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The SEC Interprets Investment Advisers’ Fiduciary Duty to Customersby Andrew Whiteman

The SEC Interprets Investment Advisers’ Fiduciary Duty to Customers

On June 5, 2019, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission issued Release No. IA-5248, titled Commission Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers (herein, “SEC Interpretation”).[1]  The same day, the SEC issued Release No. 34-86031, titled Regulation Best Interest: The Broker-Dealer Standard of Conduct (herein, “Regulation BI”). The SEC Interpretation applies to investment advisers registered under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”). Regulation BI applies to broker-dealers registered under the rules of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”). The SEC Interpretation and Regulation BI provide similar “best interest” standards to govern dealings between financial professionals and their customers. To allow sufficient time for financial professionals to implement the new requirements, the new rules become effective on June 30, 2020. This blog discusses the SEC Interpretation. A prior blog covered Regulation BI.

The SEC Interpretation is not a rule, like Regulation BI. As such, the SEC Interpretation merely provides the SEC’s views on the nature and extent of the fiduciary duty owed by investment Advisers under the Advisers Act. The Advisers Act itself does state that investment advisers are fiduciaries to their customers. Courts have held that section 206 of the Act (29 U.S.C. § 80b-6) establishes federal fiduciary standards to govern the conduct of investment advisers. SEC v. Capital Gains Research Bureau, Inc., 375 U.S. 180, 194 (1963) (“Courts have imposed on a fiduciary an affirmative duty of ‘utmost good faith, and full and fair disclosure of all material facts,’ as well as an affirmative obligation ‘to employ reasonable care to avoid misleading’ his clients.”).

The fiduciary duty owed by investment advisers encompasses both a duty of care and a duty of loyalty. In Capital Gains, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote that section 206 of the Advisers Act reflects a Congressional recognition “of the delicate fiduciary nature of an investment advisory relationship” as well as a Congressional intent to “eliminate, or at least to expose, all conflicts of interest which might incline an investment adviser – consciously or unconsciously – to render advice which was not disinterested.” 375 U.S. at 191-92.

Best Interest = Duty of Care and Duty of Loyalty

The SEC used the term “best interest” to encompass both the duty of care and the duty of loyalty. SEC Interpretation, p. 8. The duty of care requires the investment adviser to provide advice in the best interest of its client, based on the client’s financial situation and goals. Id. Importantly, the SEC does not require that an adviser avoid all conflicts of interest in its dealings with its clients. Instead, the SEC Interpretation states that an adviser satisfies its duty of loyalty if it “makes full and fair disclosure of all conflicts of interest which might incline an investment advisor – consciously or unconsciously – to render advice which is not disinterested such that a client can provide informed consent to the conflict.” Id.

Duty of Care

According to the SEC, the duty of care is primarily satisfied by providing investment recommendations that are “suitable” for the client. Interpretation. p. 12. “Suitability” is a concept borrowed from the regulation of broker-dealers by FINRA. See FINRA Rule 2111. Investment adviser recommendations must be “suitable” for the customer in light of information disclosed by the customer concerning the customer’s investment profile, ie. the client’s financial situation, level of financial sophistication, investment experience, and financial goals. Interpretation, p. 9.

Duty of Loyalty

The SEC Interpretation states that the duty of loyalty requires that “an advisor not subordinate its clients’ interests to its own” and “not place its own interest ahead of its client’s interests.” However, this duty of loyalty is met, not by requiring that the adviser “put its client’s interests first,” which was the language of the 2018 Proposed Interpretation, but by making “full and fair disclosure to its clients of all material facts relating to the advisory relationship.”

Disclosure

The SEC Interpretation gives several examples of matters that require full and fair disclosure. Dual-registered broker-dealers and investment advisors must disclose “the circumstances in which they intend to act in their brokerage capacity and the circumstances in which they intend to act in their advisory capacity.” Disclosure of the capacity in which the adviser is acting may be made at the commencement of the relationship. A dual registrant acting in its advisory capacity should disclose any circumstances in which its advice will be limited to a menu of certain products offered through an affiliated broker-dealer or an affiliated investment adviser. SEC Interpretation, p. 22. In addition, an adviser must eliminate or “expose through full and fair disclosure all conflicts of interest which might incline the investment adviser – consciously or unconsciously – to render advice which was not disinterested.” While such disclosure and the client’s informed consent prevent the presence of the conflicts from violating the adviser’s fiduciary duty, such disclosure and consent do not themselves satisfy the adviser’s duty to act in the client’s best interest. SEC Interpretation, p. 23. The SEC sees the advisers’ delivery to their clients of the “brochure,” under Part 2A of Form ADV, as the primary means for advisers to satisfy their duty of disclosure.

Best Interest? What’s That?

Strangely, given the importance of the term “best interest,” nowhere in the Interpretation does the SEC define. it. All the SEC Interpretation tells us is that “an investment advisor’s obligation to act in the best interest of its client is an overarching principle that encompasses both the duty of care and the duty of loyalty.” SEC Interpretation, p. 23, at n.58. The SEC’s failure to be more definite about when “best interest” is and is not satisfied is unfortunate and unhelpful.

