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SEC’s Blass Announces Plans to Modernize Adviser Marketing Rules

The 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. 

Self-Reporting ICO Forced to Offer Rescission to All Investors

The sponsor of an initial coin offering agreed to offer full rescission of proceeds raised in order to settle SEC charges that the firm engaged in an unregistered securities offering.  The sponsor raised $12.7 Million by issuing digital tokens in exchange for Ether as part of its efforts to raise funds to further develop its internet security product.  The tokens would serve as currency for a peer-to-peer network that would allow participants to access additional bandwidth in the event of a cyber-attack.  As part of its marketing, principals suggested that the value of the tokens should rise as the network expanded.  The SEC maintains that this “reasonable expectation of a future profit” satisfied the Howey test and that, therefore, the tokens were “securities” and the offering constituted an unregistered securities offering.  The SEC did not impose a civil penalty because the firm self-reported. 

We don’t think that the SEC has a slam-dunk case that ICOs are securities offerings.  In fact, some courts have opined that the SEC must specifically prove that each ICO is in fact a securities offering.  Until the courts offer some specific guidance, ICO sponsors should observe the securities laws to avoid a crippling enforcement action. 

The Friday List: Effects of the Government Shutdown on the Investment Management Industry


Today, we offer our “Friday List,” an occasional feature summarizing a topic significant to investment management professionals interested in regulatory issues.  Our Friday Lists are an expanded “Our Take” on a particular subject, offering our unique (and sometimes controversial) perspective on an industry topic. 

As the partial federal government shutdown continues, the investment management industry is beginning to feel the effects of reduced SEC operations.   The people most affected are those furloughed SEC employees who lose compensation every day the shutdown continues.  However, the entire industry has been affected.  Below is our list of the top 10 effects of the partial federal government shutdown. 

Effects of the Government Shutdown

  1. New product approvals.  New products including registration statements must await approval until the furloughed workers return.
  2. Exams.  The OCIE staff has delayed ongoing exams until the shutdown ends.  It is unclear whether the shutdown will reduce the total number of exams. 
  3. Enforcement litigation.  While the SEC continues to conduct market surveillance, ongoing litigation that is not time-sensitive will be delayed.
  4. Regulatory information.  The SEC is not posting regulatory information or interpretations on its website during the shutdown
  5. Exemptive applications/No Action Letters.  Requested exemptive applications and no-action letters seeking relief from the black letter rules cannot go forward without SEC staff.
  6. New rules.  The SEC is not reviewing potential new rule initiatives or comments to current proposals. 
  7. Travel.  Many of our clients and colleagues have delayed travel to discuss new initiatives or to attend meetings. 
  8. Service providers.  With asset managers unable to launch new products, service providers such as lawyers and fund administrators must wait for their clients to go forward. 
  9. Conferences.  It is unclear whether SEC officials will attend this winter’s industry conferences where they traditionally provide some guidance.  Even if they do attend, any guidance will necessarily depend on how long the shutdown continues. 
  10. Industry outreach.  The SEC will likely delay industry outreach to management, compliance professionals and boards.

Adviser Falsely Claimed SEC Registration Eligibility

The SEC barred from the industry the principal of a registered investment adviser for falsely claiming SEC registration eligibility.  In his initial Form ADV filing, the respondent claimed over $500 Million in assets under management, but the SEC asserts the firm managed no assets.  A year later, the respondent claimed a Wyoming principal place of business and assets under management in excess of $25 Million.  The SEC maintains that the firm operated from New York and had assets less than $5.4 Million.  In both years, the respondent electronically signed the Form ADV “under penalty of perjury.”

The SEC does not look kindly on advisers that lie on Form ADV to claim registration eligibility.  The regulator already supervises over 13,000 advisers that legally qualify for federal registration. 

The Friday List: My 2019 Predictions

Today, we offer our “Friday List,” an occasional feature summarizing a topic significant to investment management professionals interested in regulatory issues.  Our Friday Lists are an expanded “Our Take” on a particular subject, offering our unique (and sometimes controversial) perspective on an industry topic. 

