to nominate seven of the Board members (the three Small Firm Governors, the one Mid-Size Firm Governor, and the three Large Firm Governor).  This makes sense.  You get a bunch of qualified and experienced people together, and they use their collective skills to identify the best person for the job.

According to FINRA’s By-Laws, the Nominating Committee has no choice NOT to do its job.  Note the use of the word “shall” here:  “The Nominating Committee shall nominate and . . . support: Large Firm, Mid-Size Firm, Small Firm, Public, Floor Member, Independent Dealer/Insurance Affiliate and Investment Company Affiliate Governors for each such vacant or new Governor position on the Board.”

Given this clear language, don’t you find it surprising, perhaps even disturbing, that the Nominating Committee has declined to nominate anyone for the Small Firm Governor seat?  As provided in this Election Notice,

With respect to the Small Firm Governor seat, the Nominating Committee determined it would not nominate a candidate for election in 2020.  Instead, any eligible candidates who obtain the requisite number of petitions will be included on the ballot.

There is no explanation provided why the Nominating Committee bailed on its responsibility.  I acknowledge that the Nominating Committee’s obligation actually to nominate someone is qualified by the phrase “[e]xcept as otherwise provided in these By-Laws,” but I looked and could not find anything in the By-Laws that provides the Nominating Committee can blithely abdicate from its sole responsibility.  Maybe it’s lurking in there somewhere, and someone from FINRA can educate us all.  But, if I am correct, and there is nothing that allows the Nominating Committee to do what it has done here, i.e., punt, then we should all collectively wonder what the point is of having that committee in the first place.  And what is it about the Small Firm seat in particular that causes the Nominating Committee such problems?  I ask that because this is not the first time the Nominating Committee chose to sit on its hands regarding the Small Firm seat. It did the same thing in 2018, also, as reflected in this Election Notice.  I don’t have answers here, only questions.

Finally, this also goes to prove a point I have made before: if FINRA was held to the same standards to which it holds its members, things would be pretty messy.  If a broker-dealer includes some mandatory supervisory obligations in its WSPs, but doesn’t bother to follow them, you know exactly how well that is going to be received by the examining staff.  I don’t know that this is an entirely apt comparison (as the duty to supervise is a legal duty while the Nominating Committee’s duty to nominate someone is self-imposed), but I think you get my point.  Let me tell you, it is a very difficult conversation to have with a client who is already angry at what they perceive to be FINRA’s incompetence or indifference when they read something like this, knowing that if the roles were reversed, and they were the one who simply decided not to perform some obligatory task, that they would be scrutinized to death over it.

A couple of years ago, I complained about PIABA’s effort to make expungement even more difficult to obtain.  Well, fast forward to June 1, and, as Chris Seps explains here, the SEC has approved the first proposed expungement rule change from FINRA, one that appears to serve no purpose other than to generate money for poor FINRA. – Alan

 

As many of you know, FINRA has recently proposed many rule changes for the expungement process that are still pending.  FINRA proposed those rules changes back in 2017 in order to try to make the process of removing erroneous customer complaints from a broker’s CRD record more difficult.  Many of the proposed rule changes will indeed make it more difficult to obtain expungement: there will be stricter rules about when and how a broker can request expungement, including new time limitations; they will have to convince three arbitrators of their case instead of one; and they will be required to testify in person or via videoconference rather than by telephone.  But the only rule change that has made it to the SEC – and which the SEC recently approved in an order published in the Federal Register on June 1 – is a change that simply makes it more expensive for the broker to obtain expungement.  The rule change literally serves no other purpose than to put more money in FINRA’s pocket.  We will talk about that in a minute, but first, let’s talk about the old rule and how it changed.

FINRA charges certain fees to anyone who is seeking expungement – an initial filing fee, a fee for each pre-hearing session, and a hearing fee.  Certain fees are charged to the broker-dealer named as the respondent as well.  Historically, these fees fall on a graduated scale. The higher the damages sought, the higher the fees.  In cases where non-monetary relief is sought – such as expungement cases – the fees and surcharges are in the thousands of dollars, in total.  However, experienced counsel usually add a nominal request for $1 in damages, which means the fee charged falls on the smallest end of the graduated scale.  The filing fee would be only $50, the hearing session fees would be $50 per session, and the member surcharge charged to the broker-dealer named as the respondent would be $150.  This was frequently known as the “$1 trick.”  It wasn’t illegal; it wasn’t immoral; it was just a loophole that saved dozens of brokers thousands of dollars each as they attempted to remove erroneous complaints from their permanent records.

FINRA’s new rule eliminates the “$1 trick.” Under the new rule, which was just approved by the SEC and will probably take effect later this summer, all requests for expungement will fall into the non-monetary relief category of the graduate scales, regardless of any damages that are sought.  So, the filing fee will be $1,575.  The hearing session fees would also be charged at the non-monetary relief level for a hearing with three arbitrators: $1,125 per session.  The broker-dealer named as the respondent in the expungement case will be charged the member surcharge for non-monetary relief: $1,900.  And the broker-dealer that is named as the respondent would be charged a processing fee for non-monetary relief claims: $3,750.  If the broker decides to name the customer as the respondent instead of the broker-dealer, it doesn’t matter; FINRA will still charge the $1,900 member surcharge and $3,750 processing fee to the broker-dealer where the broker was registered at the time the customer made the complaint at issue.  So, in other words, the expungement fees will go from $300 to $9,475, most of which will be charged to the broker-dealer.

Unlike the other expungement rule changes that have not been approved yet, this one is purely about money, not customer protection.  But you have to give FINRA credit – they admit it is all about money.  After FINRA proposed this rule, they made it known that from 2017 to 2019 approximately 75% of expungement-only arbitrations used this $1 trick, costing FINRA approximately $7.3 million.  FINRA was not happy about that, even though it had an operating budget of $1.053 billion in 2019 – the highest in the past three years, despite having the lowest number of broker-dealers and the second lowest number of registered reps in the past 16 years.  As a result, representatives of both sides of the aisle – the plaintiff’s bar PIABA, which files complaints on behalf of customers, and the defense bar which defends brokers and broker-dealers – are unhappy with the rule change.  In fact, as reported by Investment News, a co-author of a recent PIABA expungement  study called the rule change out for what it is: “a money grab” by FINRA.  That is quite an admission from PIABA, which routinely pushes FINRA to enact rules that make expungement more difficult to get.

Now, let’s be clear for a minute: closing a loophole and clarifying the rules regarding fees so that they are implemented the way that FINRA probably initially intended is fine.  Close the loophole and charge everyone the same for expungement requests.  And that’s what the SEC’s order routinely falls back on to justify the rule change – it claims that it is just making things fair by charging everyone the same fees in expungement cases, regardless of whether you slyly tack on a request for some nominal monetary damages.  But the real problem – and the one commentators take issue with – is the excessive fees charged not to the broker who is making the expungement request, but to the broker-dealer who has no dog in the fight whatsoever. Just so we are all clear, a broker making an expungement request has to name someone as a respondent – either a broker-dealer or the customer who complained.  In either instance, under FINRA’s rule change, the broker-dealer is going to get socked with thousands of dollars in fees for having done absolutely nothing and having no role in the expungement request.  In fact, many broker-dealers do not even participate in expungement hearings because they have nothing to gain or lose if brokers gets their records cleaned up.  But the broker-dealer has no choice but to pay the fees to FINRA, even if it has no interest in participating and does not object to the expungement request.

