The Securities Litigation Expert Blog

The Decline of FINRA Membership and the Litigation Implications

Posted by Jack Duval

Feb 7, 2020 8:52:25 AM

In the six years ending in 2018, the number of broker-dealers ("BDs") shrank by 13.5 percent.  Over the same period, the number of SEC Registered Investment Advisor ("RIA") firms increased by 19.7 percent.[1]

Chart 1: FINRA Broker-Dealer and SEC Registered Investment Advisor Firms[2]

FINRA Broker-Dealer and SEC Registered Investment Advisory Firms - Fiduciary Duties

I expect these trends to continue, if not accelerate.

Firms and/or brokers shifting from BDs to RIAs reflect the trends in the market and what business models are sustainable.  The business model based on generating commissions from transactions in customer accounts is losing to the business model of asset management fees based on the amount of assets in the client's account.  This trend has been in place for well over a decade.

At the same time, both of these business models are under attack by the index investing trend.  However, the RIA model is less subject to declines from indexing because an RIA firm can charge the same fees whether it invests in index funds or actively management funds.

Indeed, many RIA firms are disintermediating asset managers by using index ETFs that the RIA selects.

Something that is hidden in the data in Chart 1, above, is that most BDs are dually registered (meaning they are also RIA firms) so they are acting as fiduciaries for a significant percentage of clients.  This, as will be examined below, is showing up in FINRA arbitration statistics, and has important implications for securities litigations, in-house counsel, and compliance and supervisory implementation.

Changing Trends in Securities Litigation

The decline in the number of broker dealers and the increase in the number of RIA firms would suggest that securities arbitrations will shift from being primarily suitability driven to being primarily fiduciary duty driven.

The shift from BDs to RIAs will also entail a shift in securities arbitrations from being overwhelmingly heard in FINRA forums to those of AAA, JAMS, and other forums.

This will have a number of impacts on attorneys and their clients.

Obviously, the fiduciary standard is much higher than the suitability standard.  (I have written about fiduciary duties extensively here.)  This will benefit claimants and make respondent's cases harder to defend.

For respondents, one offsetting factor could be the fact that BD cases with breach of fiduciary duty claims will be heard in FINRA forums.  FINRA arbitrators who have years of experience hearing suitability claims may not fully appreciate the difference between the suitability and fiduciary standards, even when it is explained to them.

If the cases are in AAA or JAMS forums, the costs will almost certainly be higher than at FINRA.  This comparatively higher cost may be well worth it for claimants (not that they have a choice in most instances) because many AAA and JAMS arbitrators are former judges (and if not, almost always attorneys) who are well versed in the weight and import of fiduciary duties.

Trends in FINRA Arbitration Claim Types

FINRA publishes statistics on arbitration case filings and has broken out customer case filings (that is, excluding cases between member firms) since 2013.

The trends in types of controversy are indicative of the falling number of BDs and rising number of RIA firms and RIA services provided by dually registered BDs.

Table 1:  FINRA Arbitration Claims by Type of Controversy[3]

FINRA Breach of Fiduciary Duty Table

Table 1, above, shows that Breach of Fiduciary Duty claims now comprise 86.9 percent of all customer cases filed, up from 75.9 percent in 2013.  Suitability claims have risen even more, to 66.9 percent in 2019 up from 52 percent in 2013.[4] 

Importantly, these types of claims are not exclusive of one another, and in my experience, almost all Breach of Fiduciary Duty claims will also have a Suitability claim attached.

Trends in FINRA Arbitration Resolutions

It would appear that the increasing number of Breach of Fiduciary Duty claims (and the higher hurdle to defending them) is showing up in FINRA arbitration settlements.

Table 2:  FINRA Arbitration Case Settlements[5]

FINRA Arbitration Settlements Table - Fiduciary Duties

Indeed, in 2019 69.4 percent of arbitrations settled, up from 58.9 percent in 2013.[6]

The correlation between the 17.8 percent rise in settlements and the 14.5 percent rise in Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims over the same period can be seen clearly in Chart 2, below.

