The interesting twist here is that the SEC doesn’t really describe why the compensation should be characterized as transaction-based, triggering broker-dealer registration, rather than permissible asset-based compensation. Instead, the SEC relies more on the source of the compensation (e.g. the product sponsor) rather than a direct fee charged to the client. Could the firm have avoided the broker-dealer registration charges if it assessed the 1.25% fee on the client rather than collect it as revenue sharing from the product sponsor? This may be an economic distinction without a difference, but the SEC will view it through a different regulatory lens.
Firms should use some third party (e.g. fund administrator, LPA committee) to calculate, or at least confirm calculations, of fees collected from clients. When management can exercise arithmetic discretion to pay itself, regulators will scrutinize the calculations.
Don’t engage in direct transactions with your clients. We do not believe any amount of disclosure could adequately mitigate such a significant conflict of interest and resulting breach of fiduciary duty.
The SEC fined a hedge fund $5 Million, and its Chief Investment Officer another $250,000, for failing to properly value portfolio securities. The SEC maintains that the firm over-relied on the discretion of traders to value Level 3 mortgage-backed securities rather than use required observable market inputs. The SEC contends that the firm consistently undervalued bonds to maximize profit upon sale. The SEC faults the CIO for failing to properly review valuation decisions and ensure that the traders followed the firm’s valuation procedures. The SEC asserts violations of the compliance rule (206(4)-7) because the firm failed to implement reasonable policies and procedures to ensure fair valuation of portfolio securities. As part of the settlement, the firm hired an experienced Chief Compliance Officer rather than rely on its prior Risk Committee comprised of executives with limited regulatory and valuation experience.
Valuation is about process. Firms that buy Level 3 securities must create a consistent, documented and contemporaneous process based on objective criteria in order to defend pricing decisions. For compli-pros, one way to test valuation is to sample whether liquidation prices vary consistently (either always higher or lower) than the firm’s internal valuations before liquidation.
The Chief Compliance Officer has extraordinary (and in some cases, unwarranted) access to employee records in addition to other confidential information such as executive meetings and emails. Firms should pursue enhanced background due diligence on potential CCO candidates, create information barriers so that the CCO does not have access to non-regulatory information, and implement a supervisory structure that ensures CCO accountability. Alternatively, consider outsourcing to a third-party firm that has limited access to firm systems as well as direct legal liability for breaches of confidentiality.
The SEC charged an investment adviser’s principal, who also served as the firm’s Chief Compliance Officer, with multiple compliance violations. The SEC charges the respondent with (i) overcharging his client, (ii) overstating his assets under management, (iii) failing to disclose two client lawsuits, (iv) misrepresenting the reason he switched custodians, and (v) neglecting to maintain required books and records. The SEC also alleges that the principal aided and abetted violations of the compliance rule (206(4)-7) by purchasing a template compliance manual, omitting required policies and procedures, and failing to implement required procedures. The firm ultimately ceased operations, and the respondent agreed to pay over $500,000 in fines, disgorgement and interest.
The dual hat CCO model (i.e. a senior executive also serving as the Chief Compliance Officer) doesn’t work. The dual-hat CCO usually does not have the time, expertise, or interest to do the job properly. Also, a CCO must have enough independence from the business to properly enforce the applicable regulatory and compliance obligations.
We are seeing a renewed SEC interest in how firms use soft dollar credits. Although the facts of this case date back several years, this action may portend future regulatory and enforcement initiatives.
A private equity firm, the firm’s CEO, and its CFO/CCO were each censured and fined for overcharging the fund, engaging in improper insider loans, and violating the custody rule. According to the SEC, the CFO/CCO failed to properly allocate management fee offsets for certain deemed contributions, thereby overcharging the fund by about $1.4 Million. The CFO/CCO also arranged improper loans between the fund and the management company and overcharged for organizational expenses. The SEC also charges the firm with failing to deliver audited financial statements within the required 120-day period, in part because one of its auditors withdrew from the engagement. The SEC faults the CEO for failing to properly supervise the CFO/CCO as required by Section 203(e)(6) of the Advisers Act. The SEC alleges violations of the Advisers Act’s antifraud rule (206(4)-8) and the compliance rule (206(4)-7).
Senior leaders will not escape accountability by claiming reliance on subordinates. Also, private equity firms can’t use the funds they manage as their firm piggy banks. They need to implement policies and procedures about the withdrawal and use of funds.
This case has all the features of an advisory fraud: illiquid assets, conflicts of interest, an affiliated valuation agent, and individuals with questionable backgrounds. It is a cautionary tale for investors, compli-pros, and regulators about how far wrongdoers will go to pursue their illicit intents.