FINRA knows its members are being stuck with huge fees, and in fact that was its goal.  On the one hand, according to the SEC Order, “FINRA believes the Proposal will help ensure that the fees for expungement requests are assessed, and that the costs borne by the forum to administer expungement requests are allocated, as intended, to those requesting expungement under the Codes.”  If that were true, then the brokers requesting expungement of these erroneous customer complaints their records would be charged with the majority of the fees, not the broker-dealer who has no involvement in the request.  In fact, the SEC Order also states, “FINRA also noted that … it believes that member firms, rather than associated persons or customers, should continue to bear the larger share of the costs of expungement.” Not only are those two statements completely inconsistent, but FINRA really provides no reason for charging the bulk of the fees to the broker-dealer, except that someone has to pay the administrative costs of these hearings.

If FINRA really wants to be fair about the fees associated with expungement requests, here is what it should do: charge the expungement fees to the broker and broker-dealer if the panel rejects that expungement request, but charge them to the customer who made the complaint that is being expunged if the panel grants the expungement request.  This will help further the goals of both the plaintiff and defense bars.  On the defense side, brokers would be happy because their fees would be covered if they prevail in the expungement.  But more importantly, this might prevent completely bogus claims from being filed in the first place.  Right now, there is nothing preventing an investor who lost money to take 30 minutes, throw together a few sentences about how they were never told of the risks of their investments, and sit around waiting for a settlement check. If a threat existed, however small, that their claim might be outed by an expungement panel as not just lacking merit, but as clearly erroneous, and they would be charged with the $9,475 in FINRA fees, then maybe customers would reconsider filing a claims that they completely fabricated.  I know what you are thinking, and no, this will not have a “chilling effect” on customers who may want to file a complaint.  Is a customer with a claim for a million dollars, or even $100,000, going to be scared away from trying to recover all that money by the prospect of having to pay a $9,000 expungement fee? Probably not.  But customers who make up a story in order to recover some losses might be dissuaded from filing – which is a good thing.

The other upside to making the expungement fees contingent on the outcome of the expungement request is that it will encourage customers to actually participate in the expungement hearings.  PIABA and FINRA have lamented for years that once customers settle cases, the vast majority of the time they don’t participate in the expungement hearing because they have nothing to gain at that point.  As a result, according to FINRA, panels only hear one side of the story and frequently grant expungement in instances that they might not have if they had heard from the customer.  Accordingly, if customers face the prospect of being charged the $9,475 in fees if their claims are found to be erroneous in the expungement hearing, I would bet that many of them would actually show up and testify in the expungement hearing.  FINRA would be happy about that, and about a potential secondary effect – brokers might think twice about filing questionable expungement requests if they know a customer will show up to contest their side of the story. This simple change to the expungement fee allocation might finally bring balance to the expungement process.  Then again, that’s probably why it will never happen.

 

 

I have blogged before about hold recommendations.  Surprisingly – at least to me – the statistics I get from the publisher of this blog reveal that more people have read that particular post than anything else I have written since I started this thing a few years ago.  That has to mean something, right?  So, when I saw a recent SEC settlement that involved hold recommendations, I figured it was worth looking into and giving my thoughts.

I wrote last time that the only occasion when hold recommendations have had any potential relevance was in the context of customer arbitrations, where clever attorneys have tried to avoid having their clients’ old – sometimes really, really old – claims dismissed under FINRA’s six-year eligibility rule by baking some vague allegations about more recent hold recommendations into the Statement of Claim.  That hasn’t changed.  I still see these all time.  For the most part, arbitrators remain unimpressed by such claims, absent some clear documentation demonstrating that there was, in fact, some explicit recommendation to hold.

But, admittedly, Reg BI potentially changes the landscape for recommendations to hold, making them something of interest both to regulators and claimants’ lawyers.  The SEC has stated that for broker-dealers, Reg BI applies both to explicit recommendations to hold and, as well, “implicit hold recommendations that are the result of agreed-upon account monitoring between the broker-dealer and retail customer.”  Indeed, that was the principal point of my prior post, i.e., the need for BDs, in light of this guidance, to disclaim, very, very clearly, any obligation to monitor customer accounts, since once a BD does that, it can avoid any potential claim – whether from a regulator or in an arbitration – that it has violated Reg BI through an alleged implicit hold recommendation.  That advice has not changed at all.  The SEC has gone to the trouble of describing a clear path to a safe harbor, and any BD that fails to follow that path does so at its own peril.

But what about dually registered RR/IARs?  This hybrid model is increasingly common, and because such individuals straddle the regulatory regimes for both BDs and IAs, it can be confusing and complicated to understand exactly what standards to which they will be held.

Let me start with some good news.  The SEC has made it very clear what it thinks:

If you are a financial professional who is dually registered (i.e., an associated person of a broker-dealer and a supervised person of an investment adviser (regardless of whether you work for a dual-registrant, affiliated firm, or unaffiliated firm)) making an account recommendation to a retail customer, whether Regulation Best Interest or the Advisers Act applies will depend on the capacity in which you are acting when making the recommendation.

Ok, good start.  But it gets even better, even clearer:

Regulation Best Interest does not apply to investment advice provided to a retail customer by a dual-registrant when acting in the capacity of an investment adviser, even if the retail customer has a brokerage relationship with the dual-registrant or the dual-registrant executes the transaction in a brokerage capacity.

Well, now we have some guidance to work with!  If you’re a BD, once you adequately disclaim your duty to monitor accounts, implicit recommendations to hold are not actionable under Reg BI.  (And, of course, we already know that they’re not actionable under FINRA’s suitability rule either, inasmuch as that rule only covers explicit hold recommendations, as FINRA has expressed many times.  See, for example, Reg Notices 12-25 and 12-55.)  If you’re a dual registrant, and you give investment advice wearing your IAR hat, rather than your RR hat – including advice that involves hold recommendations – then you are not acting under Reg BI.  This is real progress!

The problem, or at least potential problem for both dual registrants and any IAR not associated with a BD is that you’re still not out of the woods, by any means, when it comes to hold recommendations.  And that’s because while Reg BI may not present any problems, the SEC is vigorously enforcing – too vigorously, in the view of many – liability that stems from the Advisers Act.  And while the touchpoint for that liability is the inadequate disclosure of conflicts of interest, rather than the efficacy of the recommendation itself, it remains that the transaction underlying the claim is the same: a hold recommendation.