Chart 2:  FINRA Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims and Case Settlements[7]

FINRA Breach of Fiduciary Duty claims and Case Settlements chart

The Long-Term Effects of a Shift from BDs to RIAs

While the number of FINRA Arbitration claims has fallen to the 3,400 to 4,000 per year range during the post-GFC bull market,[8] the types of claims have shifted, with a notable rise in Breach of Fiduciary Duty claims.

Breach of Fiduciary Duty claims must be prosecuted and defended differently than suitability cases.  As I have written about here and here, the difference is profound.  In short, the defenses to suitability claims will generally fail if a fiduciary standard is operative.

 

The increase of Breach of Fiduciary Duty claims and the shift from BDs to RIAs, are trends that are almost certain to continue, if not accelerate.  They require changes in all aspects of BD compliance, supervision, education and training, and business structure.  BDs doing fiduciary business must be built to do that type of business.  That structure is fundamentally different from the old BD brokerage/suitability structure.

 

For BDs doing an increasing amount of RIA business, being a FINRA member firm will become less and less attractive as their brokerage revenue declines and FINRA membership becomes a source of expensive regulatory oversight.

 

Needless to say, with Breach of Fiduciary Duty claims comprising nearly 87 percent of Customer claims, securities litigators should be honing their chops on fiduciary duty case construction and prosecution.

__________

Notes:

[1]      Investment Advisor Association; “2018 Evolution Revolution: A Profile of the Investment Adviser Profession”; 38.  Available at: https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/INVESTMENTADVISER/aa03843e-7981-46b2-aa49-c572f2ddb7e8/UploadedImages/resources/Evolution_Revolution_2018_v7.pdf;  Accessed January 30, 2020.

[2]      Id.

[3]      FINRA Dispute Resolution Statistics;  Available at: https://www.finra.org/arbitration-mediation/dispute-resolution-statistics;  Accessed December 31, 2019.

[4]      Id.  I have excluded the other types of controversy for this analysis.

[5]      Id.  “Settled via Mediation” means cases settled with a FINRA mediator.  In the vast majority of instances, “Direct Settlement by Parties” involves a mediation with a third-party, non-FINRA mediator.

[6]      Id.

[7]      Id.

[8]      Id.

 

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

SIGN UP FOR OUR BLOG

Read More

Topics: supervision, Investment Suitability, Securities Exchange Commission, fiduciary duties, Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims

SEC Regulation Best Interest - The Five-Part Test

Posted by Jack Duval

Aug 1, 2018 8:51:34 AM

This post continues my blog post series on SEC Regulation Best Interest.

A note to long-time readers of this blog:  You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting for a while.  This is due to the launching of my RIA firm Bantam Inc.  I have posted over 20 blog posts on that site in the past three months.  They cover investments and should be of interest to anyone involved with securities litigations.  There are also many posts with attorney-related content.  You can find those here.

 

Accelerant SEC Regulation Best Interest - five-part test

 

The SEC Regulation Best Interest Standard

One of the most significant changes from the FINRA suitability regime to SEC Regulation Best Interest (“RBI”) is a move from subjectivity to objectivity. 

While there are some objective elements to suitability, such as what needs to be included in a client profile, the actual suitability determination is subjective.  This will change under RBI.

What the SEC has proposed is not only a new standard of best interest, but a five-part test to satisfy that standard.

The SEC defines the best interest standard as follows:[1]

The proposed standard of conduct is to act in the best interest of the retail customer at the time a recommendation is made without placing the financial or other interest of the broker-dealer or natural person who is an associated person making the recommendation ahead of the interest of the retail customer.

