The Securities Litigation Expert Blog

SEC Regulation Best Interest - FINRA RN 19-26

Posted by Jack Duval

Aug 8, 2019 8:16:52 AM

 

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

 

FINRA RN 19-26 Image

Yesterday, FINRA published its first Regulatory Notice related to RBI, RN 19-26.  This Notice was relatively unremarkable and essentially set the table for further FINRA guidance on RBI.

FINRA has created a webpage of RBI content for member firms.  Of note was FINRA's hinting at future rule changes:

As with other SEC rules, FINRA will examine for and enforce compliance with Reg BI and, in doing so, FINRA will adhere to SEC guidance and interpretations. FINRA staff expects to work with SEC staff to ensure consistency in examining broker-dealers and their associated persons for compliance with Reg BI. In addition, FINRA will review FINRA rules to see whether changes are needed to align FINRA rules with the SEC’s rulemaking. Any proposed changes to FINRA rules will be filed with the SEC for public comment and available on FINRA’s website.1  (Emphasis added)

I suspect changes will be coming to FINRA Suitability Rule 2111, which I wrote about here.

__________

Notes:

1.          FINRA SEC Regulation Best Interest website.  Available at: https://www.finra.org/industry/regulation-best-interest.  Accessed August 8, 2019.

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Topics: supervision, Investment Suitability, Suitability Expert, Securities Exchange Commission, Regulation Best Interest, FINRA RN 19-26

IPO Churning - It Ain't What it Used to Be (And it Never Was)

Posted by Jack Duval

Jul 18, 2019 7:38:28 AM

I'm pleased to announce a new white paper entitled IPO Churning - It Ain't What it Used to Be (And it Never Was).

Over the years, I have participated in many IPO churning cases and have heard defense counsel argue that the client doesn't pay the commission and therefore there can be no churning.

This argument is just plain wrong.

Confusion about this issue arises from counsel not understanding the different types of IPOs commonly used today.  This white paper unpacks the different types of IPOs and shows how in almost all cases, the client pays the markup (commission) to the underwriters, not the issuing firms.

The paper also discusses:

  • How IPO churning has changed since the technology bubble and why clients are unlikely to make money in such a "strategy";
  • How prospectuses are used to solicit investors into IPOs;
  • The different types of prospectuses used;
  • Suitability, and;
  • Supervision.

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Topics: supervision, IPO, Investment Suitability, FINRA Suitability Rule 2111, Suitability Expert, Churning, Section 2(a)(10), Section 15(c)(2)

SEC Regulation Best Interest - The Final Rule

Posted by Jack Duval

Jun 13, 2019 8:03:07 AM

Accelerant SEC Regulation Best Interest - Logo 

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.

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

SEC Regulation Best Interest - State Fiduciary Laws

Posted by Jack Duval

Oct 26, 2018 7:52:58 AM

Accelerant SEC Regulation Best Interest - Logo 

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

There has been some hand-wringing over the past year about the potential of a fractured fiduciary duty landscape for Broker-Dealers ("BDs") and their Registered Representatives.  The concern is that individual states will impose a fiduciary standard on Registered Representatives while the FINRA suitability standard, and ultimately SEC Regulation Best Interest ("RBI"), cover the rest.

Allow me to allay these concerns:  the fractured fiduciary landscape already exists, and has for decades.

Nevada's Fiduciary Statues

The event that started the concern was Nevada passing legislation that imposed a fiduciary duty on anyone giving financial advice.  In short, the Nevada law:  "imposes a statutory fiduciary duty as set for in Chapter 628A of the Nevada Revised Statutes on Broker-Dealers and Investment Advisers."[1]

However, four other states have common law fiduciary duties for registered representatives and 31 additional states have quasi-fiduciary duties required under common law.[2]  I'm defining "quasi-fiduciary" obligations as Finke and Langdon do: those that exceed the FINRA suitability rules but do not expressly classify BDs as fiduciaries.[3]

Table 1: Fiduciary Status of Registered Representatives by State[4]

 Accelerant LLC Jack Duval - table of fiduciary status of registered representatives by state

Thus, 36 states already have some form of fiduciary duty required of registered representatives.

Voluntary Fiduciary Status for Broker-Dealers?

