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SEC Faults Adviser Platform for Failing to Promote Funds that Did Not Share Revenue

The SEC has sued a large RIA platform for failing to fully disclose that it had a material conflict of interest because it received revenue sharing from certain funds.  The SEC alleges that the defendant received ongoing revenue sharing through its clearing firm on certain funds and share classes.  Although the firm disclosed that it received revenue sharing and might have a conflict, it did not fully disclose that it actually received millions of dollars in revenue sharing and that lower cost funds and share classes were often available.  The SEC asserts that the firm should have described the incentive it received to select funds and classes that benefited the firm to the detriment of its clients.

The SEC breaks new ground in this complaint by suggesting that the firm should have invested client assets in other funds (including funds sponsored by an affiliate of the clearing broker) that did not offer revenue sharing.  Most prior revenue sharing cases have focused on the use of higher fee share classes of the same fund.  This line of argument raises a concern that the SEC is implicitly advocating for the lowest cost fund regardless of investment mandate or performance.  For example, would an adviser violate its fiduciary duty, absent revenue sharing, if it recommended a higher cost fund for reasons other than total expense ratio? 

Large Custody Bank to Pay $89 Million for Marking Up Out-of-Pocket Expenses

A large custody bank agreed to pay almost $89 Million in fines, disgorgement, and interest to settle charges that it overcharged investment company clients by marking up purported out-of-pocket expenses for nearly two decades. The most significant markups occurred on SWIFT messages as the bank failed to adjust the charges as its internal costs decreased over time. The SEC also maintains the bank overcharged investment company clients on 12 other classes of expenses, collecting $170 Million in profit during the period. The SEC charges the custody bank with causing its fund clients to maintain inaccurate books and records.

This case should prompt fund financial officers to review the charges imposed by the custody bank. That nickel and diming on everything from wire fees to foreign custody reports may be unlawful. Service providers should also take note that the SEC will initiate enforcement for overcharging registrants even where the service provider itself is not an SEC registered or regulated entity.

Private Equity CEO Failed to Supervise CFO/CCO


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.

Hedge Fund Seeding Platform Over-Allocated Internal Expenses

The hedge fund seeding platform created by a large asset manager agreed to pay over $2.7 Million in disgorgement, interest and penalties for over-allocating internal expenses.  The respondent created private equity funds to invest in third party hedge fund managers.  The firm then created an internal group of employees tasked with helping hedge fund managers in which the funds invested to attract new capital, launch products and optimize operations.  Pursuant to their organizational documents, the funds would pay up to 50 basis points for these activities.  The SEC charges that the respondent allocated all the group’s compensation expenses to the funds even though they spent a portion of their time on activities that benefitted the fund sponsor and unrelated to the enumerated activities.   The SEC faults the firm for failing to implement appropriate compliance policies and procedures and for making material misstatements.

Do not charge expenses to managed funds unless the organizational and disclosure documents are absolutely clear that the funds will bear the expenses.  When doing internal expense allocations, always err to the side of benefitting the fund rather than the fund manager. 

Private Equity Firm Overcharged Clients for 16 Years

A private equity firm agreed to pay a $400,000 fine and reimburse clients for overcharging fund investors over a 16-year period.  According to the SEC, the PE firm did not proportionally allocate broken deal, legal, consulting, insurance, and other expenses to co-investors and employee co-investment funds, thereby overcharging investors in their flagship funds.  The SEC also accuses the firm of paying portfolio company consulting fees to co-investors, which resulted in lower fee offsets to the detriment of flagship fund investors.  The firm voluntarily agreed to reimburse investors for the expenses and the fees following discovery of the misconduct during a 2016 SEC exam.  The SEC charges the firm with failing to implement a reasonable compliance program as well as the Advisers Act’s antifraud rules. 


If the firm had implemented a reasonable compliance program, discovered the overcharging, and reimbursed clients before the SEC uncovered the violations during an exam, it may have avoided the public enforcement action and resulting fine.  Also, a reasonable compliance program may have avoided the overcharging in the first place.  C-suite executives should re-think the cowboy mentality that ignores compliance until the SEC or a client makes them change.  It’s much less expensive to change the oil every 5000 miles than to replace the engine if it seizes. 