The Five Elements to Satisfy the Best Interest Standard

The SEC then lays out the five elements that must be met in order to satisfy RBI:[2]

This obligation shall be satisfied if:

  1. The broker-dealer or a natural person who is an associated person of a broker-dealer, before or at the time of such recommendation reasonably discloses to the retail customer, in writing, the material facts relating to the scope and terms of the relationship, and;
  2. (Disclosure of) all the material conflicts of interest associated with the recommendation;
  3. The broker-dealer or a natural person who is an associated person of a broker-dealer, in making the recommendation, exercises reasonable diligence, care, skill, and prudence;
  4. The broker-dealer establishes, maintains, and enforces written policies and procedures reasonably designed to identify and at a minimum disclose, or eliminate, all conflicts of interest that are associated with such recommendations, and;
  5. The broker-dealer establishes, maintains, and enforces written policies and procedures reasonably designed to identify and disclose and mitigate, or eliminate, material conflicts of interest arising from financial incentives associated with such recommendations. (Emphasis added)

A few quick points on the Best Interest standard.

First, one similarity between RBI and FINRA suitability is that both are recommendation-based rules.  This means the best interest obligation is episodic and only arises at the time of the recommendation.  (As with FINRA suitability, the exception to this arises from an explicit recommendation to hold.[3])

This is a critical distinction between RBI and the fiduciary standard to which registered investment advisors are held.  A fiduciary is held to the best interest standard in all their dealings with the client, not just for recommendations.  Also, the fiduciary standard is continuous and operates throughout the relationship, not just when recommendations are made.

Retail Customers

Second, RBI applies to “retail customers” which only includes individuals (and their trusts and IRA accounts) and not to any business entities they may own.  The SEC defines a retail customer as:[4]

“… a person, or the legal representative of such person, who: (1) receives a recommendation of any securities transaction or investment strategy involving securities from a broker, dealer or a natural person who is an associated person of a broker or dealer, and (2) uses the recommendation primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.”

The Commissions preliminarily believes this proposed definition is appropriate, and in particular, the limitation to recommendations that are “primarily for personal, family or household purposes,” as we believe it excludes recommendations that are related to business or commercial purposes, but remains sufficiently broad and flexible to capture recommendations related to the various reasons retail customers may invest (including, for example, for retirement, education, and other savings purposes).

There is no such distinction under the fiduciary standard.  Under RBI, business accounts would come under the FINRA suitability rules.

In my next post, I will unpack the five elements that must be satisfied.

Note to securities litigators:  I am working on a white paper on RBI and as part of that have been conducting a survey of attorneys involved with customer disputes.  If you would like to participate in the survey (it’s only six questions), please send me an email at: jack@accelerant.biz to schedule a call.

_______

Notes:

[1]           SEC Regulation Best Interest; Release # 34-83062; April 18, 2018; 1.

[2]           Id. at 1-2.

[3]           Id. at 82.  “The Commission proposes to apply Regulation Best Interest to recommendations of any securities transaction (sale, purchase, and exchange) and investment strategy (including explicit recommendations to hold a security or regarding the manner in which it is to be purchased or sold) to retail customers.”  Emphasis added.  Notes omitted.  FINRA has identical language under Regulatory Notice 12-25 at Q7.

[4]           Id. at 83-4.  Notes omitted.

For information about SEC Regulation Best Interest expert Jack Duval, click here.

SIGN UP FOR OUR BLOG

Read More

Topics: FINRA, Investment Suitability, fiduciary duties, SEC Regulation Best Interest, Best Interest five elements

The Historical Origins of Fiduciary Duties

Posted by Jack Duval

Jun 21, 2018 8:36:41 AM

This post continues my blog post series on fiduciary duties and the changing regulatory landscape around a unified fiduciary standard of care for investors.

Accelerant - Jack Duval - Fiduciary Duties Expert Witness

Statue of Cicero

Given the tremendous amount of ink that has been spilled regarding the DOL Fiduciary Rule and now SEC Regulation Best Interest, I thought it would be useful to review the existence of fiduciary rules throughout history.

The idea of a fiduciary duty has existed from the beginning of humanity’s codification of the rules by which it would live.  Indeed, fiduciary duties have been central to the functioning of societies from ancient to modern times and from East to West.

In the most simple terms, a fiduciary duty arises when one person relies on another to perform a task or service for them.  The duty arises from the dependence of the one on the other.  In more modern language, trust and confidence is being reposed by the principal in the agent to carry out the agreed upon work.

