The Securities Litigation Expert Blog

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.

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

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

FINRA's Proposed Changes to the Churning Rule

Posted by Jack Duval

May 29, 2018 8:03:39 AM

Accelerant - FINRA - Churning - Quantitative Suitability - Jack Duval

On April 20, 2018, FINRA issued Regulatory Notice 18-13 – Quantitative Suitability, requesting comments on amendments to Suitability Rule 2111.  This is the first FINRA response to SEC Regulation Best Interest.  In it, FINRA is trying to square the existing suitability rule with a new proposal in SEC Regulation Best Interest.[1]  (My writings on SEC Regulation Best Interest can be found here.)

Proposed Changes to FINRA Suitability Rule 2111.05(c) – Quantitative Suitability

The proposed changes would be made to the Supplementary Material to Rule 2111 dealing with quantitative suitability found in under section .05(c).  In short, section .05(c) would be amended to "remove the element of control that currently must be proved to demonstrate a violation (of the suitability rule) ..."[2]  What would remain are "… the obligations to prove that the transactions were recommended and that the level of trading was excessive and unsuitable in light of the customer's investment profile."[3]

The comment period expires on June 19, 2018.

According to FINRA, it is removing the control element from the rule because it is unnecessary.  FINRA writes (from the enforcement action perspective):[4]

The inclusion of the control element has its historic roots, in part, in the perceived need to ensure that the culpability for excessive trading rested with the party responsible for initiating the transactions in actions brought pursuant to the antifraud provisions of the federal securities laws.  That concern is not present under FINRA's suitability rule.  Because FINRA must show that the broker recommended the transactions in order to prove a Rule 2111 violation, culpability for excessive trading will still rest with the appropriate party even absent the control element.

... FINRA's suitability rule will continue to require FINRA to prove that the broker recommended the transactions and that the transactions were excessive and unsuitable in light of the customer's investment profile.

… The control element is an unnecessary layer of proof regarding the identity of the responsible party (i.e., the party initiating the transactions) and does not in any way touch on the proof needed to establish the underlying, substantive misconduct (i.e., the excessive trading activity inconsistent with the customer's investment profile.)  (Emphasis in the original, notes omitted)

Defining Churning

Churning is the effectuating of a trade for the sole purpose of generating a commission.  It can be for one transaction and does not have to be for multiple transactions, although the high transaction version is far more common.  (My previous post on churning can be found here.)

Critically, the level of activity and costs associated with the trading strategy must be judged against the individual client's profile, investment objective, risk tolerance, and involvement.  FINRA writes:[5]

Although no single test defines excessive activity, factors such as turnover rate, cost-to-equity ratio or the use of in-and-out trading may provide a basis for a finding of excessive trading.  A turnover rate of six or a cost-to-equity ratio above 20 percent generally is indicative of excessive trading.  However, lower ratios have supported findings of excessive trading for customers with very conservative investment objectives, while somewhat higher ratios have not supported findings of excessive trading for some customers with highly speculative investment objectives and the financial resources to withstand potential losses.

Most clients are buy-and-hold type of investors with moderate risk tolerances.  In these cases, even low levels of turnover and cost/equity ratios can be indicative of churning.  For example, I have seen such clients churned in portfolios laden with structured products.  These products were tax-inefficient and resulted in costs of 1.5 to 2 percent per year, when publicly traded equivalents would have cost a small fraction of that.

Alternately, a client with a speculative investment objective that wanted to trade actively (especially with only a portion of her assets) could have much higher turnover and cost/equity ratios without them be indicative of churning.

Another indicator is the level of commissions being assessed on each trade.  Is the broker charging full freight commissions (even if only on the buys)?  If so, this is more likely to be abusive than a broker charging firm minimum (or heavily discounted) commissions on each trade.

Ultimately, the assessment of any recommended investment strategy will be based on its comportment with the client's investment objective, risk tolerance, and overall profile.

Very few investors want to actively trade.  Most have no interest in the markets and even fewer have the leisure time to devote to following individual securities on a tick-by-tick basis.

These types of clients give their money to an investment professional and pay that professional to manage the money for them.  If speculative trading develops in these accounts, it is likely to be churning, even at low levels of turnover and cost/equity ratios.

Where an investor chooses a speculative trading strategy and knowingly takes the risks and is willing to pay the costs (which can add up quickly, even at low commission levels), that is their right.