As reported last week, I went 8-2 on my 2018 regulatory predictions, bringing my mark to 22-15-3 over the last four years.  For the upcoming year, I want to take a few more chances and swing for the fences on a couple of predictions. While this may lower my percentage, I hope my readers and our clients will reward the boldness (perhaps by reading my new book: The Compliance Advantage: Ten Must-Know Trends to Protect Your Investment Firm (available on Amazon). 

Predictions for the 2019 Regulatory Year

  1. The SEC will propose a comprehensive adviser marketing/advertising rule.  Last year, we accurately predicted that the Enforcement Division would focus on marketing and advertising cases.  We predict that the Division of Investment Management will use these cases as the justification to propose a new rule addressing adviser marketing practices.
  2. The SEC will re-propose the broker best interest standard.  Responding to industry comments, the SEC will re-propose the rule and make it closer to an adviser fiduciary standard but stopping just short of reconciling the two standards. 
  3. The Enforcement Division will bring several significant cases alleging violations of the solicitor rule.  OCIE has already cited widespread noncompliance with the solicitation rule (206(4)-3), which limits how advisers can pay solicitors for recommending their services.  We expect that the Enforcement Division will follow up with significant litigation. 
  4. The SEC will liberalize the private offering rules.  Look for the SEC to raise the accredited investor definition, change offering exemptions, or seek new private offering categories. 
  5. OCIE will examine at least 20% of advisers.  Chairman Clayton committed to increasing adviser reviews to respond to media and Congressional criticism that the SEC needs to enhance industry supervision.  The SEC reviewed 15% of advisers last year.  This will be the year that the SEC hits the 20% mark. 
  6. The SEC will bring significant cases against independent fund directors.  Both OCIE and the Enforcement Division have increased scrutiny of registered funds and their management.  I foresee that the Enforcement Division will go beyond the fund sponsors and look to hold independent directors accountable for regulatory failures. 
  7. The SEC will allege securities fraud in secondary market private equity transactions.  Both private equity sponsors and third parties have expanded the secondary market for private equity investments.  Because of the information imbalance between buyers and sellers, we expect that the SEC will seek to even the playing field by bringing securities fraud cases.   
  8. The SEC will approve a registered crypto fund.  I won’t try to predict which fund, or the conditions imposed, but I believe the SEC will green-light at least one crypto-based registered fund.  I suspect it will be sponsored by a (very) large firm. 
  9. The Supreme Court will decide that digital tokens are not securities and that an ICO is not a securities offering.  This issue is roiling the lower courts and the industry.  Eventually, the Supremes will have to end the uncertainty.  Although I think there are good arguments on both sides, I think this Supreme Court will rule against SEC regulation. 
  10. The SEC will expand the whistleblower program.  The SEC will expand the program to include criminal actions prosecuted by the Department of Justice as well as state enforcement actions. 

The Friday List: Top 10 OCIE Priorities for 2019

Today, we offer our “Friday List,” an occasional feature summarizing a topic significant to investment management professionals interested in regulatory issues.  Our Friday Lists are an expanded “Our Take” on a particular subject, offering our unique (and sometimes controversial) perspective on an industry topic.

Christmas came early this year as the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) released its 2019 priorities, which in prior years came out in January or February.  OCIE has expanded its activities under the new Administration, boasting that it completed over 3,150 exams during the past year.  OCIE increased investment company exams by 45% and reviewed 17% of investment advisers, making good on its prior commitment to double adviser exams.  The Exam Priorities letter is long (12 single space pages) and covers many topics.  To help synthesize the data, we offer the Top 10 OCIE Priorities for 2019:

 