The existing uneven fiduciary duty landscape has not hampered BDs business efforts and I wouldn't expect it to in the future.[5]  Furthermore, if BDs were to find complying with the varying standards too taxing, they could just implement a fiduciary standard nation-wide.

Given SIFMA’s[6] long-standing resistance to a fiduciary standard, voluntary adherence to one is highly unlikely.   However, this might be more economical in the long-run, especially if more states pass their own fiduciary statutes.

As I have discussed in this blog posts series, I believe the pseudo-fiduciary standard under RBI will be difficult and expensive to implement.  BDs and their clients would be better off under a fiduciary standard.  Further, from a purely business perspective, adopting a fiduciary standard would help BDs compete with registered investment advisory firms which have been winning the battle for clients and assets.

Given the disappointment in many states with the defeat of the DOL Fiduciary Rule and RBI, it would not be surprising to see more states adopt fiduciary statutes.  Fiduciary expert James Watkins opines that “So long as states enact fiduciary laws that don’t impact a pension plan like a 401(k), they have every right to act,”.[7]

__________

Notes:

 

[1]       Nevada Secretary of State; Website; Available at: https://www.nvsos.gov/sos/licensing/securities/new-fiduciary-duty; Accessed October 25, 2018.

[2]       Michael Finke and Thomas Langdon; The Impact of the Broker-Dealer Fiduciary Standard on Financial Advice; March 9, 2012; Available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2019090; Accessed October 26, 2018; 13.

[3]       Id. at 14.

[4]       Id.

[5]       See supra Note 2.

[6]       Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association; https://www.sifma.org/about/.

[7]       Mark Miller; U.S. states eye protections for investors if federal regulation falters; Reuters; April 12, 2018; Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-column-miller-fiduciary/u-s-states-eye-protections-for-investors-if-federal-regulation-falters-idUSKBN1HJ1NT?feedType=RSS&feedName=PersonalFinance; Accessed October 25, 2018.

 

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

SEC Regulation Best Interest - Lost Gains Cases

Posted by Jack Duval

Oct 4, 2018 9:12:46 AM

Accelerant SEC Regulation Best Interest - Logo 

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

A "lost gains" case is one in which the claimant is asking for gains they believe they should have earned but did not.  These cases are different from the traditional securities litigation, where the claimant is asking for actual losses that have been incurred. 

Because the damage theory involves foregone gains instead of out-of-pocket losses, lost gains cases are generally considered to have a higher degree of difficulty.

On the face of it, this is common sense.  If an investor puts $10 million into an account and it declines to $5 million.  Most arbitrators can understand how the client has been damaged.  However, if the same investor puts $10 million into an account and six years later it's still worth $10 million, this is likely to generate less sympathy.

However, in my experience, lost gains cases can represent some of the most abusive fact patterns.

In the lost gains cases I have been involved with, the client’s accounts were essentially treated as an ATM for the Registered Representative.  These fact patterns involved extremely high fees charged for products that were churned into and out of the accounts at issue (as well as account-level fees).  The results were that the Registered Representative appropriated the growth of the accounts.

What growth wasn't appropriated was lost to the short-term holding of the investments.  That is, the investments were never invested as intended and allowed the time needed to generate returns.

In these cases, the clients were invested during strong bull markets but did not participate because of the abusive nature of the trading in their accounts.  

Six years later, they had experienced no growth while their Registered Representatives had made millions (literally).  In a bear market, such a pattern would exacerbate the decline in the accounts due to market forces and be discovered much sooner.  Bull markets hide these kinds of abuses, and the current historic bull market will surely be no exception.

However, what is different this time is the SEC’s pending Regulation Best Interest (“RBI”), which could be made law before the market declines.

Lost Gains Cases Under Regulation Best Interest

Under SEC Regulation Best Interest, lost gains cases should be easy.

This is because the burden of proof will be on the respondents to show their strategy was in the client's best interest and, as I've discussed in my RBI blog post series, they will need to produce contemporaneous evidence of their analyses showing how they came to that conclusion.[1]

In the fact pattern discussed above, this will be impossible.  Furthermore, a key defense will be removed.

