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Posted on Monday, June 12 2017 at 11:00 am by

Fiduciary Rule Creates Breach of Contract Claim, But No Private Right of Action

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

The first part of the DOL’s Conflict of Interest Rule (the “Fiduciary Rule”) went into effect on Friday, June 9th.  A large group of newly-defined “fiduciaries” are now subject to certain requirements of the Best Interest Contract (“BIC”) exemption,[1] a portion of the Fiduciary Rule that according to some commentators creates a private right of action for investors.

The creation of a private right of action is one of the investment industry’s chief concerns with the Fiduciary Rule.  Industry leaders claim that the BIC exemption creates a private right of action because it enables investors to bring breach of contract claims and class actions against the fiduciaries with whom they contract.  However, a federal judge from the Northern District of Texas flatly rejected this claim in Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America v. Hugler.[1]

The plaintiff in Hugler claimed, among other things, that the BIC exemption created a private right of action in violation of Alexander v. Sandoval, a Supreme Court case holding that only Congress, not an administrative agency, can create a private right of action under federal law.[2]  But the judge in Hugler sided with the DOL, finding that the BIC exemption does not create a private right of action, and so does not violate Sandoval.[3]  The judge reasoned that any lawsuit resulting from the breach of a BIC exemption contract would be brought under state contract law rather than federal ERISA law.[4]  The judge also noted that it is not a new concept for federal regulations to require entities to enter into written contracts with mandatory provisions; annuity owners already have enforceable contract rights against insurers, and multiple other agencies require that their regulated entities enter into written agreements with mandatory terms.[5]

Yet articles from leaders in the legal and investment industries continue to label the BIC exemption’s litigation risk as a private right of action for investors.  Fiduciaries reading these articles should keep in mind that a private right of action cannot exist under the BIC exemption because the Supreme Court’s ruling in Sandoval only allows a private right of action to be created by Congress.  Also, it is unlikely that any court will block the Fiduciary Rule on the grounds that the BIC exemption impermissibly creates a private right of action because, as pointed out by the judge in Hugler, any claims brought as a result of BIC exemption contracts would be brought under state law rather than federal law.  However, fiduciaries should be aware that the Fiduciary Rule still exposes them to litigation risk as investors can use BIC exemption contracts (which are not required to be used until January 1, 2018) to file state breach of contract claims and, potentially, class actions.

Paul Foley is a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton’s Winston-Salem and New York offices.  John I. Sanders is an associate based in the firm’s Winston-Salem office.

[1] For more information on current Fiduciary Rule and BIC Exemption requirements, see Paul Foley & John Sanders, DOL Puts Advisors on Notice: Fiduciary Rule Will be Effective June 9th, Kilpatrick Townsend: Inv. Mgmt. Blog (May 25, 2017, 9:32 PM), http://blogs.kilpatricktownsend.com/investmentmanagement/?p=321.

[1] Chamber of Commerce of the United States of Am. v. Hugler, 3:16-CV-1476-M, 2017 WL 514424 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 8, 2017).

[2] Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 286 (2001) (citing Touche Ross & Co. v. Reddington, 442 U.S. 560, 578 (1979)).

[3] Hugler, 3:16-CV-1476-M, 2017 WL 514424, at *20.

[4] Id..

[5] Id.

Posted on Tuesday, June 6 2017 at 12:13 pm by

Kokesh v. SEC:  The U.S. Supreme Court Limits SEC Disgorgement Powers

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

Since the 1970s, courts have regularly ordered disgorgement of ill-gotten gains in SEC enforcement proceedings.[1]  According to the SEC, this was done as a means to both “deprive . . . defendants of their profits in order to remove any monetary reward for violating” securities laws and “protect the investing public by providing an effective deterrent to future violations.”[2]  Disgorgement has been one of the SEC’s most powerful tools in recent years.[3]  Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued an opinion that significantly limits the SEC’s ability to disgorge ill-gotten gains.[4]

The question before the Supreme Court in Kokesh v. SEC was whether disgorgement, as it has been used by the SEC, constitutes a “penalty.”[5]  Under federal law, a 5-year statute of limitations applies to any “action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise.”[6]  The SEC has long argued that disgorgement does not constitute a “penalty” and, therefore, is not subject to a 5-year statute of limitations.  The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the SEC’s position by holding that disgorgement constitutes a “penalty.”[7]  As a result, the SEC will be precluded from collecting ill-gotten gains obtained by the defendant more than five years before the date on which the SEC files its complaint.[8]

In the Kokesh case, the Supreme Court’s decision means that the defendant may retain $29.9 million of the $34.9 million of allegedly ill-gotten gains because that amount was received outside of the 5-year state of limitations.[9]  The Kokesh decision is also likely to have a significant long-term impact on SEC enforcement proceedings by reducing the leverage the SEC can apply while negotiating settlements.