Top 10 OCIE Priorities for 2019

  1. Fees and Expenses:  OCIE will review disclosure and calculation of fees charged to clients.
  2. Portfolio Management: The staff will scrutinize how firms allocate investment opportunities and whether assets are managed according to stated investment objectives.
  3. New Advisers: OCIE continues to focus on never-before examined advisers and advisers that have not been examined in many years.
  4. Mutual Fund Share Classes:  The SEC will focus on which mutual fund share classes are recommended and whether reps have a financial incentive.
  5. Wrap Fee Programs: Firms must monitor wrap programs to make certain that the bundled fee is the best deal for clients.
  6. Affiliated Products/Services:  OCIE will examine the use of affiliated services or products for undisclosed conflicts of interest.
  7. Senior Investors:  The regulators are concerned about unsuitable recommendations to senior investors and supervision of reps.
  8. ETFs: The staff has prioritized ETFs with custom indexes, limited secondary market trading, and risky assets.
  9. Digital Assets: Concerned about the volatile cryptocurrency markets, the SEC remains vigilant about the sale, trading, and management of digital assets.
  10. Cybersecurity: OCIE wants firms to identify and manage cybersecurity risks including devices, governance, and policies and procedures.

SEC Filed 32% More Enforcement Cases Against Advisers and Funds in Fiscal 2018

 The SEC Enforcement Division filed 32% more standalone enforcement cases against investment advisers and investment companies in fiscal 2018 (through September 30), as compared to 2017.  Cases against investment advisers and investment companies (the second largest category) and broker-dealers (fourth largest) represented 35% of all standalone actions filed.  Overall, the SEC Enforcement Division brought 490 standalone cases in fiscal 2018, a 10% increase over 2017.  Excluding the municipal disclosure initiative, the Enforcement Division filed more cases than it did in 2016 and 2015, the last two years under the prior administration.  The Enforcement Division obtained $3.9 Billion in penalties and disgorgement, which is consistent with amounts obtained during the prior several years.  The Enforcement Division outlined five core principles, including a focus on individual accountability because “holding culpable individuals responsible for wrongdoing is essential to achieving our goals of general and specific deterrence and protecting investors by removing bad actors from our markets.”

 The Enforcement Division continues to pursue its active litigation agenda, especially against the investment industry.  Apparently, the Jay Clayton SEC is not much different from the Mary Jo White SEC when it comes to enforcement cases against adviser, funds, and broker-dealers. 

The Friday List: 10 Topics the Division of Investment Management Should Reconsider

Today, we offer our “Friday List,” an occasional feature summarizing a topic significant to investment management professionals interested in regulatory issues.  Our Friday Lists are an expanded “Our Take” on a particular subject, offering our unique (and sometimes controversial) perspective on an industry topic.

Last month, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton said that SEC no-action letters and other staff statements “are nonbinding and create no enforceable legal rights or obligations.”  He instructed the SEC staffs to “review whether prior staff statements and staff documents should be modified, rescinded or supplemented in light of market or other developments.”  More recently the Director of the Division of Investment Management, Dalia Blass, said that her division is reviewing and assessing prior staff statements.  Both Mr. Clayton and Ms. Blass invited engagement and input from the public.  With that invitation, we offer ten topics that the Division of Investment Management should reconsider as it assesses its staff positions:

 

10 Topics the Division of Investment Management Should Reconsider

  1. Custody:  The custody rule and the reams of staff FAQs have only confused the industry and ensured massive inadvertent noncompliance.  If the staff only tackles one problem, this is it.
  2. Valuation:  Please offer clear guidance on the fair valuation of securities that are not publicly traded.  The current regime is too subjective, relying on accounting interpretations and shifting market information.
  3. Proxy Voting:  Firms spend significant resources complying with the proxy voting recordkeeping and supervision requirements.  Do these rules really protect clients and shareholders?
  4. Private Funds:  Restricting private funds to 100 holders or qualified purchasers is overly restrictive.  The staff should also reconsider the definition of “accredited investor.”
  5. Leverage:  With the advent of derivatives and other forms of innovative investment products, the staff should modernize its positions on permitted leverage.
  6. Advertising:  The staff has not materially changed the adviser advertising rules in 30 years.  The new media world requires some new rules.
  7. Code of Ethics:  A significant percentage of compliance time and resources is spent on personal securities transaction compliance.  The staff should consider other less onerous schemes to prevent and punish unlawful personal trading.
  8. Affiliate Transactions:  Scholars have written entire treatises on the definition of “affiliate transaction” under the Investment Company Act.  It may be the most confusing definition in the securities laws.
  9. Disclosure:  Few retail investors read prospectuses or Form ADV.  One way to make clearer and more readable documents is too exempt issuers from securities law liability.
  10. Wrap Programs: The SEC has brought dozens of actions against wrap programs.  We would recommend that the staff adopt some definitive rules that the industry could follow.