Long-Term Time Horizons and the Risks of “Time Diversification”

In many securities litigations, a client's long-term time horizon is used as a defense to justify aggressive investments.  The logic is that the longer an investment is held, the less likely it is to generate a loss.  This is known as “time diversification”.  The problem with time diversification is that it is, at best, only partially correct, at worst it is a setup for disastrous portfolio decisions.[2]

The paradox of time diversification is that in order to benefit from higher returns (in equities usually) the client must increase their risk of interim declines in order to reduce their risk of a terminal loss.[3]

If RBI becomes law, the long-term time horizon will take on a different implication. 

Time Horizon, Fees, and Taxes under Regulation Best Interest

It has always been true that the longer a client's time horizon, the more important minimizing fees and avoiding taxes become.  This is not a matter of debate.  This is not something that reasonable minds can differ upon.  This is a 100 percent mathematical certainty.

Under RBI, this will become a key focal point.

If a client with a long-term time horizon is put into high fee products, charged high account-level fees, and/or churned into and out of commission product on a short-term basis, there is no way to argue it is in their best interest.

For instance, if fees can be reduced by one full percentage point per year, in 30 years time, the difference in terminal values will be about 30 percent.[4] 

For taxable accounts, the difference can be even more stark.  Annual after-tax returns of mutual funds often fall between one and two full percentage points compared to their pre-tax returns (the ones that are advertised).[5]

When combined, high expenses and tax-inefficient investing destroy investor returns.  In such a scenario, the broker, investment manager, and government all get paid before the investor, who is taking all the risk.[6]

Furthermore, the deleterious effects of high fees and taxes are completely return agnostic.  The return-destroying math holds true through all markets, good, bad, or sideways and compounds over time, to the investors disadvantage.

Costs Under Regulation Best Interest

As I have written about here, the SEC has recognized the importance of costs under RBI.[7]

While cost is not the only factor when evaluating an investment or investment strategy, it is one of the most important, if not the most important.  The customers tax status is also critical, which is why it is part of the profiling required under FINRA Rule 2111 and under RBI.[8]

RBI requires the Registered Representative undertake a fact specific analysis before the recommendation is made.  As mentioned above, this analysis will need to show why the recommended investment or strategy is in the best interest of the client compared to other investments offered by the firm.[9]

Any firm that can effectuate stock transactions for a client can purchase index ETFs for the same client (and most will have selling agreements with index mutual fund providers).  Thus, virtually every Broker-Dealer will be required to show why their investment or strategy  recommendation is better over the long-term than an index ETF or mutual fund on a net after-fee, after-tax basis (for their long-term investors).

This will present a significant hurdle for BDs because almost all equity investors are categorized as long-term investors, which is as it should be.[10]

Thus, all client accounts with a long-term time horizon will require an analysis that justifies the fees charged and taxes generated compared to low-fee, low-tax alternatives such as index ETFs and mutual funds.  In my opinion, this analysis will have to be rigorous, mathematical in nature, and be based on conservative assumptions.

Supervision to Avoid Lost Gains Cases

Supervisors will need to insure their Registered Representatives have undertaken a fact specific analysis for all their clients.  For those clients with a long-term time horizon, supervisors will need to insure the analyses comport to industry standards, reflect the client’s best interest given their particular facts and circumstances, and that the findings are reflected in the client’s portfolio.

__________

Notes:

[1]      Regulation Best Interest; Jack Duval; Available at: http://blog.accelerant.biz/blog/topic/regulation-best-interest; Accessed October 4, 2018.

[2]      “The Myth of Time Diversification: Analysis, Application, and Incorrect New Account Forms”; Jack Duval; PIABA Bar Journal; Spring 2006; Available at: http://blog.accelerant.biz/myth-of-time-diversification-whitepaper-0; Accessed October 4, 2018.

[3]       Statistically, the risk of interim declines is known as “first passage time probability”.

[4]       Reducing Attorney Fees (Investment Fees, that is); Jack Duval; Available at: https://blog.bant.am/index.php/2018/04/03/reducing-attorney-fees-investment-fees/; Accessed October 4, 2018.

[5]       Taxes – Another Killer of Attorney Returns; Jack Duval; Available at: https://blog.bant.am/index.php/2018/06/04/taxes-another-killer-of-attorney-returns/; Accessed October 4, 2018.