Fiduciary Duties Throughout History

Perhaps the first known fiduciary duties exist in Hammurabi's Code from 1790 BC.[1]

Rules of agency, reflected in Hammurabi’s laws, developed along with commerce in Ancient Mesopotamia.  The laws primarily discuss situations in which a tamkarum, or principal/merchant, gives a samallum, or agent, either money to use for travel and for investments or purchases, or goods for trading or selling.

The Bible also has many fiduciary-related quotes, the most famous of which may be:[2]

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.  Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

Jumping to the East, somewhere between 475 and 220 BC, Confucius wrote in The Analects a heuristic for fiduciaries: “In acting on behalf of others, have I always been loyal to their interest?”[3]

From Ancient Greece, Plato’s Republic could be read as a metaphor for the fiduciary duties of leaders to their constituents, and the whole education process of philosopher-kings as instilling these virtues. 

The Roman’s coined the term “fiduciary” in their laws and defined it to mean:[4]

a person holding the character of a trustee, or a character analogous of a trustee, in respect to the trust and confidence involved in it and the scrupulous good faith and candor which it requires.

Cicero also wrote of fiduciary obligations between agent and principal, known by the expressive terms: “mandatory” and “mandator”, respectively.  “An agent who shows carelessness in his execution of trust behaves very dishonorably and ‘is undermining the entire basis of our social system’.”[5]

Making a great leap across time, we come to Anglo-American law and the English Courts of Equity.  Scholars Aikin and Fausti write:[6]

Courts of Equity granted relief in numerous circumstances involving one person's abuse of confidence and, over time, concrete rules and precise terms related to fiduciary relationships began to form as Equity evolved.

The term "fiduciary" itself was adopted to apply to situations falling short of "trusts" but in which one person was nonetheless obliged to act like a trustee.

The second point makes sense because in non-trust fiduciary situations, the principle still owns the property, whereas in the trust situation, ownership of the asset(s) have been transferred to a trust which the trustee oversees.

Lastly, we get to American Law and Benjamin Cardozo, who, in Meinhard v. Salmon, wrote what are probably the most cited words on fiduciary duties:

Many forms of conduct permissible in a workaday world for those acting at arm's length, are forbidden to those bound by fiduciary ties.  A trustee is held to something stricter than the morals of the market place.  Not honesty alone, but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive, is then the standard of behavior.  As to this there has developed a tradition that is unbending and inveterate.  Uncompromising rigidity has been the attitude of courts of equity when petitioned to undermine the rule of undivided loyalty by the "disintegrating erosion" of particular exceptions. Only thus has the level of conduct for fiduciaries been kept at a level higher that that trodden by the crowd.  It will not consciously be lowered by any judgment of this court.

Interestingly, the undermining of “the rule of undivided loyalty by the ‘disintegrating erosion’ of particular exceptions” is what is now contemplated in SEC Regulation Best Interest.  The SEC seeks to dress up FINRA suitability rules in the raiment of fiduciary language without the “uncompromising rigidity” of fiduciary law.

_______

Notes:

[1]       Keith Loveland, JD, AIFA, CIDA.  Available at: http://solisinvicti.com/books/Law/Fiduciary%20Law.pdf.  Accessed June 19, 2018.

[2]       Matthew 6:24; KJV.  Available at: http://biblehub.com/kjv/matthew/6.htm.  Accessed June 19. 2018.

[3]       Confucius; The Analects; Translated by Arthur Waley; Routledge; London and New York; 1938; 84.

[4]       Blain F. Aikin et al; Fiduciary: A Historically Significant Standard; B.U. Law Review; 158.  Available at: https://www.fi360.com/main/pdf/BULawReview_AikinFausti_Fall2010.pdf; Accessed June 21, 2018.

[5]       Id.

[6]       Id. at 159.

For information about fiduciary expert Jack Duval, click here.

SIGN UP FOR OUR BLOG

Read More

Topics: FINRA, Investment Suitability, dol fiduciary rule, fiduciary duties, SEC Regulation Best Interest

Subscribe to Email Updates

Recent Posts

Posts by Topic

see all