Which brings me to the SEC settlement I mentioned at the outset.  Here is the SEC’s summary of the case:

At times during the period from January 2014 through March 2019 (the “Relevant Period”), Oxbow held for advisory clients mutual fund share classes that charged fees pursuant to Rule 12b-1 under the Investment Company Act of 1940 (“12b-1 fees”) instead of lower-cost share classes of the same funds that were available to the clients. Oxbow’s investment adviser representatives (“IARs”), as registered representatives of an affiliated broker-dealer, received 12b-1 fees in connection with these investments, but Oxbow did not adequately disclose this conflict of interest in its Form ADV brochures or otherwise.

Note the use of the word “held” here.  The case wasn’t about recommendations by Oxbow IARs to purchase the wrong share class, it was about hold recommendations.  The SEC said this very plainly later in the document: “During the Relevant Period, Oxbow advised clients to hold mutual fund share classes that charged 12b-1 fees when lower-cost share classes of those same funds were available to those clients.”  Indeed, in a footnote, the SEC explained that “[w]ith the exception of three purchases of shares of one fund in a class that charged 12b-1 fees when a lower-cost share class of the same fund was available, Oxbow did not purchase shares charging a 12b-1 fee when a lower-cost share class of the same fund was available during the Relevant Period.”  Obviously, if the problem wasn’t with purchases by Oxbow, then it had to be with the fact that Oxbow advisory customers were advised to continue to hold higher-cost share classes.

What the SEC does not illuminate in the settlement, however, is whether these hold recommendations were explicit or implicit.  But, that may be because, frankly, it doesn’t matter.  We know from the guidance that the SEC published in connection with the promulgation of Reg BI that if you “[i]f you have agreed to perform account monitoring services, then Regulation Best Interest applies even where you remain silent (i.e., an implicit hold recommendation).”  It makes logical sense that if you have a statutory (rather than a contractual) obligation to perform these same account monitoring services, i.e., because you are an IA or an IAR, the conclusion would be the same: you are potentially liable for implicit hold recommendations.  Of course, IAs and IARs do have that statutory obligation, given that they have a fiduciary duty to their clients.

So there’s the point.  Three people make an implicit recommendation to hold (i.e., they remain silent about an existing investment); one is an RR associated solely with a BD, one is a dually registered RR/IAR, and one is just an IAR.  Only the first guy is safe, under any standard.  The second guy may be safe, depending on which of his two hats he was wearing.  The third guy, on the other hand, will have to defend his recommendation under Reg BI, and faces potential liability if it is determined not to have been appropriate.

Confusing?  Yes.

One last observation, an important one.  As I noted above, the gist of the Oxbow case is not that it violated its fiduciary duty by making inappropriate hold recommendations, but, rather, by not disclosing to its clients “all material facts,” including “full and fair disclosure that is sufficiently specific so that they could understand the conflicts of interest concerning Oxbow’s advice about investing in different classes of mutual funds and could have an informed basis on which they could consent to or reject the conflicts.”  That violation, putting aside whether or not you agree with the SEC’s take-no-prisoners approach to 12b-1 fee disclosures, would have existed whether or not Oxbow made hold recommendations, or, if it did, whether or not they were appropriate.

Disclosure cases do not require the SEC to prove that any client ever actually relied on the disclosures and proceeded to make a trade; hell, it doesn’t matter whether anyone ever even read the disclosures! They are either sufficient, or they’re not.  The challenge is simply figuring out how to disclose these conflicts of interest with sufficient detail to satisfy the SEC.  And that is really hard.  Some guidance exists,[1] but, for the most part, it has not only come after the fact, but comes in the form of disciplinary actions that the SEC has taken, which is hardly the best way to go about helping industry members.  No surprise that one of FSI’s 2020 Advocacy Priorities is “Regulation by Enforcement.”  Its website says: “Last year, we spoke out about the increasing trend of regulation by enforcement, particularly by the SEC. We continue to oppose enforcement activity that is based on staff guidance or creates new requirements without going through the formal rulemaking process.”  Hear hear!

 

[1] See, for example, this 2019 FAQ from the SEC, which suggests that at least the following must be disclosed about share class conflicts:

  • The existence and effect of different incentives and resulting conflicts.
    • The fact that different share classes are available and that different share classes of the same fund represent the same underlying investments.
    • How differences in sales charges, transaction fees and ongoing fees would affect a client’s investment returns over time.
    • The fact that the adviser has financial interests in the choice of share classes that conflict with the interests of its clients.
  • The nature of the conflict.
    • For example, whether the conflict arises: (a) as a result of differences in the compensation the adviser and its affiliates receive; or (b) from the existence of any incentives shared between the adviser and the clearing broker or custodian (such as offsets, credits, or waivers of fees and expenses).
    • Whether there are any limitations on the availability of share classes to clients that result from the business of the adviser or the service providers that the adviser uses. These may include, for example:
      • Limitations that a fund or the adviser’s clearing broker or custodian imposes (for instance, where a custodian’s platform only makes certain share classes available or a fund or platform has minimum investment requirements); and
      • Limitations that the adviser imposes (for instance, by type or class of clients, advice, or transactions).
    • Whether an adviser’s practices with regard to recommending share classes differs when it makes an initial recommendation to invest in a fund as compared to: (a) when it makes recommendations regarding whether to convert to another share class; or (b) when it makes recommendations to buy additional shares of the fund. For example, the adviser could consider disclosing its practices for reviewing, in conjunction with its periodic account monitoring, whether to convert mutual fund investments in existing or acquired accounts to another share class.
  • How the adviser addresses the conflict.
    • The circumstances under which the adviser recommends share classes with different fee structures and the factors that the adviser considers in making recommendations to clients.
      • For example, where the adviser would bear the cost of a transaction fee, how the adviser evaluates the differences between, on the one hand, a share class with a 12b-1 fee but no transaction fee and, on the other, a share class of the same fund with a transaction fee and, on the other, a share class of the same fund with a transaction fee but no 12b-1 fee.
    • Whether the adviser has a practice of offsetting or rebating some or all of the additional costs to which a client is subject (such as 12b-1 fees and/or sales charges), the impact of such offsets or rebates, and whether that practice differs depending on the class of client, advice, or transaction (e.g., with regard to clients whose accounts are subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 or clients with individual retirement accounts).

Seems like just days ago I blogged about Jessica Hopper and her commitment to providing restitution to customers.  Since I posted that blog, there were two other settlements (which I added to that blog as updates) in which FINRA again seemed to prioritize restitution over the imposition of a fine.  Yesterday, however, FINRA announced a blockbuster settlement with Merrill Lynch that should serve to eliminate any doubt that anyone may still have about Ms. Hopper’s priorities.

In an AWC, Merrill agreed that for a six-year period commencing in April 2011,[1] the firm “failed to provide over 13,000 accounts with mutual fund sales charge waivers and fee rebates to which the customers were through rights of reinstatement offered by mutual fund companies.”[2]  Turns out that instead of having a written supervisory procedure that ensured investors got the benefit of their rights of reinstatement, Merrill “relied on its registered representatives to manually to identify and apply such waivers and rebates.”  That didn’t work out too well, it seems, as those Merrill RRs missed 13,328 accounts that were entitled to a right of reinstatement, causing those accounts to pay about $6 million in excess sales charges and fees.  As a result, Merrill was found to have violated the supervisory rule.