[6]        Wealth Confiscation by Your Three Investment “Partners”; Jack Duval; Available at: https://blog.bant.am/index.php/2018/09/07/wealth-confiscation-by-your-three-investment-partners/; Accessed October 4, 2018.

[7]         SEC Regulation Best Interest – Reasonable Care; Jack Duval; Available at: http://blog.accelerant.biz/blog/sec-regulation-best-interest-reasonable-care; Accessed October 4, 2018.

[8]         Under RBI, the Retail Customer Investment Profile includes “tax status”; SEC Regulation Best Interest; Release No. 34-83062; File No. S7-07-18; 406.  Available at: https://www.sec.gov/rules/proposed/2018/34-83062.pdf; Accessed October 4, 2018.

[9]          A separate issue is investments not offered by the firm.  This will likely come up for advisors who only sell one type of product such as insurance.  This is a key difference between RBI and the fiduciary duty imposed upon Registered Investment Advisors.  An Investment Advisor's duties are not limited to the products their firm sells.  This is a non-trivial difference and a significant shortfall in RBI.

[10]        Short-term investors should not be invested in equities.  The received view is that only funds which can be held for five years or more should be invested in equities, although some authors suggest avoiding equities unless having a 12-year time horizon.

 

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Topics: supervision, FINRA Rule 2111 (Suitability), Investment Suitability, Suitability Expert, Securities Exchange Commission, Regulation Best Interest, Fact Specific Analysis, Lost Gains Cases

SEC Regulation Best Interest - Reasonable Care

Posted by Jack Duval

Sep 14, 2018 8:12:46 AM

Accelerant SEC Regulation Best Interest - Logo 

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

Knowing the Client and the Investment

As I’ve written previously, a Registered Representative must know both the client and the investment in order to make a Best Interest recommendation under the proposed SEC rules.  (This is also true under the existing FINRA Suitability Rule 2111.)

Under RBI, the SEC addresses this directly, writing: [1]

... we believe acting in the best interest of the retail customer would require a broker-dealer to have a reasonable basis to believe that a specific recommendation is in the best interest of the particular retail customer based on its understanding of the investment or investment strategy under proposed paragraph (a)(2)(ii)(A), and in light of the retail customer's investment objectives, financial situation, and needs.  (Emphasis added)

Additionally, the SEC believes the principals that underlie the RBI requirements are the same as those under the DOL’s Best Interest Standard (which was a fiduciary standard):

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.[2]  (Emphasis added)

Although RBI does not impose a fiduciary duty, the SEC refers to the DOL Rule (as well as obligations under RBI) regarding how Registered Representatives will be held to a prudent expert standard:

(The DOL Rule) 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 such (sic) matter would use... without regard to the financial or other interests" of the person.[3]

Further, 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.[4]  (Emphasis added)

Reasonable Care

An important question, then, is what constitutes “reasonable care”?  (I am here only focusing on the reasonable care obligation concerning investments, not those regarding the obligation to know the client.)

At a minimum, reasonable care requires the Registered Representative to undertake an analysis of the potential recommended investments to express her investment thesis and choose one that is in the best interest of the client.

In short, reasonable care requires that the Registered Representative do her homework.  Additionally, the diligence undertaken will need to be evidenced in writing so that it can be supervised, and for the broker’s own protection, should litigation ensue.

Choosing Between Investments

The SEC has provided guidance on the analysis of investments in RBI, writing: [5]

We reiterate that we recognize that it may be consistent with a retail customer's investment objectives - and in many cases, in a retail customer's best interest - for a retail customer to allocate investments across a variety of investment products, or to invest in riskier or more costly products, such as some actively managed mutual funds, variable annuities, and structured products.

However, in recommending such products, a broker-dealer must satisfy its obligations under proposed Regulation Best Interest.  Such recommendations would continue to be evaluated under a fact specific analysis based on the security or investment strategy recommended in connection with the retail customer's investment profile, consistent with the proposed best interest obligation.  (Emphasis added)

Fact Specific Analysis

The “fact specific analysis” is a new requirement and, as mentioned above, will need to be evidenced for each recommendation and supervised by the broker-dealer (“BD”).