Unfortunately, most speculative trading strategies don't work.  The investor is up against buildings full of computer servers engaged in algorithmic trading strategies that get the price data faster, and process their trades nearly instantaneously, before the client can even start typing in an order.[6]

Supervision

As always, broker-dealer supervisors will need to monitor accounts for churning.  These efforts should trigger red flags for accounts with high turnover and cost/equity ratios, those with a significant amount of the client's investable assets involved in the trading, those with large amounts of losses, and those where the trading does not comport with the client's profile.

Almost all compliance systems today can monitor for these triggers and generate exception reports for supervisors on an automated basis.

_______

Notes:

[1]      SEC Regulation Best Interest; Release No. 34-83062; Available at: https://www.sec.gov/rules/proposed/2018/34-83062.pdf;  Accessed May 24, 2018; 150.  “… Regulation Best Interest would include the existing ‘quantitative suitability’ obligation, but without the ‘control’ element.”

[2]      FINRA Regulatory Notice 18-13 – Quantitative Suitability; April 20, 2018; 1.  Available at: http://www.finra.org/sites/default/files/notice_doc_file_ref/Regulatory-Notice-18-13.pdf; Accessed May 24, 2018.

[3]      Id.

[4]      Id. at 3-4.

[5]      Id. at 3.

[6]      See Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt explaining how algorithmic traders are scalping even the largest institutional investors.

 

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Topics: Churning, supervision, FINRA, Quantitative Suitability, turnover ratio, cost/equity ratio

Premeditated "C" Share Churning at Morgan Stanley?

Posted by Jack Duval

Apr 5, 2018 10:06:49 AM

Accelerant Jack Duval Securities Litigation Expert

On March 29, 2018, AdvisorHub broke a story about Morgan Stanley’s decision to convert all Class "C" mutual fund shares held for six or more years into load-waived "A" shares.  This is a beneficial move for clients, who will see their funds expenses ratios cut by about 1.5 percent.

Morgan Stanley brokers were not pleased with the move, which will reduce their 12b-1 fees from one percent to 25 basis points.

Some of them vowed to churn their clients in order to avoid the conversion.  (This was not an April Fool’s joke.)

Understanding “C” Share Mutual Funds

In theory, “C” shares are designed for clients who will be relatively short-term holders and want to avoid the front-end load on "A" shares and the back-end load on "B" shares.

In reality, they are an anachronistic holdover from the mid- to late-90's.  Back then, broker-dealers where trying to grow their fee-based business and saw "C" shares as a way for transactional brokers to become more annuitized.

Today, clients can get the same investment exposures at a fraction of the costs of "C" shares in ETFs, which are also much more tax-efficient.

The truth is that "C" share funds shouldn't be held for six years, and probably not at all.  Clients would be much better off in ETFs.  “C” shares have a full one percent 12b-1 fee charged annually to the customer in addition to the management fee and other expenses.  They are extremely high-fee and in almost all cases should be avoided.

Some "C" share mutual funds from other companies convert into "A" shares after 10 years, but again, 10 years in a “C” shares is unsuitable.

For a more detailed take on fees, see The Tyranny of High Fees blog post from our sister company, Bantam Inc.

Premeditated Churning                 

In what hopefully has Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman losing sleep at night, AdvisorHub wrote:[1]              

Several Morgan Stanley brokers told AdvisorHub that they plan to "flip C shares, selling out of one fund into another's similar share class as they approach conversion date so that they can continue collecting the higher so-called 12b-1 fee, or trail.                                                  

"Losing 75 basis points on every six-year-old share on my team's book will cost us $300,000 in gross and $120,000 in commissions," lamented one broker, who said the team expects to "flip til the cows go home."

These brokers would be selling the "C" share funds before they convert into "A" shares, thus continuing the one percent 12b-1 fee instead of having it reduced to 25 basis points.          

This would be an unabashed churn of client accounts, and after a nine-year bull market, one that would likely have serious adverse tax consequences for the clients.

Belden Decision                       

The SEC has considered share class issues long ago and has clearly stated their position.  The share class most advantageous to the client must be purchased, or in this case, held.                      