As a sanction for this rule violation, Merrill was censured, required to pay restitution to the affected customers, plus interest, totaling over $7.2 million.  But…there was no fine imposed.  Zero.  Nada.  Bupkis.  Why?  It appears that there were a couple of reasons, but principally it was because of what FINRA characterized as Merrill’s “credit for extraordinary cooperation.”  More on that in a second.

But, first, let’s acknowledge, for, like, the fourth time in a week, that FINRA placed the emphasis of the sanctions on the restitution component.  Again, all you’ve got to do is read the press release announcing the AWC.  Jessica Hopper is once again quoted, this time saying, “We are pleased that Merrill has reimbursed the customers affected by its failure to provide these waivers. Ensuring that harmed customers receive restitution is our highest priority and we will take a firm’s determination to proactively provide restitution into account when assessing sanctions.”  As I said recently, the evidence is indisputable that Jessica means what she says about her priorities.

Ok, let’s circle back to the cooperation credit, and start with the snarky observations.  Sure, Merrill got that credit, but the AWC recites that “[t]his matter arose from a routine cycle exam by FINRA’s Department of Member Supervision, and the firm subsequently investigated the matter further.”  Hmmm.  I read Reg Notice 19-23, and it plainly states that the first type of extraordinary cooperation is “self-reporting before regulators are aware of the issue.”  It also states that “FINRA also will consider whether the firm proactively detected the misconduct through compliance, audits or other surveillance, as opposed to identifying the misconduct only after receiving notice from customers, counterparties or regulators.”  Based on the scant recitation of the facts in the AWC, it sure seems that it was FINRA brought this matter to Merrill’s attention during a routine exam.

This would seem pretty odd, except for the fact that, hey, THIS IS MERRILL LYNCH!  You think Merrill gets treated the same as everyone else?  Consider the “Relevant Disciplinary History” portion of the AWC: it recites all of one prior regulatory matter.  But, BrokerCheck reveals that Merrill has 1,447 disclosures, 589 of which are regulatory events.  I haven’t bothered reviewing them all, but the simple fact is that Merrill has lots of prior supervisory violations.  For FINRA to agree to recite in this AWC that only one prior matter is “relevant” here is galling, given that small firms are never according similar deference.  Bill Singer, who authors an incredible blog, wrote about this very subject just last month, and I agree with his outrage.  If you don’t already subscribe to his blog, you must.

With that off my chest, let’s just take a quick look at what Merrill did to get the credit:

  • It engaged a consultant “to conduct a complex analysis” to identify the affected customers and compute the amount of money they overpaid;
  • It “promptly” came up with a plan of remediation, which included notifying the customers and, more importantly, paying them restitution (plus interest)[3];
  • It fixed the deficiency in the supervisory procedures; and
  • It provided “substantial assistance” to the FINRA examiners.

Well, there you go, there is the current blueprint to avoid the payment of fines, and, perhaps, also to qualify for credit for extraordinary cooperation.  You know the plan; now go execute it.  But, as I said in the title to this post: the key is the restitution.  Pay that, pay it voluntarily, pay it promptly, and it will clearly impact the disposition of your exam.

[1] 2011!!  By my math, that was nine years ago!  Is there no limit to how far back FINRA will deign to examine?

[2] According to the AWC, a “right of reinstatement” “allows investors to purchase shares of a fund after previously selling shares of that fund or another fund in the same fund family, without incurring a front-end sales charge . . .  or to recoup all or part of a contingent deferred sales charge fee.”

[3] Indeed, the AWC provides that Merrill had paid the restitution before the AWC was even approved.

Two years ago, when it was just an ugly rule proposal, I blogged about FINRA’s intent to modify its MAP rules to “Incentivize Payment of Arbitration Awards.”  Sadly, FINRA once again showed it spinelessness by pushing these rule amendments through, ignoring the concerns of its own member firms.  They are now not just rule proposals, but actual rules that become effective in September.  It is worth revisiting this transparent display by FINRA to curry favor with PIABA.

The new rules are outlined in Reg Notice 20-15.  I will review each of the principal components.

The first one is a little weird.  As you are likely aware, the MAP rules spell out pretty specifically when a BD must file a CMA to seek permission from FINRA to effect a “material change” in its business.  If a change is not material, then the firm can simply plow forward, without the need for the CMA.  Well, the new rule changes that.  According to the amendments, even when a firm is NOT required to file a CMA, it nevertheless cannot proceed to add RRs if one or more of them has a “‘covered pending arbitration claim,’ an unpaid arbitration award or an unpaid settlement related to an arbitration” without first “seek[ing] a materiality consultation for the contemplated business expansion.”  That is super interesting, especially since on the very same page of the Reg Notice, FINRA states that the “materiality consultation process is voluntary.”  As Inspector Clouseau famously said about the priceless Steinway piano he wrecked, not anymore.  Under this circumstance, at least, now MatCons are mandatory.

Putting aside that odd development, in my earlier blog I questioned why an individual RR’s arbitration, whether pending or concluded, should become the BD’s problem.[1]  I know from my publisher that FINRA reads this blog, so perhaps that’s why it attempted to address that concern in the Reg Notice.  Unfortunately, FINRA’s reasoning is pretty flimsy and, frankly, a bit of a subterfuge.  Basically, what FINRA says boils down to this:  if a BD is allowed to add RRs with “substantial pending arbitration claims” without having to undertake a MatCon and potentially file a CMA, it would “allow a member to, for example, hire principals and registered representatives without giving consideration to how the firm will supervise such individual or the potential financial impact on the firm if the individual, while employed at the hiring firm, engages in additional potential misconduct that results in a customer arbitration involving the firm.”  Holy cow!  Are there enough what-ifs built into this analysis?

Worse, this flimsy attempt to justify the new requirement by citing supposed supervisory concerns absolutely ignores the true underlying reason for the amendments, which is all about money, to pacify PIABA and its complaint that arbitration awards sometimes do not get paid.  The simple fact is that there are other FINRA rules that already dictate the diligence that a BD must conduct when it wants to hire someone, and that diligence most certainly includes a close look at pending and concluded customer arbitrations.  It is bothersome that FINRA has conjured up this bogus excuse for the rule amendment, a supposed supervisory issue, rather than simply admitting its true goal of discouraging firms from hiring RRs with disclosed customer arbitrations.

The second component of the new rule also changes the existing CMA framework.  Under the current rule, a firm is only required to file a CMA if it transfers 25% percent or more of its assets or line of operation that generates revenues composing 25% percent or more of its earnings.  Transfers of less than 25% do not require FINRA approval.  Again, not anymore.  The new rule requires that any such transfer, no matter how insignificant, go through the MatCon process “where the transferring member or an associated person of the transferring member has a ‘covered pending arbitration claim,’ an unpaid arbitration award or an unpaid settlement related to an arbitration.”