To say that full and fair disclosure of material facts and conflicts of interest satisfies the adviser’s fiduciary duty but not necessarily the duty to act in the customer’s best interest begs the question – what exactly is the adviser’s duty to its clients? The SEC’s formulation resembles a dog that chases its tail but never catches it. An adviser’s fiduciary duty, we are told, consists of a duty of care and a duty of loyalty. Care and loyalty require the adviser to “act in the ‘best interest’ of the client at all times.” SEC Interpretation, p. 8. To meet its duties, the adviser’s recommendation must be “suitable.” While never mentioning the FINRA suitability standard applicable to broker-dealers under FINRA Rule 2111, the SEC Interpretation for the first time adopts it as the standard applicable to investment advisers. SEC Interpretation, pp. 12-18.

The duty of loyalty requires that an adviser may not place its own interest ahead of those of its client. Disclosures made in a “brochure” provided at the outset of the adviser-client relationship may satisfy the adviser’s fiduciary duty, but disclosure and consent “do not themselves satisfy the adviser’s duty to act in the client’s best interest.”

Criticism

The SEC Interpretation has been widely criticized on many grounds. For one thing, the Proposed Interpretation stated explicitly that “the duty of loyalty requires an investment adviser to put its client’s interests first.” Proposed Interpretation, p. 15. The version adopted by the Commission replaced that sentence with the statement that the duty of loyalty “requires that an adviser not subordinate its clients’ interests to its own,” which the SEC explained means that an advisor cannot favor its own interests over those of a client. SEC Interpretation, p. 21. In an accompanying footnote, the SEC stated that it had made a mistake by referring to “placing clients’ interests first” in the Proposed Interpretation. According to the SEC, it had previously adopted the formulation that the best interest duty “includes the obligation not to subrogate clients’ interests to its own.” The SEC conceded that advisers commonly used “a plain English formulation” – putting the client’s interests first – as a means of explaining their duty of loyalty in a way “that may be more understandable to retail clients,” but argued that this was not the legal standard. SEC Interpretation, pp. 21-22, at n.54.

The failure to require advisers to place their clients’ interests first is the main point stressed by Commissioner Robert L. Jackson, the lone dissenter to both the SEC Interpretation and Regulation Best Interest. In a statement released on the day the Commission voted, Commissioner Jackson pointed to empirical evidence. According to Commissioner Jackson, the vast majority of firms that describe their fiduciary duty to their clients tell the public that they place their clients’ interests first. The Commission’s Interpretation retreats from that standard. In Commissioner Jackson’s words, “the Commission is wrapping a policy choice in legalese” and the Commission’s refusal to require advisers to place client interests first is contrary to the prevailing standard of care.

[1] On April 18, 2018, the Commission published for comment a proposed interpretation regarding the standard of conduct for investment advisers. See Proposed Commission Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers; Request for Comment on Enhancing Investment Adviser Regulation, Investment Advisers Act Release No. 4889 (Apr. 18, 2018) (“Proposed Interpretation). The SEC Interpretation was adopted after the SEC considered comments made in response to the Proposed Interpretation.

© Andrew Whiteman 2019

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The lawyers at Whiteman Law Firm have been handling securities matters for over 30 years. Click here for more information about our securities litigation and arbitration practice. Please contact us for more information.

FINRA Requires Brokerage Firms to Communicate with Customers when a Broker Leaves the Firmby Andrew Whiteman

Ask questions if your broker leaves his firm.

According to new regulatory guidance from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, known as FINRA, member firms are required to do the following:

  1. In the event of a registered representative’s departure, the member firm should promptly and clearly communicate to affected customers how their accounts will continue to be serviced; and
  2. The firm should provide customers with timely and complete answers when the customer asks questions about a departing registered representative

The new requirements are spelled in Notice to Members 19-10, which was issued on April 5, 2019. The purpose of the new guidance is to ensure that customers can make a timely and informed choice about where to maintain their assets when their registered representative leaves a firm. Customers should not experience any interruption in service as a result of a representative’s departure. Member firms should have policies and procedures in place to assure that customers serviced by a departing registered representative will continue to be serviced, including how and to whom the customer may direct questions and trade instructions and the identity of the representative to whom the customer will be assigned at the member firm.

NTM 19-10 also states that the member firm should “communicate clearly, without obfuscation, when asked questions” by customers about the departing registered representative. Provided the departed representative has consented to disclosure of his or her contact information to customers, the firm must provide the departed representative’s contact information, such as phone number, e-mail address, or mailing address. All information provided by the member firm about the departing representative must be “fair, balanced and not misleading.”

Thus, under NTM 19-10, a member firm (1) must immediately notify customers that their representative has departed and assign a new representative to the customers, (2) may not attempt to hinder or delay customers’ efforts to contact their former registered representative by refusing to provide his contact information when authorized to disclose it, and (3) must provide fair, balanced, and not misleading answers to all customer questions resulting from the representative’s departure.

SEC Announces Results of Share Class Selection Disclosure Initiativeby Andrew Whiteman

On March 11, 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it had settled charges with 79 investment advisers who agreed to return more than $125 million to their clients, with a substantial majority of the funds going to retail investors. The SEC entered into the settlements after the  advisers self-reported violations of the Investment Advisers Act under the SEC’s Share Class Selection Disclosure Initiative (“SCSDI”).

