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SEC Regulation Best Interest - The Prudent Expert Standard

Posted by Jack Duval

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Aug 23, 2018 9:38:27 AM

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As discussed in my previous posts, SEC Regulation Best Interest (“RBI”) will require broker-dealers and their agents to put the best interests of their clients first.  What is less well understood is that RBI will also impose a prudent expert standard on Registered Representatives.

There are three broad obligations to RBI:[1]

  • Disclosure;
  • Care, and;
  • Conflicts of Interest.

The Prudent Expert Standard

I am here focusing on the Care Obligation, which the SEC has described as:

The broker, dealer, or natural person who is an associated person of a broker or dealer, in making the recommendation exercises reasonable diligence, care, skill, and prudence to:[2]

  • Understand the potential risks and rewards associated with the recommendation, and have a reasonable basis to believe that the recommendation could be in the best interest of at least some retail customers;
  • Have a reasonable basis to believe that the recommendation is in the best interest of a particular retail customer based on that retail customer’s investment profile and the potential risks and rewards associated with the recommendation; and
  • Have a reasonable basis to believe that a series of recommended transactions, even if in the retail customer’s best interest when viewed in isolation, is not excessive and is in the retail customer’s best interest when taken together in light of the retail customer’s investment profile. (Emphasis added)

While RBI does not establish a fiduciary obligation, the SEC is clear that it views the duty to exercise reasonable diligence, care, skill, and prudence as similar to a fiduciary duty, writing:[3]

Under Regulation Best Interest, as proposed, a broker-dealer’s duty to exercise reasonable diligence, care, skill and prudence is designed to be similar to the standard of conduct that has been imposed on broker-dealers found to be acting in a fiduciary capacity.  (Emphasis added)

The “reasonable diligence, care, skill, and prudence” language, as well as the process of understanding “potential risks and rewards”, applying that understanding to the retail customer’s investment profile, and evaluating a series of recommended transactions, all necessitate coming to an expert opinion.

Indeed, coming to an expert opinion will be the only way the Care Obligation can be fulfilled.

The SEC points to the prudent expert standard in RBI, writing:[4]

We believe that the principles underlying our proposed best interest obligation as discussed above, and the specific Disclosure, Care, and Conflict of Interest Obligations described in more detail below, generally draw from underlying principles similar to the principles underlying the DOL’s best interest standard, as described by the DOL in the BIC Exemption

The BIC Exemption’s best interest Impartial Conduct Standard would require (as here relevant) that advice be in a retirement investor’s best interest, and further defines advice to be in the “best interest” if the person providing the advice acts “with the care, skill, prudence, and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent person acting in a like capacity and familiar with the (sic) such matters would use… without regard to the financial or other interests” of the person..  (Emphasis added)

The SEC believes the principles underlying RBI are consistent with those of the DOL rule.  The DOL language of “a prudent person acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matter” is the prudent expert standard.  Thus, that is the standard that should apply to Registered Representatives making recommendations to retail customers.

Furthermore, the SEC refers to RBI as establishing “standards of professional conduct”:[5]

… the proposed Disclosure Obligation, Care Obligation and Conflict of Interest Obligations described in more detail below, establish standards of professional conduct that, among other things, would require the broker-dealer to employ reasonable care when making a recommendation.  (Emphasis added)

Knowing the Investment and the Client

As with the FINRA Suitability standard, the registered representative must know both the investment and the client in order to meet the Best Interest standard.  The SEC makes this clear in RBI, writing about:

Knowing the investment

Without establishing such a threshold understanding of its particular recommendation, we do not believe that a broker-dealer could, as required by Regulation Best Interest, act in the best interest of a retail customer when making a recommendation…[6]

Knowing the customer

A broker-dealer that makes a recommendation to a retail customer for whom it lacks sufficient information to have a reasonable basis to believe that the recommendation is in the best interest of that retail customer based on the retail customer’s investment profile would not meet its obligations under the proposed rule.[7]

Anyone arguing that the prudent expert standard will not apply under RBI will need to overcome the SEC’s own language, the shingle theory,[8] as well as what will likely be a mountain of advertising and marketing material from the broker-dealer extoling its expertise.[9]  Furthermore, there will be the matter of the CRS Relationship Summary, which will affirm the BDs adherence to the securities law and regulations (including RBI and all the attendant obligations) and will nowhere disavow the firm’s expertise with investments.[10]

Supervisory Implications of the Prudent Expert Standard

Under RBI, broker-dealer supervisors will be tasked with making sure their registered representatives know both their clients and the investments recommended.  In theory, they are doing this already.  However, RBI, by requiring recommendations in the client’s best interest (instead of being merely suitable) will necessitate more work and documentation around knowing the investment.

I will discuss this in more detail in my next post.

__________

Notes:

[1]       SEC Regulation Best Interest; Release No. 34-83062; File No. S7-07-18; Available at: https://www.sec.gov/rules/proposed/2018/34-83062.pdf; Accessed August 23, 2018.

[2]       Id. at 404-5.

[3]       Id. at 134.

[4]       Id. at 58 and footnote 108.  Also see, Accelerant blog post: The DOL Fiduciary Rule – Prudent Expert Standard; Available at: http://blog.accelerant.biz/blog/the-dol-fiduciary-rule-prudent-expert-standard; Accessed August 23, 2018.

[5]       Id. at 59.

[6]       Id. at 137.  This language also exits in FINRA RN 12-25 at Q22.  “Brokers cannot fulfill their suitability responsibilities to customers… when they fail to understand the securities and investment strategies they recommend.”

[7]       Id. at 145.

[8]       The “shingle theory” goes back to a 1943 Second Circuit decision, Charles Hughes & Co., Inc. v. SEC (139 F.2d 434; 2d Cir. 1943).  As Louis Loss wrote: “the theory was that even a dealer at arms’ length implicitly represents when he or she hangs out a shingle that he or she will deal fairly with the public.”  Fundamentals of Securities Regulation, Fourth Edition; Louis Loss and Joel Seligman; Aspen Publishers (New York); 2004; 1063.  Of course, RBI makes the relationship similar that of a fiduciary, which is far higher than one of “arms’ length”.

[9]       See, for instance, Merrill Lynch website of its Private Banking & Investment Group:  “Your private wealth advisor is dedicated to understanding your goals and experienced in the complexities of managing significant wealth.”  Available at: https://www.pbig.ml.com/; Accessed August 23, 2018.

[10]      SEC Form CRS Relationship Summary;  Release No. 34-83063;  IA-4888; File No. S7-08-18.  Available at: https://www.sec.gov/rules/proposed/2018/34-83063.pdf; Accessed August 23, 2018.

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

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Topics: fiduciary obligations, Investment Suitability, Suitability Expert, FINRA Rule 2111 (Suitability), Securities Exchange Commission, Regulation Best Interest, prudent expert standard

    

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