You know, perhaps I could get behind this if we were to restrict the analysis only to unpaid awards or settlements.  But FINRA doesn’t stop there.  It includes pending claims.  That is, claims that are unadjudicated, claims in which the respondent is presumed innocent, claims in which the complaining customer has the burden of proof, claims that history teaches are too often specious.  This is not just ridiculous, it runs counter to existing authority that allows member firms not to take financial cognizance of frivolous claims.

What do I mean by that?  Well, the new rule describes what it takes to overcome the rebuttable presumption that being involved in a customer arbitration precludes a firm from filing a successful CMA, or new firm from getting approved, and, in short, in FINRA’s eyes, it’s all about the Benjamins.  If you have enough money, maybe you’re ok.  But that is clearly NOT how the SEC looks at customer claims.  In a 1988 letter to the NASD, the SEC – the owner of the net capital rule, mind you – offered this guidance regarding what a BD must do from a net cap standpoint when it is sued (but which is also applicable when a BD is named as a respondent in an arbitration):

A broker-dealer that is the subject of a lawsuit that could have a material impact on its net capital must obtain an opinion of outside counsel regarding the potential effect of such a suit on the firm’s financial condition. Absent such opinion, the item must be considered, at a minimum, a contingent liability, and be included in the calculation of aggregate indebtedness that is required by SEA Rule 15c3-1(c)(1).

As you can see, if a customer claim is so bogus that a lawyer is willing to opine that the claim lacks merit, the SEC doesn’t require the claim to be cranked into the net capital computation, even as a contingent liability.  But here, under the new MAP rules, FINRA is saying something very different.  FINRA is saying that regardless of the merits (or lack thereof) of a customer arbitration, a firm that wants to transfer even a tiny percentage of its assets is first required to demonstrate to FINRA that it has the financial wherewithal to satisfy an adverse award, no matter how ridiculously unlikely that outcome may be.  That is, simply, wrong.

But first, what does FINRA take into consideration when it comes to the ability to satisfy an award?  Under new IM-1014-1, that financial wherewithal includes “an escrow agreement, insurance coverage, a clearing deposit, a guarantee, a reserve fund or the retention of proceeds from an asset transfer.”  But, the IM goes even further, stating that “[t]o overcome the presumption to deny the application, the Applicant must guarantee that any funds used to evidence the Applicant’s ability to satisfy any awards, settlements or claims will be used for that purpose.”  So, not enough just to show FINRA you’ve got the money; you’ve got to “guarantee” that you won’t spend it on anything else but the satisfaction of an adverse award, no matter how long it may take for the arbitration to play out.  That could be a long time to keep funds tied up just to make FINRA happy.

Interestingly, FINRA does state in that same accompanying IM to the new rule that in connection with the effort to prove to FINRA you’ve got the money to pay an adverse award, you “may provide a written opinion of an independent, reputable U.S. licensed counsel knowledgeable as to the value of such arbitration claims.”  Sort of sounds like the SEC interpretation, but it is actually very different.  In the SEC interpretation, the opinion of counsel on the merits of the claim alone, without any accompanying financial disclosures, establishes that there is no net capital impact.  In this new FINRA rule, however, the opinion of counsel is not, by itself, dispositive as to anything, as the application still requires the financial showing.  So what purpose, then, does the opinion have, if the merits of the claim are irrelevant to FINRA?  I really can’t tell.  Also worth thinking about: who is going to be the arbiter of whether the attorney who offers the opinion is “independent,” “reputable,” and “knowledgeable?”  Presumably that is, um, FINRA, right?  As always in these things, FINRA is judge, jury and executioner.  And what does FINRA mean by “independent?”  If I am hired by a BD to defend an arbitration, am I independent?  Or does this mean, because I am already the advocate for the BD, that the firm must engage a second counsel, to provide the optional opinion?

There is a lot going on with these rule amendments, and none of it good for BDs.  All so FINRA can tell Congress, and PIABA, of course, how hard it is working to help make sure customers can collect their arbitration awards, no matter the cost to its own member firms.

[1] Consider this:  the definition of a “covered arbitration claim” is “[a]n investment-related, consumer initiated claim filed against the Associated Person in any arbitration forum that is unresolved; and whose claim amount (individually or, if there is more than one claim, in the aggregate) exceeds the hiring member’s excess net capital.”  What does the hiring BD’s net capital have to do with anything?  The BD is not named in the arbitration, and is not even potentially responsible to pay the award if the claimant manages to prevail.  So what difference could it possibly make if the claim exceeds the firm’s net capital?

 

Thanks to Blaine not only for attending this conference, but for actually listening, so he could share with you the insights he gleaned from the local securities regulators here in Chicago. – Alan

While much of the broker-dealer world has been trying to figure out how to protect the financial welfare of their customers, in addition to watching Netflix and searching in vain for Lysol wipes online, our trusty securities regulators have been hard at work figuring out just how to regulate in the new circumstances brought on by the pandemic.  I know this, because senior officials from the SEC, FINRA and Illinois Securities Department said as much as during a recent (virtual) meeting of the Securities Law Committee of the Chicago Bar Association.  Industry members might be wondering exactly how their interactions with regulators might change or stay the same in the future as a result of Covid, and the Panel’s comments might provide some, albeit limited, insight.

While the regulators did not verbalize it in so many words, their overarching theme seemed to be that bad apples are figuring out ways to get rich by taking advantage of the pervasive fear and corresponding hope that people are feeling as a result of the pandemic.  The SEC wants to stop those bad apples by focusing on areas such as insider trading, non-public information (who exactly is in your Zoom meeting?) and corporations putting out false or misleading information, especially as it relates to potential treatments or, even vaccinations.  In response to false or unrealistically optimistic information, the SEC has halted trading for certain corporations and instituted at least one fraud case with more expected.

Purported treatments and cures are also keeping FINRA up at night, and if you are a broker dealer, they might give you pause too.  The reason is that FINRA indicated selling away has become a concern with brokers trying to make a quick dollar on private offerings or unregistered securities for corporations that supposedly have a miracle drug or cure.  Selling away is, of course, an age old problem associated with supervising brokers, and with most if not all of them working from home these days, the task just got more difficult for firms.

But it is not just supervision that is more difficult with so much of the work force at home.  As FINRA pointed out, technological intrusions, aka hacking, are likely to become more prevalent since individual brokers are unlikely to have robust computer security at home.  FINRA is concerned that many firms, but especially the smaller ones, might lack the financial means to implement stronger measures for all their home bound employees, which could have serious financial consequences for the customers and firms alike.  If you are not sure how your brokers are connecting from home, and if those connections are truly secure, you might want to look into it because odds are that FINRA will be doing just that the next time it conducts an exam.

Speaking of which, industry professionals will, no doubt, be delighted to hear that FINRA’s ability to conduct exams has not been impacted to any great extent.  While on-site exams have been postponed, most of the examinations these days consist of the Staff reviewing large amounts of electronic data, which can be safely transmitted via the internet.  Thus, firms should be prepared to proceed if they have exams scheduled in the not too distant future.

