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SEC Regulation Best Interest - The Final Rule

Posted by Jack Duval

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Jun 13, 2019 8:03:07 AM

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This blog post continues my series on SEC Regulation Best Interest ("RBI") and the DOL Rule.

After having disappeared for about a year, SEC Regulation Best Interest (“RBI”) is back, in finalized form.  The new rule will have an effective date 60 days after it appears in the Federal Register and a compliance date of June 30, 2020.[1]  The compliance date is when RBI goes live for all customers at all broker-dealers (“BDs”).

Like the '33 Act, the '34 Act, and both of the '40 Acts, as well as FINRA itself, the raison d'etre of RBI is to protect investors.  The SEC writes: [2]

We are adopting a new rule 15l-1 under the Exchange Act ("Regulation Best Interest") that will improve investor protection by: (1) enhancing the obligations that apply when a broker-dealer makes a recommendation to a retail customer and natural persons who are associated persons of a broker-dealer… and (2) reducing the potential harm to retail customers from conflicts of interest that may affect the recommendation.  (Emphasis added)

As a quick refresher, most of the language in the Proposed Release has been accepted, including that:

  • The RBI “standard of conduct draws from key principles underlying fiduciary obligations”;[3]
  • RBI is designed to “enhance the BD standard of conduct beyond existing suitability obligations”;[4]
  • RBI is still recommendation-based (like FINRA's Suitability Rule 2111). In particular, “regardless of whether a retail investor chooses a broker-dealer (“BD”) or an investment adviser (or both), the retail investor will be entitled to a recommendation (from a BD) or advice (from an investment adviser) that is in the best interest of the retail investor and that does not place the interest of the firm or the financial professional ahead of the interest of the retail investor”;[5]
  • The obligations of RBI exist at the time of the recommendation. (This is a key distinction from the continuous fiduciary obligations owed by investment advisors to their clients);[6]
  • The RBI standards cannot be satisfied through disclosure alone;[7]
  • To the chagrin of many, the final version of RBI still does not define “best interest” but does give significant discussion to the four elements that must be satisfied to meet the best interest standard.

There have been a number of significant modifications to the Proposed Rule.  I have summarized them below.[8]

Modifications of the Proposed Regulation Best Interest

Definition of a “Retail Customer”

A “retail customer” is now defined as:

any natural person who receives a recommendation from the BD for the natural person's own account (but not an account for a business that he or she works for), including individual plan participants… The plan representative will be a retail customer to the extent that the sole proprietor or self-employed individual receives recommendations directly from a BD primarily for personal, family or household purposes. [9]

Implicit Hold Recommendations

While BDs will not be required to monitor accounts, in instances where a BD agrees to provide the retail customer with specified account monitoring services, it is our view that such an agreement will result in buy, sell or hold recommendations subject to RBI, even when the recommendation to hold is implicit.[10]

Recommendations as to Account Types and Rollovers

RBI expressly applies to account recommendations including, among others, recommendations to roll over or transfer assets in a workplace retirement plan account to an IRA, recommendations to open a particular securities account (such as brokerage or advisory), and recommendations to take a plan distribution for the purpose of opening a securities account.[11]

Dually Registered Firms

RBI does not apply to advice provided by a BD that is dually registered as an investment adviser (dual-registrant") when acting in the capacity of an investment advisor.[12]

“Best Interest” Determination is Fact Specific

Whether a BD has acted in the retail customer's best interest in compliance with RBI will turn on an objective assessment of the facts and circumstances of how the specific components of RBI - including its Disclosure, Care, Conflict of Interest, and Compliance Obligations - are satisfied at the time that the recommendation is made (and not in hindsight).[13]

Definition of “Conflict of Interest”

RBI now defines a conflict of interest as, "an interest that might incline a BD - consciously or unconsciously - to make a recommendation that is not disinterested”.[14]

Disclosure of Material Facts

The final version of RBI revised the Disclosure Obligation to require disclosure of "material facts" regarding conflicts of interest associated with the recommendation.  This explicitly requires BDs to provide "full and fair" disclosure of material facts, rather than requiring BDs to "reasonably disclose" such information.

We are also clarifying that at a minimum, a BD needs to disclose whether or not account monitoring services will be provided (and if so, the scope and frequency of those services), account minimums, and any material limitations on the securities or investment strategies involving securities that may be recommended to the retail customer.

Also, we conclude that the basis for a BDs recommendations as a general matter (i.e., what might commonly be described as the firm's investment approach, philosophy, or strategy) and the risks associated with a BDs recommendations in standardized (as opposed to individualized) terms are material facts relating to the scope and terms of the relationship that should be disclosed.[15]  (Emphasis added)

The Care Obligation

The final version of RBI added explicit focus on the costs of a recommendation and reiterated that meeting the standard will be judged by how the BD established a reasonable basis to believe the recommendation was in the client’s best interest.

We are expressly requiring that a BD understand and consider the potential costs associated with its recommendation, and have a reasonable basis to believe that the recommendation does not place the financial or other interest of the broker-dealer ahead of the interest of the retail customer.  Nevertheless, we emphasize that while cost must be considered, it should never be the only consideration.  Cost is only one of many important factors to be considered regarding the recommendation and that the standard does not necessarily require the "lowest cost option".