Private Equity Firm Mis-Allocated Expenses and Overlooked Conflicts

 A private equity manager agreed to pay over $2.8 Million in client reimbursements, disgorgement, penalties and interest in connection with mis-allocating overhead expenses and undisclosed conflicts of interest.  The SEC accuses the respondent of allocating a portion of staff expenses to the funds without disclosure or LP committee approval.   The respondent also failed to disclose that the principal had a financial interest in two consulting firms that did work for both the funds and the manager.  The SEC asserts that the firm failed to implement a reasonable compliance program, arguing that such a claim may rest on a finding of negligence.

This is low-hanging fruit for the SEC Enforcement Division.  When you get sloppy with expense allocations and ignore interlocking financial interests, the SEC can easily make its case that the firm acted negligently by failing to implement a sensible compliance program.

Compliance Failures Cost BDC Manager $4 Million in Penalties and $2.6 Billion in Assets

 A BDC manager’s compliance failures led to nearly $4 Million in fines, disgorgement and penalties and the loss of its advisory business.   The SEC charges the firm with misallocating overhead expenses to the registered Business Development Companies it managed and with overvaluing portfolio companies.  The SEC maintains that the registrant used material nonpublic information about BDC portfolio companies to benefit affiliated hedge funds that it managed.  In 2014, the firm had over $2.6 Billion in assets under management but withdrew its adviser registration in 2017 following the SEC enforcement action.  The SEC asserts violations of the compliance rule (206(4)-7) in addition to a laundry list of other securities laws violations.

Failure to implement an effective compliance program has consequences beyond penalties and fines.  The negative impact to a firm’s and its principals’ reputations could ultimately bring down the entire franchise. 

SEC Warns Advisers about Fee and Expense Practices

The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations has issued a Risk Alert detailing investment adviser failures to properly calculate and disclose fees and expenses.  OCIE cites failures to properly value assets, thereby leading to overbilling, using the incorrect fee rate, and billing based on the wrong time period.  OCIE also details faulty disclosure practices including Form ADVs that do not reflect actual billing practices and failures to fully disclose compensation arrangements.  OCIE also highlights fund sponsors that misallocate expenses.  The OCIE findings result from issues identified in deficiency letters issued in recent SEC exams.  The Risk Alert advises that firms take action by reimbursing clients and enhancing policies and procedures.

OUR TAKE: These Risk Alerts often precede enforcement actions.  Compli-pros should review their fee billing and disclosure practices in anticipation of an OCIE sweep.

 

Large BD/IA Pays $2.2 Million for Recommending Wrong Mutual Fund Share Class

A large BD/IA agreed to pay $2.2 Million in remediation, interest and penalties for failing to recommend the lowest mutual fund share class available to retirement plan customers. Instead of recommending load-waived “A” shares, the respondent recommended other higher-cost share classes that resulted in compensation paid to the BD/IA.  The SEC faults the firm for failing to have adequate systems and controls in place to ensure that retirement clients benefitted from available discounts.   The SEC also asserts that the BD/IA omitted necessary disclosures about revenue sharing and the impact on overall investment returns.  An SEC Enforcement official warned that “these types of actions remains a priority for the Division” as evidenced by its recently-announced Share Class Selection Disclosure Initiative.

OUR TAKE: Firms must implement a system to ensure that eligible clients get the waivers to which they are entitled.  Compliance can’t rely on reps self-policing, especially when they receive higher compensation on certain share classes.

 

Chief Accounting Officer Barred and Fined for Approving CEO Expenses

The SEC barred and fined a public company Chief Accounting Officer for approving undisclosed expense reimbursements for the company’s CEO.  The CEO ultimately repaid the $11.285 worth of perquisites incurred over a 5-year period for personal items such as private aircraft usage, cosmetic surgery, cash for tips, medical expenses, charitable donations, and personal travel expenses.  The SEC asserts that the CAO approved the expenses in violation of company policy and without appropriate backup documentation and then failed to disclose the reimbursements in the company proxy statements.  The SEC charges the CAO with causing the company to file false reports.

OUR TAKE: We wrote on Friday that the SEC is looking to hold financial executives accountable.  In this case, the SEC doesn’t even allege that the CAO derived any personal benefit by approving his boss’s expenses.  Regardless, the SEC holds him accountable for allowing wrongdoing to occur.