In Belden, the SEC found that a broker buying "B" shares for a client who could have purchased load-waived "A" shares because of the amount to be invested, was violative of FINRA rules.  The Commission’s opinion stated:[2]

As we have frequently pointed out, a broker’s recommendations must be consistent with his customer’s best interests.  The test for whether Belden’s recommended investments were suitable is not whether Book acquiesced in them, but whether Belden’s recommendations to him were consistent with Book’s financial situation and needs.

FINRA concurs:[3]

NASD (now FINRA) construes Belden as supporting the principle that the manner of purchase of a recommended security by an associated person, where that security otherwise would be suitable based on the investor’s investment objectives, risk tolerance, and financial means, can render that recommendation unsuitable, and therefore violative of 2310 (now 2110), if there is an alternative basis upon which the security can be purchased to the pecuniary advantage of the investor.  (Emphasis added)

There is no way the selling of "C" shares to prevent them from converting into load-waived "A" shares can be in the customer’s best interest.

Supervision

Churning is the effectuating of any trade for the reason of making commissions.  Many churning claims involve high turnover (trading) of securities in a client account.  However, churning does not have to involve a series of trades.  Indeed, it can be one trade.

In the event a registered representative sells a “C” share fund before its conversion to a load-waived “A” share, it would constitute a one-trade churn.

Morgan Stanley supervisory systems should be able to flag any "C" share trades that occur close to a conversion, however, some brokers may preemptively sell "C" shares when they are further away from the six-year marker.

These will also be churns, but will very likely not be flagged.

Morgan Stanley supervisors should closely monitor all “C” share transactions for abuses.

_______

Notes:

[1]       Jed Horowitz; Morgan Stanley to Squeeze Mutual Fund Sales Compensation; AdvisorHub; March 29, 2018; Available at: https://advisorhub.com/morgan-stanley-to-squeeze-mutual-fund-sales-compensation/; Accessed April 4, 2018.

[2]       See Wendell Belden, Exchange Act Release No. 47859; May 14, 2003.

[3]       NASD NTM 03-69; Fee-Based Compensation; November 2003; 746 at footnote 5.

 

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Topics: C Share, Morgan Stanley, Churning, supervision, Wendell Belden, FINRA, Securities Exchange Commission

FINRA: Santander Failed to Update Risk on Puerto Rico Munis - See Our Suitability Matrix

Posted by Jack Duval

Oct 14, 2015 10:37:00 AM

santander

Yesterday FINRA announced a $6.4 million fine and Acceptance, Waiver and Consent by Santander for sales practice and supervisory violations at its Puerto Rico offices.  (FINRA Press Release and Santander AWC - search under Case Number: 2014041355501)

The AWC and sanctions revolve around a number of failures to supervise the sales of Puerto Rico municipal bonds and closed-end funds.  The AWC highlights a number of supervisory failures, including:

  • The failure of Santander to update its proprietary risk-classification tool for the unique and changing risks of Puerto Rico municipal bonds; (See our Suitability Matrix, below.)
  • The failure to monitor for the use of margin in connection with the purchase of Puerto Rico municipal bonds;
  • The failure to monitor for over-concentrated positions in Puerto Rico municipal bonds and closed-end funds;
  • The failure to monitor for Registered Representatives selling personal Puerto Rico municipal bond holdings to their clients. 

The "Securities Master"

Santander used a proprietary risk-classification tool that categorized securities into three risk levels: low, moderate, and high.  The AWC noted the "vast majority of Santander's clients were moderate-risk investors" and that almost all the Puerto Rico municipal bonds sold to their clients were coded moderate-risk.  However, Santander did not update the Securities Master to reflect the dramatically increasing risks in the Puerto Rico municipal bond market.

The FINRA press release stated:

Santander did not review or assess the tool's Puerto Rico municipal bond risk classifications following significant market events such as the December 13, 2012, Moody's downgrade of certain (bonds) to one level above junk.

Santander and its Registered Representatives Sold Their Puerto Rico Municipal Bonds While Customers Held or Purchased Them

While Santander was holding its moderate risk classification steady for Puerto Rico municipal bonds, it was reducing it's trading desk inventory.  The AWC states:

On November 29, 2012, Santander began reducing its Puerto Rico municipal bond inventory.  (The December 13, 2012 Moody's downgrade) acceleranted the Firm's efforts to reduce its inventory of Puerto Rico municipal bonds, reflecting Santander's concerns about changed risks in the market for Puerto Rico municpial bonds and Santander's exposure to those risks.

