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SEC Bars and Fines State-Registered Adviser for Options Cherry-Picking Scheme


The SEC barred a state-registered adviser from the industry and assessed over $400,000 in fines, disgorgement and interest for allocating options trades that benefited himself and his wife to the detriment of clients.  The adviser utilized an omnibus trading account at a third party broker-dealer to allocate profitable trades to his personal accounts and unprofitable trades to clients.  According to the SEC, during the relevant 7-month period, the personal accounts had a net positive 45.2% one-day return, but the client accounts had a net negative 45.0% one-day return, a statistically significant difference that could not be explained by random chance.  The SEC accused the adviser of securities fraud under the Securities Act (Rule 10b-5) and the Advisers Act (Section 206).

OUR TAKE: If you operate a state-registered (or unregistered) adviser, don’t assume the SEC doesn’t have the regulatory means to uncover and prosecute wrongdoing.  The feds still have jurisdiction over the securities markets and any person providing investment advice.

The Friday List: 10 Things We Learned During the Spring 2019 Investment Management Conferences

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 we approach the summer months, the spring 2019 conference season draws to a close.  CCS professionals attended most of the major industry conferences and compared notes.  As we talked, we saw some major themes from all of the conferences.  We thought our clients and friends might benefit from our meta-observations. 

10 Things We Learned During the Spring 2019 Investment Management Conferences

  1. Everybody is afraid of a cyber-breach.  Every conference we attended included sessions about cyber threats and cybersecurity counter-measures.
  2. Private equity is trying to rationalize operations.  Now that PE has become part of the institutional investing landscape, GPs are searching for ways to build scale. 
  3. Compliance officers don’t have the resources to get everything done.  Boards, investors, and the regulators continue to put more work on the CCO’s desk, but senior management doesn’t always meet the increased workload with more resources. 
  4. Technology is the future.  Many firms are racing to replace all aspects of middle and back office operations with technology solutions that enhance and replace human resources. 
  5. Everybody wants ESG.  The term “ESG” was likely used by more people at more conferences than any other term.    
  6. Nobody knows exactly how non-transparent ETFs will affect the product lineup.  Some say they’re a fad.  Some say they’re a complement to existing products.  Some say they don’t make sense.  Some say they will replace all other forms of ETFs.
  7. The hot new asset classes include private credit, cryptocurrency, and cannabis.  Private credit leads with the most products, but people are really excited about cryptocurrency.
  8. The industry is consolidating.  Almost everybody predicts massive industry consolidation as the bigs absorb the smalls, and private equity provides the liquidity.
  9. Nobody knows where the fiduciary rule is going.  Even the SEC has been less than clear about its next step especially with the DoL and the states jumping in (again).
  10. The SEC is in good hands.  We saw many speeches by many SEC leaders.  Despite the political chaos in Washington, the SEC continues to operate with a steady hand through a dedicated staff.  They provided insight on priorities and rulemaking and explained their rationale on enforcement decisions.

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.