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FINRA Reminds Broker-Dealers and Investment Advisers to Comply with the SEC’s “Best Interest” Requirementsby Andrew Whiteman

FINRA Reminds Broker-Dealers and Investment Advisers to Comply with the SEC’s “Best Interest” Requirements

On June 5, 2019, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission issued Release No. 34-86031, titled Regulation Best Interest: The Broker-Dealer Standard of Conduct (“Regulation BI”), which provides for a best interest standard applicable to broker-dealers. The same day, the SEC issued Release No. IA-5248, titled Commission Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers (herein, “SEC Interpretation”). Both documents take effect on June 30, 2020, to allow sufficient time for financial professionals to implement the new requirements.

Differences between Broker-Dealers and Investment Advisers

There are important distinctions between brokerage firms and investment advisers. They are subject to different laws, regulated separately by different entities, and the duties they owe to their customers are distinct. Unfortunately, most investors are confused about the differences between broker-dealers and registered investment advisers.

Brokerage firms, known formally as broker-dealers, must register with the SEC but their primary regulator is the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, known as “FINRA,” which acts under authority delegated by the SEC. All broker-dealers are regulated by FINRA regardless of the size of the firm, although the states have concurrent jurisdiction in certain areas.

Registered Investment Advisers (“RIAs”)are subject to the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. The SEC regulates investment advisers who manage $110 million or more in client assets. Advisers with less than $100 million in assets under management must register with the state in which they have their principal place of business. Those advisory firms that have greater than $100 million but less than $110 million in assets under management may elect to register with SEC. Those that do not will continue to be regulated by the states.

Historically, broker-dealers and investment advisers performed different functions in the marketplace. A broker-dealer is a company that is in the business of buying and selling securities on behalf of its customers or for its own account. The sales personnel who work for broker-dealers are known as brokers or, more formally, “registered representatives.” Traditionally, broker-dealers and registered representatives were compensated by commissions charged on each transaction and had no duty to the customer (for example, to monitor the performance of a security) after the sale was completed.

RIAs, on the other hand, are paid for providing securities advice to their customers. The services offered often include advice concerning a customer’s investment holdings, recommendations concerning securities purchases and sales, and follow-up monitoring of customer holdings. Financial professionals who are employed by investment advisers are often called investment advisers, but the formal designation is “investment adviser representatives” or “IARs.” RIAs and IARs are typically compensated based on a fixed fee that is equal to a percentage of the customers’ holdings.

The legal standards applicable to broker-dealers and RIAs are distinctly different. In keeping with the broker-dealer’s traditional sales function, the primary duty owed to the customers of a broker-dealer is transaction-based – a recommended transaction must be “suitable” for the customer. On the other hand, the RIA is held to a fiduciary standard in keeping with its duties to provide ongoing advice and monitoring.

Market forces have blurred the distinction between broker-dealers and RIAs. Most broker-dealers are dual-registered and offer a fixed fee arrangement as an option to commissions. Most brokerage firms offer financial planning services that are indistinguishable from the core service offered by RIAs. Although broker-dealers are not legally obligated to monitor customers’ holdings, most tell their customers that will do so. It is no wonder then that investors are confused about the differences between the two.

Following the financial crisis that began in September 2008, Congress sought to reform the standards applicable to broker-dealers to reflect the expanded nature of their business model. In July 2010, President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which gave the SEC the authority to develop a uniform fiduciary standard for retail investment advice that was no less stringent than the standard applicable to investment advisers under the Investment Advisors Act of 1940. In January 2011, the SEC staff issued a report that recommended the SEC propose a uniform fiduciary rule. and on April 14, 2016, the Department of Labor issued its final version of the fiduciary rule. Full compliance with the new fiduciary standard was to occur by January 1, 2018. However, in August 2017, the Labor Department proposed that compliance with the fiduciary rule be delayed for 18 months, until July 1, 2019. By that time, President Trump had been elected. The new administration stated its opposition to imposing a fiduciary standard on broker-dealers, and Department of Labor’s rule was shelved.

Instead of adopting extending the fiduciary standard to broker-dealers, the SEC adopted Regulation Best Interest on June 5, 2018.