Another area that industry participants should be prepared for are “virtual” interviews by the respective enforcement agencies.  The SEC indicated that they have had success conducting interviews on one platform ( e.g., WebEx) and allowing the industry professional and his or her lawyer to confer on another platform (like FaceTime or Zoom).  Moreover, as FINRA explained, its investigations are all predicated on the ability to conduct OTRs, so it has not and will not cease conducting them.  In fact, the FINRA representative indicated that the SRO has taken over 80 remote OTRs since the start of the pandemic with very few problems (although, he admitted, in most cases, they have reduced the number of exhibits used during the OTRs, for the sake of simplicity).

So what does the future hold?  The FINRA official mentioned that there has been an uptick in arbitration filings due, in large part, to some of the wild swings that have permeated the market.  However, in a statement that was music to the ears of this lawyer, he conceded that it was not clear there would be a corresponding increase in enforcement cases, since customers losing money on account of a market correction does not necessarily mean their investments were unsuitable or their accounts poorly supervised.

Finally, lest the reader think that EVERYTHING has changed as a result of the pandemic, you can take solace in the fact that the regulators all indicated that a priority going forward will be protecting senior investors.  Their focus on the wellbeing of seniors, which has always been paramount, seems magnified because older investors, who are now quarantined, tend to prefer face to face meetings and are now being forced to rely on unfamiliar technology such as virtual meetings.  The fear is that unscrupulous brokers can take advantage of that unfamiliarity or, more simply, that seniors might have more difficulty comprehending their options over a Zoom call and end up with unsuitable investments.

So there you have it; the collective focus of the regulators seems relatively unchanged since the onset of the pandemic, but the ways that they are implementing their supervision and enforcement have changed and will continue to change as events dictate.

 

 

 

Last year, I wrote a piece called “Wedbush Learns That It’s Not Enough Just To Spot Red Flags.”  As the title suggests, it analyzed an SEC decision in which Wedbush was sanctioned because it failed in several respects to follow up on certain red flags it saw that were indicative of potential misconduct.

I am now following another SEC case, this one involving a CCO of a broker-dealer, that highlights a similar, but slightly different, theme.  In this case, the lesson is that it’s not just the red flags you see (but fail to investigate properly) that can burn you, but also the red flags you miss entirely but “should have” seen.

This started out as a FINRA Enforcement case.  In December 2015, Thaddeus North, CCO for Southridge Investment Group, LLC, was found liable by a FINRA hearing panel for, among things, failing to report to FINRA (under Rule 3070) that one of the firm’s associated persons was “involved in a variety of business activities with a statutorily disqualified person.”  Here are the pertinent facts:

  • Southridge had an RR, we will call her Ms. A
  • Before joining Southridge, Ms. A had worked with another RR – Mr. B – at another firm
  • After Ms. A joined Southridge, Mr. B had a little problem reporting a tax lien on his Form U-4 in a timely manner, and because that failure was deemed to be willful, he became statutorily disqualified
  • Southridge contemplated hiring Mr. B, but when Mr. North learned that he was SD’d, that was aborted, and Mr. B left the securities industry
  • In July 2009, and without disclosing it to Southridge, Ms. A entered into a Services Agreement with Mr. B’s entity, pursuant to which she would pay him for referrals, advice and training
  • From August 2009 through September 2011, Ms. A received and paid at least 42 invoices from Mr. B’s entity totaling $605,365 for various services
  • Although Mr. North didn’t know about the Services Agreement when it was executed by Ms. A in July 2009, eight months later, in March 2010, he learned about it when FINRA, after having been provided invoices to Ms. A from Mr. B’s entity, asked for any agreements relating to it, and Ms. A gave him a copy
  • Mr. North looked at the Services Agreement
  • The Services Agreement does not disclose Mr. B’s name, only the name of his entity; indeed, while Ms. A signed it, there is not even a signature block for Mr. B or his entity
  • Mr. North was not familiar with Mr. B’s entity, and did not know that Mr. B was connected with it
  • Mr. North did not question Ms. A about the agreement, did not investigate the relationship between her and the mystery entity with which she had entered into the Services Agreement, and he made no attempt to learn the details about that entity

Based on the evidence, the panel concluded that

at a minimum, North should have known of these relationships by March 2010, after seeing the Services Agreement and the invoices issued by [Mr. B’s entity] under that agreement.  At that point, when North learned that [Ms. A] and [Mr. B’s entity] had a business relationship, he knew nothing about [Mr. B’s entity], including the identity of anyone connected with it.  As the Firm’s CCO and the person responsible for Rule 3070 reporting, North should have followed-up by seeking all relevant details of [Ms. A’s] relationship with [Mr. B’s entity], as well as inquiring about the identity of the person or persons behind it.  Significantly, the Services Agreement was only executed by [Ms. A] and not by anyone on behalf of [Mr. B’s entity]. By itself, this peculiarity — which hid the identity of persons connected with [Mr. B’s entity] – was a red flag that should have caused North to inquire further. Had he done so and asked [Ms. A] who she was dealing with at [Mr. B’s entity], North likely would have learned of [Mr. B’s] connection to [Mr. B’s entity] and his ongoing relationship with King.

In short, using a “should have known” standard, the hearing panel concluded that Mr. North missed the red flag waving in his face.

On appeal, the NAC affirmed the findings, and the hearing panel’s analysis.  It held that

North should have learned about [Ms. A’s] relationship with [Mr. B] shortly after March 2010, after seeing the . . . [S]ervice [A]greement and the invoices that Southridge produced to FINRA in March 2010. Although the [S]ervice [A]greement and invoices did not reference [Mr. B], North should have sought additional details about [Ms. A’s] business dealings with [Mr. B’s entity], in particular because of certain existing red flags.  First, the monthly invoices submitted by [Mr. B’s entity] were for considerable amounts with little description about the services being provided.  Among other things, the invoices generally referenced “consultations,” ”phone consultations,” various “trainings,” and ”introductions” to various people. From July 2009 to February 2010, the . . . invoices totaled $151,800, and included monthly invoices for significant amounts (e.g., $39,800 and $32,500).  Second, the [S]ervices [A]greement, under which the invoices were issued, was vague. It was one page, and it only was executed by [Ms. A] . . . . No one executed the agreement on behalf of [Mr. B’s entity], and it did not identify anyone associated with the company. Had North investigated and inquired further about [Mr. B’s entity], he would have discovered the connection to Mr. B and his ongoing relationship with [Ms. A].

Next, Mr. North appealed to the SEC.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the SEC sustained the NAC’s findings:  “We agree with the NAC that these facts should have led North to inquire about that relationship [between Ms. A and Mr. B’s entity].  Accordingly, North violated NASD Rule 3070 and FINRA Rule 2010 because he did not report [Ms. A’s] and [Mr. B’s] relationship to FINRA although he should have known about it.”