The SEC mentions variable annuities as an example of a “more costly product”.  A fact specific analysis would need to show that a variable annuity was in the client’s best interest after accounting for those costs and compared to other available options.  For most variable annuities, this will be exceedingly difficult.

In a typical variable annuity contract the client is charged two to four percent per year in total fees.  These consist of asset management fees, mortality and expense fees, administrative fees, and riders.  Academic literature has shown a typical death benefit guaranteeing the principal to be worth between one and 10 basis points per year.[6]  However, most variable annuity contracts charge 100 to 125 basis points for the guarantee.

Such a high markup is very difficult to justify (as are all the other fees).

The advantage of tax-deferred growth inside a variable annuity is overwhelmed by these extremely high fees and the net investment returns will likely never overcome them when compared to a similar allocation into index funds, which typically distribute no capital gains.

Furthermore, most variable annuities require the sacrifice of liquidity, a risk that is completely uncompensated.[7]

In order to justify the recommendation of a variable annuity under RBI, a Registered Representative would have to show, in a fact specific analysis, how it is in her client’s best interest to buy the variable annuity versus a similar allocation in index funds.

I have yet to see such an analysis and am highly skeptical that one could pass the prudent expert standard.

The Importance of Costs

The SEC recognizes the importance of costs when undertaking a fact specific analysis, writing:[8]

… we emphasize that the costs and financial incentives associated with a recommendation would generally be one of many important factors...

Furthermore, the SEC states clearly that when choosing among identical securities, RBI requires the less expensive security be recommended:[9]

Thus, where, for example, a broker-dealer is choosing among identical securities available to the broker-dealer, it would be inconsistent with the Care Obligation to recommend the more expensive alternative for the customer…

If a broker-dealer recommends a more expensive security or strategy over another reasonably available alternative offered by the broker-dealer, they must have a reasonable basis to believe the higher cost is justified and that the recommendation is in the customer's best interest.

A key word in the quote above is “identical”.  Very few investments are likely to be identical in the literal sense.  However, many are certain to be highly comparable with differences that are essentially trivial.  For instance, in the variable annuity example, a large cap blend sub-account inside the variable annuity is likely to be highly comparable to an S&P 500 Index fund.

A simple correlation analysis would almost certainly reveal that the differences were small, as would an analysis of the holdings and the sub-accounts active share.  Indeed, most funds (or sub-accounts) in the same size and style category are likely to be close to identical, although none would likely meet the literal meaning of “identical”.

The more comparable two investments are, the more important it will be to choose the less expensive option.  For products that have insurance or other features such as principal protection, an additional analysis of the costs, liquidity, guarantor risk, and other factors will be required.

Importantly, the case of identical investments isn’t the only standard the SEC sets out, indeed, it is only a special case.

Comparable Product Factors

The SEC has provided guidance on what a BD must consider when undertaking their fact specific analysis for comparable products or strategies offered by the firm:[10]

While every inquiry will be specific to the broker-dealer and the investment or investment strategy, broker-dealers may wish to consider questions such as: 

  • Can less costly, complex, or risky products available at the broker-dealer achieve the objective of the product?
  • What assumptions underlie the product, and how sound are they? What market or performance factors determine the investor’s return?
  • What are the risks specific to retail customers? If the product was designed mainly to generate yield, does the yield justify the risk to principal?
  • What costs and fees for the retail customer are associated with this product? Why are they appropriate?  Are all of the costs and fees transparent?  How do they compare with comparable products offered by the firm?[11]
  • What financial incentives are associated with the product, and how will costs, fees and compensation relating to the product impact an investor’s return?
  • Does the product present any novel legal, tax, market, investment, or credit risks?
  • How liquid is the product? Is there a secondary market for the product?

As described above, the broker-dealer's diligence and understanding of the risks and rewards would generally involve consideration of factors, such as the costs; the investment objectives and characteristics associated with a product or strategy (including any special or unusual features, liquidity, risks and potential benefits, volatility and likely performance in a variety of market and economic conditions), as well as the financial and other benefits to the broker-dealer.