Regulation Best Interest is Applicable to Broker-Dealers

The stated purpose of Regulation BI is to establish a standard of conduct for broker-dealers and their associated persons when they make recommendations to retail customers for any securities transaction or investment strategy involving securities. According to the SEC’s 771-page release, the Regulation BI enhances the broker-dealer standard of conduct by requiring broker-dealers “to act in the best interest of the retail customer at the time the recommendation is made,” to refrain from “placing the financial interest of the broker-dealer ahead of the interests of the retail customer,” to “address conflicts of interest by establishing, maintaining, and enforcing policies and procedures reasonably designed to identify and fully and fairly disclose material facts about conflicts of interest,” and, in certain instances, to mitigate or eliminate conflicts.

The SEC’s Interpretation of Investment Advisers’ Fiduciary Duties to Customers

The SEC Interpretation is not a rule, like Regulation Best Interest. Rather, the SEC Interpretation provides the SEC’s views on the nature and extent of fiduciary duty owed by Investment Advisers under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act” or “Act”). The Advisers Act itself does state that investment advisers are fiduciaries to their customers. Rather, courts have found 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.”).

FINRA’s Regulatory Notice 19-26

Regulatory Notice 19-26 sets forth the requirements for broker-dealers and investment advisers to comply with the new laws by June 30, 2020.

© Andrew Whiteman 2019
*****
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.

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

*****

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.

The SEC Adopts Regulation Best Interestby Andrew Whiteman

The SEC Adopts Regulation Best Interest

On June 5, 2019, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission issued Release No. 34-86031, titled Regulation Best Interest: The Broker-Dealer Standard of Conduct. This much-anticipated rule takes effect on June 30, 2020.

The stated purpose of Regulation BI is to establish a standard of conduct for broker-dealers and their associated persons when they make recommendations to retail customers for any securities transaction or investment strategy involving securities. According to the SEC’s 771-page release, the Regulation BI enhances the broker-dealer standard of conduct by requiring broker-dealers “to act in the best interest of the retail customer at the time the recommendation is made,” to refrain from “placing the financial interest of the broker-dealer ahead of the interests of the retail customer,” to “address conflicts of interest by establishing, maintaining, and enforcing policies and procedures reasonably designed to identify and fully and fairly disclose material facts about conflicts of interest,” and, in certain instances, to mitigate or eliminate conflicts.

The actual regulation takes up less than six pages, while the remainder of the 771 pages consists of the SEC’s attempt to explain why this new regulation, rather than the much broader fiduciary rule that it replaces, is in the best interest of retail investors. In fact, Regulation BI is in many ways a step backward. The new was universally opposed by investor advocates, including the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, and falls far short of the protections investors deserve. The rule purports to require that brokers adhere to a “best interest” standard but does not actually require that they act in their customers’ best interests. The standard does not prevent brokers from placing their own interests first. It provides that brokers are not required to monitor customer accounts unless they agree “to provide the retail customer with specified account monitoring services.” Regulation BI permits broker-dealers to place their interests ahead of customers if they disclose the conflict.

The history of efforts to reform the standards applicable to broker-dealers has its origin in financial crisis that began in September 2008. In July 2010, President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which gave the SEC the authority to develop a uniform fiduciary standard for retail investment advice that was no less stringent than the standard applicable to investment advisers under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. The same year, the United States Department of Labor released a rule designed to limit conflicts of interest for financial advisers who worked with customer retirement accounts. In January 2011, the SEC staff issued a report that recommended the SEC propose a uniform fiduciary rule. On April 14, 2016, the Department of Labor issued its final version of the fiduciary rule. Full compliance with the rule was to occur by January 1, 2018. In August 2017, the Labor Department proposed that compliance with the fiduciary rule be delayed for 18 months, until July 1, 2019. By that time, President Trump had been elected. The new administration stated its opposition to imposing a fiduciary standard on broker-dealers, and Department of Labor’s rule was shelved. Regulation BI is its replacement.

The SEC commissioners adopted Regulation BI by a vote of three to one, with Commissioner Robert L. Jackson, Jr. casting the sole dissenting vote. Commissioner Jackson issued a statement in which he wrote “today’s rules retain a muddled standard that exposes millions of Americans to the costs of conflicted advice.” The Dodd-Frank law gave the SEC full authority to adopt a strong, pro-investor fiduciary standard that covered broker-dealers. Unfortunately, the SEC failed to do so.

© Andrew Whiteman 2019

*****

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.

 

 

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