Paul Foley is a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton’s Winston-Salem and New York offices.  John I. Sanders is an associate based in the firm’s Winston-Salem office.

 

[1] SEC v. Texas Gulf Sulphur Co., 312 F. Supp. 77, 91 (SDNY 1970), aff ’d in part and rev’d in part, 446 F. 2d 1301 (CA2 1971).

[2] Id. at 92.

[3] SEC, SEC Announces Enforcement Results for FY 2016 (Oct. 11, 2016), available at https://www.sec.gov/news/pressrelease/2016-212.html (illustrating that the SEC has obtained more than $4 billion in disgorgements and penalties in each of the three most recent fiscal years).

[4] Kokesh v. SEC, available at www.supremecourt.gov.

[5] Id. (“This case presents the question whether [28 U.S.C.] §2462 applies to claims for disgorgement imposed as a sanction for violating a federal securities law.”).

[6] 28 U.S.C. §2462 (2017).

[7] Kokesh v. SEC, supra note 4, available at www.supremecourt.gov.  (“SEC disgorgement thus bears all the hallmarks of a penalty: It is imposed as a consequence of violating a public law and it is intended to deter, not to compensate.”).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

Posted on Thursday, May 25 2017 at 9:32 pm by

DOL Puts Advisers on Notice:  Fiduciary Rule Will Be Effective June 9th

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

On March 2, 2017, the DOL extended the applicability date of the Conflict of Interest Rule (the “Fiduciary Rule”) from April 10, 2017 to June 9, 2017.[1]  This week, with the extension drawing to a close, Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta has reported that the DOL “found no principled legal basis” to delay the applicability date beyond June 9.[2]  It is now a near-certainty that the Fiduciary Rule will “go live” on that date.

Despite DOL statements about a “transition period” and a “phased approach to implementation,” the heart of the Fiduciary Rule will be effective in just two weeks.[3]  Most importantly, “investment advice providers to retirement savers will become fiduciaries.”[4]  As fiduciaries, they must provide impartial advice in the customer’s best interest and cannot accept payments creating conflicts of interest (i.e., commissions and 12b-1 fees) unless they qualify for an exemption.[5]  Among exemptions, the Best Interest Contract Exemption is especially enticing before more stringent requirements for its use go into effect on January 1, 2018.[6]  Until January 1, 2018, the only conditions for the BIC Exemption are:  (i) investment advice is in the “best interest” of the retirement investor, meaning that it is both prudent and the advice is based on the interest of the investor rather than the adviser; (ii) no more than reasonable compensation is charged; and (iii) no misleading statements are made about the transaction, compensation or conflicts of interest.[7]  After January 1, 2018, an actual contract with particular terms will be required.[8]

For many investment advisers (as opposed to broker-dealers and their registered representatives), the impending applicability of the Fiduciary Rule is not a significant concern.  The DOL has stated that a fee based on assets under management (i.e., flat asset based fees or traditional wrap fee arrangements)  typically would not raise any issues under the Fiduciary Rule.[9]  However, for investment advisers not currently employing such fee arrangements, the Fiduciary Rule likely will require changes.[10]

In an effort to calm would-be fiduciaries that will not be able to meet the June 9th deadline for compliance with the Fiduciary Rule, the DOL issued a temporary enforcement policy on May 22nd stating that it would not take any enforcement action against “fiduciaries who are working diligently and in good faith to comply with the new rule and exemptions” until January 1, 2018.[11]  The DOL also promised an enforcement approach prior to January 1, 2018 “marked by an emphasis on compliance assistance (rather than citing violations and imposing penalties).”[12]  This policy only applies to DOL enforcement actions.  Investors may still bring private actions (i.e., fraud or breach of contract claims) against those who breach their fiduciary duties, and the IRS may still impose excise taxes or seek civil penalties.[13]

With applicability of the Fiduciary Rule just two weeks away, all investment advisers should assess its applicability to them and prepare accordingly.  At a minimum, this means working with compliance staff and legal counsel to determine whether all advice given to retirement investors is:  (i) in the client’s best interest (which investment advisers, as fiduciaries should already be doing), (ii) is impartial, and (iii) does not generate payments to the investment adviser giving rise to a conflict of interest.

Paul Foley is a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton’s New York and Winston-Salem offices.  John I. Sanders is an associate based in the firm’s Winston-Salem office.

[1] Department of Labor,  Conflict of Interest Rule – Retirement Investment Advice; Proposed Rule; Extension of Applicability Date (March 1, 2017), available at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ebsa/laws-and-regulations/rules-and-regulations/completed-rulemaking/1210-AB32-2.

[2] Id.