... determining whether a BDs recommendation satisfied the Care Obligation will be an objective evaluation turning on the facts and circumstances of the particular recommendation and the particular retail customer.  We recognize that a facts and circumstances evaluation of a recommendation makes it difficult to draw bright lines around whether a particular recommendation will meet the Care Obligation.  Accordingly, we focus on how a BD could establish a reasonable basis to believe that a recommendation is in the best interest of its retail customer and does not place the BDs interest ahead of the retail customer's interest, and the circumstances under which a BD could not establish such a reasonable belief.[16]

We are clarifying that an evaluation of reasonably available alternatives does not require an evaluation of every possible alternative (including those offered outside the firm) nor require BDs to recommend one "best" product, and what this evaluation will require in certain contexts (such as a firm with open architecture).[17]

We further clarify that, when a BD materially limits its product offering ... it must still comply with the Care Obligation... and thus could not use its limited menu to justify recommending a product that does not satisfy the obligation to act in a retail customer's best interest.[18]  (Emphasis added)

Conflicts of Interest

Eliminate the distinction between financial incentives and all other conflicts of interest; and focus on mitigating conflicts of interest associated with recommendations that create an incentive for the associated person of the BD to place the interest of the firm or the associated person ahead of the interest of the retail customer.[19]

Elimination of Sales Contests

We are requiring BDs to establish written policies and procedures reasonably designed to identify and eliminate any sales contests, sales quotas, bonuses, and non-cash compensation that are based on the sale of specific securities or the sale of specific types of securities within a limited period of time.[20]

General Compliance Obligation

Establishing a new general "Compliance Obligation" to require BDs to establish policies and procedures to achieve compliance with RBI in its entirety.[21]

Federal Securities Laws, Scienter, and State Laws

Compliance with RBI will not alter a BDs obligations under the general antifraud provisions of the federal securities laws.  RBI applies in addition to any obligations under the Exchange Act, along with any rules the Commission may adopt thereunder, and any other applicable provisions of the federal securities laws and related rules and regulations.[22]

Scienter will not be required to establish a violation of RBI.

We note that the preemptive effect of RBI on any state law governing the relationship between regulated entities and their customers would be determined in future judicial proceedings based on the specific language and effect of that state law.[23]

No Waiver of Compliance or Protections

In addition, under Section 29(a) of the Exchange Act, a BD will not be able to waive compliance with RBI, nor can a retail customer agree to waive her protections under RBI. Furthermore, we do not believe RBI creates any new private right of action or right of rescission, nor do we intend such a result.[24]

“Federalizing” the Suitability Rule

FINRA CEO Jay Cook recently commented that FINRA is:

… thinking more generally about are there aspects of our rules that might need to be adjusted/aligned with where the SEC lands.  It’s not surprising because most of the sales practice requirements historically have come from the FINRA rulebook.  Reg BI is sort of federalizing sales practice issues… There’s a suitability element to Reg BI, and that’s when we’re talking about looking at alignment with our rulebook; if they (the SEC) have covered 100 percent of our suitability rule, then we might look at whether we need our suitability rule or do we need it in all circumstances?[25]

My guess is that FINRA Suitability Rule 2111 will be modified, possibly to focus on institutional investors.

In subsequent posts I will unpack the implications of the finalized RBI in more detail.

__________

Notes:

[1]      Regulation Best Interest: The Broker-Dealer Standard of Conduct; 17 CFR Part 240; Release No. 34-86031; File No. S7-07-18; 2 and 371. Available at https://www.sec.gov/rules/final/2019/34-86031.pdf; Accessed June 9, 2019.

[2]      Id. at 5.

[3]      Id. at 1.

[4]      Id.

[5]      Id. at 2.

[6]      Id. at 1.  As discussed below, this is true unless there is an explicit representation by a Registered Representative that positions will be monitored, which must be disclosed by the BD.

[7]      Id.

[8]      There were also a number of less significant modifications which I have left out of this summary.

[9]      Id. at 33 and Footnote 62.  A “retail customer” also includes a nonprofessional trustee who represents the assets of a natural person.

[10]    Id. at 34.

[11]    Id.

[12]    Id. at 35.

[13]    Id.

[14]    Id.

[15]    Id. at 37.

[16]    Id. at 38.

[17]    Id. at 39.

[18]    Id.

[19]    Id. at 40.

[20]    Id. at 41.

[21]    Id. at 42.

[22]    Id. at 43.

[23]    Id.

[24]    Id. at 44.

[25]    Melanie Waddell; ThinkAdvisor; “FINRA’s Cook: SEC Reg BI Compliance to Be a Heavy Lift”; May 8, 2019.  Available at: https://www.thinkadvisor.com/2019/05/08/finras-cook-two-issues-top-of-mind-regarding-sec-reg-bi-compliance/; Accessed July 12, 2019.

To learn more about fiduciary expert Jack Duval, click here.

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Topics: supervision, Investment Suitability, FINRA Suitability Rule 2111, Suitability Expert, Securities Exchange Commission, Regulation Best Interest

   

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