Now Mr. North has appealed the SEC decision to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, where it is pending.  That particular court may not be so quick to rubber-stamp the SEC’s views.  And I say this from personal experience, as counsel – along with my partner, Heidi VonderHeide – in the noteworthy Robare case.  There, the D.C. Circuit agreed with us that because my clients only acted negligently, they could not have also acted willfully.  It is certainly possible that the D.C. Circuit will look very hard at the SEC’s position here, as stated in its appellate brief, which is that the mere failure to satisfy one’s duty to “inquire” when presented with red flags somehow equates to “should have known.”  As my friend and former colleague Brian Rubin so accurately put it in his own thoughtful take on Mr. North’s travails, “FINRA presented no evidence showing that if North had followed up, he would have (or even ‘likely’ would have) learned about the relationship [between Ms. A and Mr B].  The most FINRA established is that North ‘could possibly have’ learned about the relationship, and that does not appear to be sufficient grounds to charge anyone.”

That’s the thing about those pesky red flags.  They can get you into hot water any which way.  You can see them, and fail to respond, for whatever reason.  You can see them, and choose not to respond (because you don’t think they are, in fact, red flags[1]).  You can see them, but not respond vigorously, or quickly, enough.  And you can simply not see them at all.  Mr. North was sort of all over the place.  He sort of saw the red flag, but didn’t recognize it to be a red flag, and so didn’t respond particularly well (by failing to ask enough questions).  The regulators have concluded – rightly or wrongly – that had he done so, he would have learned of the problematic relationship and reported it.

I can’t say that is true or not.  But, what I can say – and this, at last, is the takeaway from this blog post – is that this is something that no one should ever leave up to the regulators to decide.  FINRA sees the failure to ask questions as the failure to act.  If Mr. North had just asked a few questions – if he had asked Ms. A to explain about the Services Agreement (and memorialized his efforts, of course) – he likely would not have gotten into trouble, even if Ms. A ducked his questions and he never actually learned that she had entered into an agreement with the SD’d Mr. B.

In other words, Mr. North’s problem wasn’t that he didn’t know something, it’s that he didn’t try hard enough to know it.  Even when confronted with a host of facts suggesting there was an issue.

As a defense counsel, I would always prefer to defend someone who saw the red flags, and followed up on them, regardless of the conclusion he or she reached.  It wouldn’t matter to me if my client concluded that, following a robust investigation, there may have been smoke, but ultimately no fire.  Provided the investigation was, in fact, robust, that case can be defended all day, every day.  But Mr. North, alas, didn’t follow up.  And notwithstanding the result Heidi and I got in the Robare case, I have my doubts that the D.C. Circuit will see this any differently than FINRA or the SEC.  Don’t let yourself suffer the consequences as Mr. North has.  Be prepared to demonstrate not only that you didn’t know something, but, despite your best faith efforts, no one could reasonably argue that you should have known it.

 

[1] Let me share one anecdote here, from a FINRA Enforcement case that Heidi handled.  The FINRA examiner was on the witness stand, and he testified about something he admitted probably wasn’t a red flag, but felt it was at least a “yellow flag,” and that those also needed attention.  That certainly suggests that it is never safe simply to conclude that something isn’t a red flag, given FINRA’s demonstrated willingness to characterize anything as such.

I may have said this before in another post, but in my opinion, whether a baseball umpire is good or bad is not a matter of whether he has a low strikezone, a high strikezone, or a wide one.  What matters is that whatever that umpire deems to be a strike vs. a ball is consistent from inning to inning, pitcher to pitcher, game to game.  Because that provides predictability.  When a pitcher and batter know what to expect, they can react accordingly.  It is no different with regulators.  If you know what they want from you, and how they will react, then compliance becomes an easier world to manage.

With these prefatory words in mind, I want to commend Jessica Hopper, the head of FINRA Enforcement, for actually doing what she says she wants to do (not necessarily a common event with securities regulators).  Here is what I mean.

In a recent FINRA podcast called “FINRA Enforcement: Protecting Investors and Markets in Good Times and Bad,” Jessica was the principal guest, and she spent a half-hour or so talking about her priorities for her department.  Happily, FINRA published the transcript of that podcast, so you don’t have to listen to it.  And according to the transcript, Jessica stated that her “first priority is obtaining restitution for harmed customers. When a customer has been financially harmed through whatever misconduct we identify, we want to get the money back to them quickly.”  Consistent with that, last week, in a webcast by SIFMA that I attended, she repeated the very same, very clear sentiment.

To begin, however, let’s put aside any discussion of whether this priority is correct or not.  I mean, one could make a pretty compelling argument that the appropriate venue for aggrieved customers to get their money back is the arbitration process (administered by FINRA Dispute Resolution Services, its relatively new name), not an Enforcement action.  Indeed, FINRA’s own website says that filing an arbitration – rather than a complaint with Enforcement – is the way to go “if you want to recover . . . money”:

Dispute Resolution is not the same as filing an investor complaint.  Some investors are confused about the differences between resolving monetary disputes through arbitration or mediation, and filing an investor complaint.  These are unrelated.  If you want to make FINRA aware of any potentially fraudulent or suspicious activities by brokerage firms or brokers, then the best course of action is to use FINRA’s Investor Complaint Center.

However, if you want to recover damages, such as money or securities, filing an arbitration or mediation case offers you a way to seek damages. Importantly, investors can file an investor complaint and file for arbitration; investors are not limited to one or the other option.

But, as I said, that’s not the point here, for this blog, anyway.  The point is that Jessica says she is all about getting customers their money back.  To show that she means what she says – and make no mistake, that’s a commendable quality, as it provides the predictability I mentioned above – check out this AWC just published last week involving SunTrust Investment Services, out of Atlanta, my old stomping ground.  According to the AWC, for three years, from January 2015 until January 2018, the firm

failed to establish, maintain and enforce a supervisory system, including written supervisory procedures (“WSPs”) that were reasonably designed to ensure compliance with FINRA Rule 2111 in relation to solicited sales of non-traditional exchange traded funds (“NTETFs”) by its registered representatives.  These supervisory failures resulted in losses during the Relevant Period of $584,466.

What, exactly, did SunTrust do wrong?  It boils down to a few things:

  • While its WSPs recognized that NT-ETFs “c[ould] be inefficient and problematic long-term investments” and required the positions be monitored by the representative, supervising principal and the Central Supervision Group (CSG), the firm lacked reasonable procedures or guidance to representatives or supervisors regarding how to determine whether an NTETF was suitable for customers given the unique features and risks of those products.
  • The Firm did not have any systems in place, such as an alert or exception report, to assist in monitoring the holding periods for NT-ETFs.
  • No one at the Firm conducted a customer-specific suitability analysis for NT-ETF positions held for periods longer than one day, nor did the WSPs require such an analysis.
  • Although SunTrust required its representatives to complete an online training course prior to recommending transactions involving NT-ETFs, the training did not describe how to monitor ongoing holding periods and the related impact on suitability.

As a result of these various failures, 95 customer accounts held positions in NT-ETFs for extended periods of time.