[3] Department of Labor, Conflict of Interest FAQs (Transition Period) (May 2017), available at https://www.dol.gov/sites/default/files/ebsa/about-ebsa/our-activities/resource-center/faqs/coi-transition-period.pdf.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Conflict of Interest Rule, 81 Fed. Reg. 20946, 20992 (April 8, 2016) (to be codified at 29 CFR Parts 2509, 2510, and 2550) (The DOL has stated that if an investment adviser using a flat fee or wrap fee compensation model makes recommendations that would generate additional compensation for the adviser (e.g., adviser recommends rolling an IRA into an annuity that will generate fees for the adviser), then the adviser would need to rely on an exception.)

[10] Id.

[11] Department of Labor, Conflict of Interest FAQs (Transition Period) (May 2017), available at https://www.dol.gov/sites/default/files/ebsa/about-ebsa/our-activities/resource-center/faqs/coi-transition-period.pdf .

[12] Id.

[13] Conflict of Interest Rule, 81 Fed. Reg. 20946, 20653 (April 8, 2016) (to be codified at 29 CFR Parts 2509, 2510, and 2550).

Posted on Monday, May 8 2017 at 10:38 am by

General Solicitations of Certain Regulation D “Private” Securities Offerings:  SEC Affirms Zero-Tolerance Policy.

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

On March 29, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) issued a noteworthy opinion in In re KCD Financial Inc.,[i] a review of a FINRA disciplinary action.[ii]  While the opinion affirmed FINRA’s disciplinary action,[iii] it also affirmed the SEC’s zero-tolerance policy regarding general solicitations made in the course of certain Regulation D offerings.  Those relying on or contemplating relying on Regulation D exemptions from registration should review the SEC’s opinion.

Factual Background

KCD Financial, Inc. (“KCD”) is an independent broker-dealer.[iv]  In 2011, KCD signed an agreement with one of its affiliates (“Westmount”) under which it would solicit accredited investors for a particular private fund (the “Fund”) sponsored by Westmount.[v]  Westmount did not plan to register the offering.  Westmount instead planned to rely on a Rule 506(b) exemption from registration.[vi]

Prior to KCD selling any interest in the Fund, Westmount issued a press release describing the Fund.[vii]  Two Dallas newspapers published articles based on the press release and made the articles available on their respective public websites.[viii]  One of those newspaper articles was then posted on a public website belonging to a Westmount affiliate.[ix]  Westmount’s outside counsel informed Westmount that the newspaper articles constituted general solicitations, which are prohibited in Rule 506(b) offerings.[x]

After KCD and Westmount officers were told that the articles were general solicitations prohibited under Rule 506(b), they did not end the offering, register the securities, or seek to rely on an alternative exemption.  Instead, KCD’s CCO and Westmount’s Vice President of Capital Markets instructed the representatives to sell interests in the Fund only to (i) those with an existing relationship to KCD or Westmount and (ii) accredited investors who had not learned of the offering through the general solicitations.[xi]  Under those guidelines, at least one person was refused an opportunity to purchase interests in the Fund.[xii]

During a FINRA examination of KCD, the examiner found that the newspaper article about the offering had not been removed from a Westmount-affiliated website.[xiii]  Subsequently, FINRA filed a complaint against KCD alleging that the firm’s registered representatives sold securities that were unregistered and not qualified for an exemption from registration, thereby violating FINRA Rule 2010.[xiv]  FINRA also alleged that KCD failed to reasonably supervise the offering, thereby violating FINRA Rule 3010.[xv]  FINRA’s Hearing Panel found that KCD violated those rules.[xvi]  FINRA censured KCD and imposed a fine of $73,000.[xvii]  The National Adjudicatory Counsel affirmed FINRA’s decision.[xviii]  KCD then requested an SEC review.[xix]

SEC Review

KCD admitted that the Fund interests it offered were not registered, but argued that offers were made pursuant to Rule 506(b).[xx]  The SEC rejected KCD’s contention,[xxi] finding that where a party relying on the Rule 506(b) exemption makes a general solicitation, the exemption then is unavailable “regardless of the number of accredited investors or the knowledge and experience of the purchasers who were not accredited investors.”[xxii]  In this context, whether purchasers were accredited or had prior relationships with KCD and Westmount was “irrelevant to whether or not the newspaper articles constituted a general solicitation” and precluded reliance on Rule 506(b).[xxiii]

KCD also argued, assuming the newspaper articles constituted general solicitations, it could still rely on a Rule 506(b) exemption because “KCD did not generally solicit any of the actual investors in the [Westmount] Fund.”[xxiv]  This argument confused the notion of what is prohibited under Rule 506(b).  It is making an offer by general solicitation which precludes reliance on a Rule 506(b) exemption.[xxv]  Whether a sale results directly from the general solicitation is irrelevant.[xxvi]

Practical Implications

The SEC’s opinion affirms its view that exemptions from registration in securities offerings are narrowly construed and must be adhered to strictly.[xxvii]  Where, as here, the exemption prohibits a general solicitation, any general solicitation forever forfeits the issuer’s ability to rely on the exemption in making the offering (i.e., the toothpaste cannot go back into the tube).