Fact Specific Analysis Supervision

Perhaps most important is that Registered Representatives will have to undertake their fact specific analysis before the recommendation is made.  As discussed above, that analysis would need to be in writing and show how the recommendation is in the client’s best interest and comports with all their particular facts and circumstances, including risk tolerance and investment objectives.

If there was no analysis, or the analysis was deficient, then the recommendation would likely fail to meet the RBI standard (or might only meet it by chance) and would certainly have failed to have been supervised.

The requirement of a fact specific analysis will necessitate additional supervisory systems and oversight, and BDs will need to implement policies and procedures to make sure they comply with RBI.

__________

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 September 12, 2018.

at 141.

[2]           Id. at 58.

[3]           Id. at 108.

[4]           Id. at 59.

[5]           Id. at 147.

[6]           Mose Arye Milevsky and Steven E. Posner; The Titanic Option: Valuation of the Guaranteed Minimum Death Benefit in Variable Annuities and Mutual Funds; The Journal of Risk and Insurance, 2001; Vol. 68; No. 1, 93-128.  Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.178.1519&rep=rep1&type=pdf;  Accessed September 12, 2018.

[7]           Many variable annuities allow the withdrawal of up to 10 percent of the original investment on a penalty-free basis every year.  However, withdrawals above that amount often have eight to 10 percent penalties in the first year and decline each year after that.

            Typically, investors in illiquid investments such as hedge funds and private equity funds demand an illiquidity premium of three percent per year for the loss of liquidity.  Variable annuities provide no such return premium.  Indeed, because of their fee structure, they are likely to return three percent less than the benchmark each year.

[8]           RBI at 147.

[9]           Id. at 148.

[10]         Id. at 139-40 and 143.

[11]         An interesting question arises about firms that only offer one type of product, such as insurance carriers that only sell insurance or variable products.  I will address this in later posts.

 

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

SEC Regulation Best Interest - The Prudent Expert Standard

Posted by Jack Duval

Aug 23, 2018 9:38:27 AM

Accelerant SEC Regulation Best Interest - Logo 

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.

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

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: 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.

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

Comparing SEC Regulation Best Interest to Existing FINRA Rules

Posted by Jack Duval

Apr 27, 2018 9:30:35 AM

 

SEC Regulation Best Interest - Commissioner Kara Stein

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES US Securities and Exchange Commissioner Kara Stein.

This blog post continues a series exploring the fiduciary rules proposed by the DOL and now the SEC.  The DOL Rule posts can be found here and the SEC Rule post can be found here.

The SEC's proposed Regulation Best Interest ("RBI") is remarkable in how poorly it is crafted.  Indeed, it is a disaster.

If passed in it's current form, RBI will:

  • Not create a unified fiduciary standard as it was supposed to under the Dodd-Frank Act Section 913;
  • Confuse clients as to the duties of broker-dealers compared to investment advisors, and;
  • Pass off existing FINRA Rules and interpretations as some kind of heightened standard.

Table 1:  Comparing SEC Regulation Best Interest to Existing FINRA Rules

SEC Regulation Best Interest v. Existing FINRA Rules

For a PDF of this table click here.

As can be seen above, the only thing RBI adds are the disclosures relating to the scope and terms of the relationship and material conflicts of interest.  While these are good additions, they fall far short of increasing investor protections.

Everything else in RBI already exists within the FINRA rules.

Kara M. Stein Comments

SEC Commissioner Kara M. Stein has savaged RBI in her public statement:

... does this proposal require financial professionals to put their customers' interest first, and fully and fairly disclose any conflicting interests? No.  Does this proposal require all financial professionals who make investment recommendations related to retail customers to do so as fiduciaries? No.  Does this proposal require financial professionals to provide retail customers with the best available options? No.

Commissioner Stein also points out, as have others, that nowhere in the 1,000+ pages of related documents does RBI define what "best interest" means.  Instead, the RBI states the best interest obligation will be satisfied "if the broker-dealer complies with four component requirements: a Disclosure Obligation, a Care Obligation,and two Conflict of Interest Obligations."  (96)

Thus, broker-dealers will be able to check the boxes to prove that they complied with an undefined "best interest" obligation that already exists under FINRA rules.  This can only weaken investor protection.

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

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