Where this AWC gets interesting, however, is in the sanctions.  FINRA only fined the firm $50,000, but, significantly, that seems to because SunTrust paid back to the affected customer accounts whatever they lost as a result of the supervisory failures.  Indeed, the AWC imposed a restitution obligation of $584,466.13, but noted that even before the AWC was finalized, the firm had already “voluntarily paid restitution [of] $445,836.27 to 30 customers that it identified through its own investigation based on a broad-based methodology prior to the opening of an Enforcement investigation.”

So, there you go.  Jessica tells the world that what she cares about is restitution.  And, bam!, here is an AWC with a big firm, with serious supervisory lapses over an extended period of time, and a not-insignificant disciplinary history, but with a relatively modest fine. Wait, you say.  Fifty-Thousand isn’t modest!  Ah, but I said “relatively modest.”  And by that, I mean it is modest compared to the fines that SunTrust has previously paid.  According to BrokerCheck, in 2017, the firm paid the SEC a civil monetary penalty of $1.1 million.  In 2014, it paid FINRA a fine of $80,000.  In 2011, it paid FINRA a fine of $400,000.  In 2010, it paid FINRA a $900,000 fine.  In 2008, it paid FINRA a $700,000 fine.  And way back in 2006, it paid FINRA a $150,000 fine.  As you can see, $50,000 is, in dramatic fact, a drop in the bucket compared to what SunTrust is used to paying.

Now, the AWC does not specifically state that the fine was deliberately minimized because of the restitution, but it does say that “[i]n determining the appropriate sanctions,” FINRA took the restitution into consideration.  Reading between the lines here, I’d say it’s pretty easy to deduce that Jessica’s stated desire to obtain restitution must have had a real, demonstrable impact on the fine imposed on SunTrust.  Now that you know that, now that you know the voluntary payment of restitution can result in a dramatically smaller fine, you would be silly to ignore this.

As I said, kudos to Jessica for actually walking the walk.  I would much prefer to deal with a regulator whose word means something than someone whose goals are mere lip service.

Update 5/28/2020:  FINRA released another AWC today that reinforces the conclusion that I reached in this post.  Stifel, Nicolaus signed an AWC for supervisory failures relating to the sale of UITs (dating waaaay back to 2012!).  In addition to a $1.75 million fine, Stifel also agreed to pay almost $1.9 million in restitution — plus over four years of interest! — to customers who purchased UITs from the firm.  Unlike SunTrust, there is no indication in the AWC that Stifel paid any restitution voluntarily, prior to the settlement.  Indeed, the AWC requires that when Stifel writes its checks out to the affected customers, they be notified that “the payment is being made pursuant to a settlement with FINRA and as a term of this AWC.”  In other words, with a gun to its head, held by FINRA.  In any event, that could explain why the fine is so high, and certainly so much more than SunTrust agreed to pay.  Finally, if you have any doubts that the restitution component of the sanctions is what makes FINRA happiest, consider the Press Release that FINRA issued to announce the AWC.  In it, Jessica is quoted, as follows: ““Firms must have an adequate supervisory system in place to detect potentially unsuitable UIT rollovers, and also provide customers with accurate information so they can make informed decisions about those rollover recommendations. We are pleased that customers will receive restitution for sales charges incurred as a result of the recommendations.”  Note that she specifically touted the restitution, and makes no mention of the fine, despite the fact it is nearly $2 million. 

Update 6/2/2020:  FINRA released another AWC today, with more of the same.  This time, the case involved an individual, who was found to have made unsuitable recommendations.  Notably, while FINRA agreed to waive the fine that would otherwise have been imposed (due to the respondent’s inability to pay it), it still required him to pay restitution to the customer of $50,000.  So, no money to pay the fine, but enough to pay the customer back.  

I am fairly certain that at least every once in a while, you appreciate hearing from someone a bit less snarky than me.  If so, then you’re in luck!  Please enjoy this post from my partner, and my co-leader of Ulmer’s Financial Services practice group, Fran Goins, about FINRA’s response to COVID-19. – Alan

 

Online fraud is a bigger business than ever in the current pandemic environment. Far from “self-isolating,” fraudsters are seeing online work as an opportunity to take advantage of firms and their customers, using stolen personal information to set up phony accounts and divert funds from customers. FINRA has not remained silent, publishing an Information Notice addressed to firms on March 26, 2020 and Regulatory Notice 20-13 on May 5, 2020, following up with new a FAQ for investors on May 11, 2020.

In response to pandemic-engendered business issues, FINRA had already updated its Business Continuity Planning FAQ on March 24, 2020 to confirm that members and their associated persons were permitted to use remote offices or telework arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic. The FAQ noted, however, that members who chose to utilize such arrangements would be expected to maintain appropriate supervisory systems and documentation.

The follow-up Information Notice titled, “Measures to Consider as Firms Respond to the Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19),” flags measures that firms should employ when having to close offices and work offsite in the wake of state stay-at-home orders. It addresses basic protective measures for associated persons and firms dealing with the new work arrangements. Associated persons are encouraged to update security on office and home networks, update software and operating systems on home computers and mobile devices, learn to recognize common phishing and business email scams, and understand the firm’s incident response plan, including who to call in the case of a breach. Firms are encouraged to beef up network security controls to provide staff with a secure connection to the work environment and review who needs to access sensitive systems and data, provide training to staff regarding potential scams and attacks, and provide well trained IT personnel to support staff working remotely.

In May, FINRA issued an additional set of COVID-19 updates and guidance to firms and investors. Regulatory Notice 20-13, addressed to firms, notes the “heightened threat of frauds and scams” that firms and their customers may be exposed to during the pandemic. These include: (1) fraudulent account openings and money transfers; (2) firm imposter scams; (3) IT Help Desk scams; and (4) business email compromise schemes. While none of these scams are new, the use of stolen or synthetic customer information and phishing emails to trick firms and their customers is even more prevalent in the current environment. The Notice suggests detailed, specific measures that firms should take to avoid becoming victims of such scams, including:

  • Using enhanced customer identification programs;
  • Monitoring for fraud during account opening;
  • Using careful bank account verification procedures and restrictions on fund transfers;
  • Continuing to monitor after accounts are opened;
  • Collaborating with clearing firms to handle ACH transactions;
  • Filing appropriate SARS reports;
  • Assessing compliance programs;
  • Safeguarding customer “records and information” pursuant to Reg S-P; and
  • Training staff to recognize scams such as firm imposter, IT Help Desk, and business email compromise schemes.

FINRA’s most recent guidance addressed to investors is titled, “Fraud & Your Investment Accounts During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” It largely tracks the Notice to firms, but also contains “Investor Tips” urging investors to review and monitor their accounts and credit reports to flag unusual or unauthorized transactions; safeguard credentials and control account access; verify the identity of anyone who contacts them purportedly on behalf of their firm through independent means; learn to recognize “red flags” that may indicate a business email compromise; and report any suspicious activity to FINRA, the SEC, the FBI, and local authorities.

Scammers and hackers take advantage of any unusual event to up their game, and nothing is more unusual than the current pandemic environment. FINRA’s comments and suggestions point out the dangers of remaining complacent. Firms, members, and investors should take heed.