Just because you do not register with the SEC does not mean that you are exempt from its antifraud rules. Section 206 applies to any statement made by an investment adviser, whether registered or unregistered, that could defraud any client or prospective client.
Didn’t know that name-dropping could result in securities fraud? Any misstatement arguably relied upon by investors could give rise to Section 17(a)(2) charges of offering securities by means of an untrue statement of a material fact.
This case should be read by any potential client/investor enticed by a too-good-to-be-true investment pitch. It is unfortunate when legitimate investment managers have to compete for business against wrongdoers who outright lie about their performance.
SEC fined a large commercial bank for failing to disclose that it only
recommended hedge funds that paid a portion of the management fee back to the
bank. The bank marketed a robust due
diligence process conducted by a purportedly independent, in-house research
group performing a multi-step due diligence process to select hedge funds from
an “extremely large universe.” In fact,
the bank only recommended hedge funds that paid back management fees that it
called “retrocessions.” Although the
bank disclosed that it might receive revenue sharing and the amount actually received
from each hedge fund, the actual due diligence process did not comport with
marketing promises. The bank, which is
not a registered adviser or broker-dealer, was charged with violating the Securities
Act’s anti-fraud provisions (17(a)(2)).
Check the marketing team’s enthusiasm at the door. The SEC doesn’t allow firms an exception from the securities laws for product hype, regardless of how clients/investors may perceive the statements. Rather than caveat emptor (buyer beware), caveat venditor (seller beware) governs sales of securities products.
The SEC charged
an unregistered day trader for lying about his trading success and misappropriating
client funds. The defendant convinced clients to hire him by asserting that
that he had done very well as a day trader over several years and then promised
over 50% annualized returns. Once retained,
the trader did very poorly and siphoned client assets for personal
expenses. According to the SEC, he then
concealed his misconduct by delivering false account statements and implementing
a microcap wash sale scheme. The
defendant also faces criminal charges brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for
the Eastern District of New York.
Lying about your investment track record constitutes securities fraud, subjecting you to civil and criminal penalties. Do not make performance claims unless you can affirmatively support your claims with hard data.
SEC’s Investment Management Division Director, Dalia Blass, anticipates that
the Division will soon recommend changes to the adviser marketing and solicitation
rules. In her annual speech to the Investment
Company Institute membership, Ms. Blass also announced initiatives for a
summary shareholder report, updates to the valuation guidance, modernization of
the offering rules for business development companies and closed-end funds, and
changes to the rules for funds’ use of derivatives. Additionally, Ms. Blass wants the Division to
finalize the proposed ETF and fund-of-funds rules. She has also asked the staff to begin an
outreach to small and mid-sized fund sponsors about regulatory barriers. She announced that the Division is
considering the formation of an asset management advisory committee to solicit diverse
viewpoints on critical issues.
We applaud the reinvigorated Investment Management Division for tackling some of the thornier problems that have faced the industry for many years. For instance, the marketing rules haven’t changed for decades despite revolutionary change in the financial services industry.
The change here is allowing broker-dealers to provide the information to intermediary financial advisers and putting the burden on the intermediaries to prevent use directly with their retail clients. Regardless, we recommend against using hypothetical backtested performance data because of SEC concerns as well as the significant regulatory and disclosure limitations.
The SEC fined and censured a now-defunct robo-adviser for disseminating misleading marketing information that purported to show outperformance versus competitors. The SEC asserts that the respondent understated the performance of competitor robo-advisers by using only publicly available information and failing to account for actual weightings. The SEC faults the firm for publishing information without the documents or data to support its performance claims. The SEC also maintains that the firm inflated its own performance by cherry-picking certain clients and time periods. The SEC faults the firm for failing to have policies and procedures requiring the review of marketing materials in part because the Chief Compliance Officer was not aware that social media posts constituted marketing materials under the Advisers Act.
We hate (HATE!) the concept of using a competitor’s name and/or information in marketing and advertising. You are inviting your competitor to prove you wrong and thereby call you out on a regulatory violation.
The SEC censured and fined a robo-adviser for several compliance violations related to client account management and marketing. The SEC alleges that software programming errors caused the respondent’s failure to execute tax loss harvesting without violating the wash sale rules, contrary to marketing materials. The SEC also asserts that the firm retweeted client testimonials and other positive tweets made by those with an economic interest including employees, investors, and paid tweeters. Additionally, the SEC maintains that the firm failed to provide the necessary disclosure to clients about payments to bloggers to refer the clients to the respondent. The SEC charges the firm with failing to implement a reasonable compliance program in addition to violations of the antifraud rules and the recordkeeping rules.
We think robo-advisers provide innovative services to under-served retail clients. Regardless, as registered investment advisers, robos must conform to the heavily-regulated environment in which they operate. Some of these alleged violations could have been easily avoided with an industry-standard compliance program. We recommend reviewing the SEC’s previously issued regulatory compliance guidance to robo-advisers.