SEC Gives Funds 6 More Months to Implement Certain Liquidity Risk Management Requirements

The SEC has voted to delay the classification requirement of the open-end fund liquidity risk management rule until June 1, 2019 for large funds (over $1 Billion) and December 1, 2019 for smaller funds.  The other requirements of the rule – implementing a risk management program, limiting illiquid investments to 15% of the portfolio – will still go into effect on December 1, 2018 for large funds and June 1, 2019 for smaller funds.  The SEC also released a series of FAQs that provide additional guidance about how to effect the classification requirements.

OUR TAKE: The bad news is that the Clayton SEC will not rescind the liquidity risk management rule.  The good news is that the SEC will provide more time and flexibility to implement its more complicated requirements.

https://www.sec.gov/news/press-release/2018-24

The Friday List: Our 2018 Predictions

Today, we offer our “Friday List,” an occasional feature summarizing a topic significant to investment management professionals interested in regulatory issues.  Our Friday Lists are an expanded “Our Take” on a particular subject, offering our unique (and sometimes controversial) perspective on an industry topic.

Every year, we offer our predictions on what will happen in the investment management regulatory world.  Last year, we went 4-6 (not great on a test, but pretty good in baseball).  We were right about the fiduciary rule, whistleblowers, state enforcement, and individual liability.  We missed on our predictions of regulatory changes and how the industry would respond to the increased demand for bonds.

The current uncertain regulatory environment has changed our hubris to humility.  Thus, it is with humble intent that we look forward to offer our 2018 predictions:

 

Predictions for the 2018 Regulatory Year

 

  1. More states will adopt fiduciary rules.  Nevada has already adopted a uniform fiduciary standard in the wake of the DoL’s delay.  We expect other states (e.g. California, New York, Connecticut) to follow.
  2. The SEC will propose a uniform fiduciary rule for retail advisers and broker-dealers.   Chairman Clayton has spoken publicly about the need for the SEC to wade into the fiduciary waters.  Expect a proposed rule this year.
  3. The SEC will commence significant cybersecurity enforcement actions.  The staff has done a sweep and issued guidance.  We have not yet seen significant enforcement actions.  We expect several this year.
  4. There will be cases alleging C-suite wrongdoing in private equity.  The SEC Enforcement Division has focused on the private equity industry for the last couple of years.  Given their interest in prosecuting senior executives to deter unlawful conduct, expect a couple of big cases against private equity execs.
  5. FINRA will bring actions against firms for hiring bad brokers.  Rather than simply prosecute the brokers, FINRA will dedicate some enforcement resources to firms that fail to screen out the bad brokers, thereby making it a firm responsibility.
  6. SEC and/or FINRA will bring cases alleging inadequate branch office supervision.  Both regulators have expressed concerns about remote office supervision.  Enforcement cases will ensure the industry’s attention.
  7. The SEC will commence significant marketing/advertising cases.  Seemingly out-of-the-blue, the SEC warned advisers about misleading marketing and advertising claims.  We are assuming that OCIE is uncovering a lot of problems.
  8. The SEC will propose a re-write of the custody rule.  The custody rule has the right intent, but the rule itself is too open to interpretation and questions (see multiple FAQs).  We think the Division of Investment Management will undertake a re-write (although maybe this is just wishful thinking.)
  9. The SEC will propose cryptocurrency regulations.  Bitcoin futures are flying high.  The SEC has expressed its opinion that it should regulate cryptocurrency offerings.  We expect some rules.
  10. The SEC will re-propose the ETF rule.  Plain vanilla ETFs should have a rule that allows them to proceed without an exemptive order.  The SEC proposed and abandoned a rule several years ago.  We anticipate that the SEC will resuscitate the effort.