The next day, on December 14, 2012, Santander closed its Puerto Rico trading desk to any new purchases of Puerto Rico municipal bonds... The Firm, however, continued to reduce its market exposure and entirely eliminated its inventory of Puerto Rico municipal bonds by October 2013.

... employees sold securities directly from their accounts to customer accounts.

Sanctions

FINRAs sanctions include:

  • A centure;
  • A fine of $2 million;
  • Restitution of approximately $4.3 million.

Analysis

The most significant finding in the AWC is that Santander failed to update it's risk-classification for Puerto Rico municipal bonds in the face of overwhelming evidence that the economy had been in a long-term decline, and the fact that the bonds had been downgraded a number of times.  (Puerto Rico GO bonds were downgraded on 8/8/11, 12/13/12, and 3/13/13.)

These increasing risks made the bonds less and less suitable for investors going back to the beginning of the economic decline in 2006.

The Accelerant Puerto Rico Municipal Bond Suitability Matrix

Accelerant has created a suitability matrix showing how Puerto Rico municipal bonds became more risky and less suitable over time.  It provides a framework for evaluating the suitability of client positions in Puerto Rico municipal bonds, by level of client account concentration. Key features:

  • Identifies three distinct phases of increasing risks in Puerto Rico municipal bonds;
  • Highlights two milestones where continuing to hold the bonds required higher risk tolerances or lower allocations;
  • Provides a clear and consistent method for evaluating damage claims.

For a high resolution version of the Suitability Matrix, go here.

The_Accelerant_Puerto_Rico_Changing_Suitability_Matrix

__________

For information about Puerto Rico municipal bonds expert Jack Duval, click here.

For my previous coverage of the Puerto Rico municipal bond crisis, see this.

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Topics: municipal bond crisis, FINRA, closed-end funds, Puerto Rico, UBS, supervision, securities litigation, Compliance, Santander

UBS Hit with $34 Million in Fines over Puerto Rico Funds

Posted by Jack Duval

Sep 29, 2015 4:29:00 PM

UBS_Puerto_Rico

FINRA and the SEC just announced a $34 million fine against UBS for its Puerto Rico funds.  You can find the announcement here.

For the full AWC, see this.

We will have more analysis later.

__________

For information about Puerto Rico municipal bonds expert Jack Duval, click here.

For my previous coverage of the Puerto Rico municipal bond crisis, see this.

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Topics: municipal bond crisis, FINRA, closed-end funds, Puerto Rico, UBS, SEC, securities litigation

Accelerant Arbitration Market Indicator Flashes Highest Sell Signal Since 2000

Posted by Jack Duval

Nov 13, 2013 8:38:39 AM

The Accelerant Arbitration Market Indicator printed at 1.42, the highest since 2000.  

Two quick take-aways:


  1. For securities litigators: the lull in filings is probably in the ninth inning;

  2. For investors:  Caveat emptor.


You can also link to the visualization (which also has a comparison of the FINRA arbitration filings and the S&P 500) here.

 

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Topics: FINRA, Statistics, Data Analysis, litigation, investments, analytics, Accelerant Arbitration Market Indicator, FINRA Arbitration, Law Firm Analytics, Predictive Analytics

FINRA Issues Regulatory Notice 13-31 Suitability

Posted by Jack Duval

Oct 23, 2013 7:36:07 AM

FINRA has issued RN 13-31 to highlight effective practices for member firms when complying with Suitability Rule 2111.  (RN 13-31)

A number of highlights are worth noting, including:



  •  The manner in which the firm supervises explicit hold recommendations, including the method of documentation the firm uses when documentation occurs, as well as the information the firm considers in conducting the review...

  • Transaction red flags such as: those that appear to deviate from the firm’s internal suitability guidelines for a particular security; a long-term investment for an investor with a short-term horizon; a speculative investment or strategy held in the account of an investor with a conservative investment objective; and the same security held in the account or strategy implemented for...



The RN also emphasized compliance with the reasonable-basis component of Rule 2111:
As referenced above, reasonable-basis suitability requires a firm or associated person to perform reasonable diligence to understand the nature of a recommended security or investment strategy involving a security, as well as its potential risks and rewards, and to determine whether the recommendation is suitable for at least some investors based on that understanding. FINRA observed during examinations that many firms have in place a new product vetting process that assists them in executing reasonable diligence obligations. While many large firms have extensive frameworks for assessing products, even smaller firms established investment committees to vet complex or risky products to determine whether the product met the reasonable-basis suitability standard for retail customers, and if so, the type of customer profile for which the product would be suitable if recommended.