In recent years, the SEC has increased its enforcement activities in the area of mutual fund share selection. Beginning in 2016, the SEC has brought numerous enforcement actions against advisers who received undisclosed payments of 12b-1 fees as a result of recommending the purchase of higher-cost mutual fund shares to their clients. See, e.g., In re PPS Advisors, Inc., Investment Advisers Act Rel. No. 5084 (December 20, 2018).

On February 12, 2018, the SEC announced the SCSDI, which allowed advisers who self-reported violations of federal securities laws relating to mutual fund share class selection, and who had promptly returned money to harmed clients, to avoid civil penalties. Likewise, in guidance from the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”), the SEC stated that an adviser who advises his clients to invest in a mutual fund share class that is more expensive than other available others “when the adviser is receiving compensation that creates a potential conflict of interest and that may reduce the client’s return” may violate its fiduciary duty and the antifraud provisions of the Adviser’s Act, particularly when the adviser has not provided a full and fair disclosure of the conflict and obtained the client’s informed consent. See Proposed Commission Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers, Investment Advisers Act Rel. No. IA-4889 (April 18, 2018) (“Proposed Interpretation”), p. 12.

In an announcement dated May 1, 2018, the SEC clarified that the SCSDI does not apply to adviser share class recommendations “where one share class is higher-cost than another share class but neither share class pays a 12b-1 fee or where the adviser has no financial conflict of interest.”

While the SEC has long held the view that an adviser owes its clients a duty of “best execution,” the SEC’s earliest interpretation of that duty focused on the quantitative and qualitative factors that bear on an adviser’s selection of broker-dealers to execute securities transactions. See Interpretive Release Concerning the Scope of Section 28(e) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Related Matters, Exchange Act Rel. No. 23170 (April 28, 1986) (“1986 Interpretive Release”), at n.58. Beginning in 2016, the SEC included a best execution violation in some settled mutual fund share class selection cases, see, e.g., In Re Everhart Financial Group, Inc. Investment Advisers Act Rel. No. 4314 (January 14, 2016), ¶ 16 (citing the 1986 Interpretive Release), but has not done so in all such cases. See, e.g., In re Envoy Advisory, Inc., Investment Advisers Act Rel. No. 4764 (Sept. 8, 2017).

The SEC has not provided clear guidance as to what is meant by the duty to provide “best execution” in the mutual fund share class area. The SEC has never stated that the purchase of a higher cost class of mutual fund when a lower-cost alternative is available is always a violation of section 206(2) of the Advisers Act. Instead, the SEC’s stepped-up enforcement activity focuses primarily on advisers who failed to disclose the conflict of interest created by their receipt of 12b-1 fees. Conversely, numerous SEC publications indicate that best execution depends on the facts and circumstances. The 1986 Interpretive Release, while not specific to mutual fund share selection, states “The Commission wishes to remind money managers that the determinative factor is not the lowest possible commission cost but whether the transaction represents the best qualitative execution for the managed account.” Id., at nn.58-59. Likewise, in another OCIE publication, titled Compliance Issues Related to Best Execution by Investment Advisers (“OCIE Compliance Issues), the SEC stated that the adviser must execute transactions for clients in such a manner that the client’s total costs in each transaction are “the most favorable under the circumstances.Id., p. 1 (emhasis added). The adviser’s conduct must be analyzed, not in hindsight, but “under the particular circumstances occurring at the time of the transaction.” Proposed Interpretation, pp. 13-14.

In the area of mutual fund share class selection, the SEC stated in the Proposed Interpretation that the purchase of the least expensive investment product might not satisfy the adviser’s fiduciary duty:

Furthermore, an adviser would not satisfy its fiduciary duty to provide advice that is in the client’s best interest by simply advising its client to invest in the least expensive or least remunerative investment product or strategy without any further analysis of other factors in the context of the portfolio that the adviser manages for the client and the client’s investment profile.

Proposed Interpretation, p. 12. An adviser must have a “reasonable belief” that the investment advice is in the best interest of a client after the adviser has conducted a “reasonable investigation” into the investment. Id., at pp. 12-13. In the adviser’s analysis, the customer’s time horizon is important. For customers with short time horizons, a lower-cost fund share class “may be more costly relative to other mutual fund share classes.” See Regulation Best Interest (Proposed Rule), p. 311.

Thus, it would not be consistent with SEC guidance to require that investment advisers recommend only the lowest-cost mutual funds, without considering whether a different share class may be appropriate under the circumstances. There are valid reasons why an adviser may determine that it is reasonable for a client to invest in a higher-fee share class, even when a lower-cost fund class is available. These include, for example, the imposition of transaction fees on one class but not another, the size of the transaction, the investor’s time horizon, and operational considerations. The adviser’s conduct must be analyzed at the time of the transaction, not in hindsight.

© Andrew Whiteman 2019

*****

The lawyers at Whiteman Law Firm have been handling securities matters for over 30 years. Please contact us for more information.

 

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