A firm’s vetting of new products does not, standing alone, satisfy the need for associated persons to understand the securities and investment strategies they recommend to customers.  In this regard, some firms post due diligence on products (and accompanying documents) to an internal website that associated persons can access when recommending a product. Such information includes audited financial statements, notes of interviews with key individuals of the product sponsor or issuer, and other information relevant to understanding the product and its features. Some firms use the vetting process to aid in product-focused training of their associated persons, supervisors and compliance staff.


Compliance with the reasonable-basis suitability requirement will be an important issue in the next securities litigation cycle.  Chief Compliance Officers are right to focus on this issue before the next cycle is upon them.
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Topics: reasonable basis suitability, FINRA, RN 13-31, litigation, investments, supervision, Due Diligence, SEC, Compliance, regulation.

FINRA Moves Closer to Fiduciary Standard with Conflicts Report

Posted by Jack Duval

Oct 22, 2013 10:54:25 AM

According to a release by FINRA CEO Richard G. Ketchum, the regulator is stepping up it's focus on conflicts of interest at Broker-Dealer firms.  (Release)  This increase in focus is significant because it takes a step closer to a fiduciary standard for Registered Representatives.  The full, 44 page report can be found here.

Some areas for BD focus include:



  • identifying and managing conflicts on an ongoing basis through an enterprise-level approach that is scaled to the size and complexity of a firm's business and that starts with a "tone from the top" that carries through to the organization's structures, policies, processes, training and culture;

  • establishing new product review processes that include perspectives independent from the business proposing products, that identify potential conflicts raised by new products, that restrict distribution of products that may pose conflicts that cannot be effectively mitigated and that periodically re-assesses products through post-launch reviews;

  • making independent decisions in the wealth management business about the products they offer without pressure to favor proprietary products or products for which the firm has revenue-sharing agreements;

  • minimizing conflicts in compensation structures between customer and broker or firm interests where possible and including heightened supervision when conflicts remain; for example, around thresholds in a firm's compensation structure;

  • mitigating conflicts of interest through disclosures and other information that enables customers to understand the factors that may affect a product's financial outcome—such as the use of scenarios and graphics for a particular product; and

  • including "best-interest-of-the-customer" standards in codes of conduct that apply to brokers' personalized recommendations to retail customers in order to maintain and increase investor trust.



Broker-Dealer compliance departments will need to establish a framework of policies and procedures to address actual and potential conflicts of interest.

 

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Topics: FINRA, Richard G. Ketchum, litigation, Conflicts of Interest, investments, report, SEC, Compliance, Dodd-Frank Act, regulation.

Accelerant Publishes New White Paper: "Suitability Obligations When Using Specialists"

Posted by Jack Duval

Oct 16, 2013 4:10:45 AM

The white paper can be found here.

From the introduction:

The specialist system has existed in the brokerage world since the 1980’s, however, it has not received a great deal of regulatory or expert commentary. This is remarkable since the use of specialists is common throughout the industry, particularly in the sales of complex products.

This paper explores the suitability obligations of Registered Representatives and product specialists when jointly making recommendations to clients. The origin and evolution of the specialist system is examined along with the functions typical of specialists. The industry distinction between “inside” and “outside” specialists is described, and selling agreements between Broker-Dealers (“BDs”) and outside specialists are examined as well.

Most importantly, a critical potential dilemma is explored in regards to suitability: what happens if the Registered Representative knows the client, the product specialist knows the product, but neither knows both?

The answer, in short, is that the Registered Representative has ultimate responsibility for the suitability of all recommendations to the client. However, if the Registered Representative involves a specialist in the recommendation at any time, then both must know the client and the investment well enough to make a suitability determination. If either fails in this regard, then the recommendation cannot be said to be suitable.


The paper is co-authored by John Duval, Sr. and Jack Duval.

 

 

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Topics: FINRA, registered representative, broker dealer, litigation, white paper, suitability, supervision, Accelerant, SEC, specialists, Jack Duval, John Duval Sr., Compliance, regulation.

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