Those making exempt offerings in reliance on Rule 504,[xxviii] Rule 505,[xxix] and Rule 506(b)[xxx] should review their sales practices in light of the KCD opinion.  In reviewing practices, issuers should look beyond the obvious means of making a general solicitation (e.g., a press release that is published by a widely-circulated newspaper).  Websites and social media accounts of those participating in the offerings are equally capable of precluding use of a valuable registration exemption.

Paul Foley is a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton’s New York and Winston-Salem, North Carolina offices.  John I. Sanders is an associate based out of the firm’s Winston-Salem office.

[i] In re KCD Financial, Inc., SEC Release No. 34-80340 (March 29, 2017), available at www.sec.gov/litigation/opinions/2017/34-80340.pdf (hereinafter, SEC Opinion).

[ii] In re KCD Financial, Inc., FINRA Complaint No. 2011025851501 (Aug. 3, 2016), available at http:www.finra.com (hereinafter, FINRA Opinion).

[iii] SEC Opinion, supra note 1, at p. 1.

[iv] Id., at p. 2.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id, at p. 3.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id. at p. 4.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] FINRA Opinion, supra note 2, at p. 4.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Id.

[xix] Id.

[xx] SEC Opinion, supra note 1, at 2.

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] Id. at 7.

[xxiii] Id. at 9.

[xxiv] Id at 10.

[xxv] Id.

[xxvi] Id. at 11

[xxvii] Id. at 7.

[xxviii] 17 CFR 230.504 (2017).

[xxix] 17 CFR 230.505 (2017).

[xxx] 17 CFR 230.506(b) (2017).

Posted on , May 8 2017 at 9:59 am by

SEC Amends Crowdfunding Rules

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

Under the Jumpstart our Business Startups Acts of 2012 (the “JOBS Act”), the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) adopted rules allowing for securities-based crowdfunding in 2015.[i]  The JOBS Act required the SEC to adjust dollar limits placed on the amount that could be invested or raised through securities-based crowdfunding at least every five years to account for inflation.[ii]  On April 5, 2017, the SEC issued a final rule adjusting those limits for the first time.[iii]  We encourage those interested in issuing securities through a securities-based crowdfunding offering to review the final rule and call us with any questions you may have.

Paul Foley is a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton’s New York and Winston-Salem, North Carolina offices.  John Sanders is an associate based out of the firm’s Winston-Salem office.

[i] SEC, Release No. 33-9974 (Oct. 9, 2015), available at https://www.sec.gov/rules/final/2015/33-9974.pdf.

[ii] Id. at 15.

[iii] SEC, Release No.33-10332 (April 5, 2017), available at https://www.sec.gov/rules/final/2017/33-10332.pdf.

Posted on Wednesday, April 19 2017 at 8:48 am by

SEC Issues Guidance to Robo-Advisers

Robo-advisers are a fast-growing segment of the investment advisory industry.  In fact, they now account for an estimated $71.5 billion in assets under management.[1]  In response to their explosive growth, the SEC has made robo-advisers an examination priority[2] and has issued regulatory guidance to them.[3]  The SEC’s guidance is summarized below.

  • Disclosures to potential clients should explain the: (i) robo-adviser’s business model and how it differs from traditional investment adviser models; and (ii) limitations in the scope of the robo-adviser’s services.[4]  The robo-adviser should also consider whether its delivery of the disclosures is clear and conspicuous enough to be effective in the context of the relationship, which may be entirely web-based.[5]
  • Questionnaires used to gather client information should be designed to obtain sufficient information to support the robo-adviser’s suitability obligation.[6] Where the client can select investments other than those the adviser recommends, the robo-adviser should provide commentary supporting its recommendations.[7]
  • Internal compliance programs should address the unique aspects of the robo-adviser business model, including limited human interaction and heightened cybersecurity risks.[8]

Advisers who have replaced or supplemented their advisory services with robo-adviser technology in recent years may have questions after reviewing the SEC’s guidance.  Please feel free to contact us with any questions you may have.

Paul J. Foley is a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton’s New York and Winston-Salem offices.  John I. Sanders is an associate based in the firm’s Winston-Salem office.

 

[1] Daisy Maxey, Spotlight on Robo Advisers’ Returns, Wall Street Journal (Nov. 1, 2016), https://www.wsj.com/articles/spotlight-on-robo-advisers-returns-1478018429.

[2] SEC, National Exam Program Examination Priorities for 2017 (Jan. 13, 2017), www.sec.gov/about/offices/ocie/national-examination-program-priorities-2017.pdf.

[3] SEC, IM Guidance Update No. 2017-02 (Feb. 2017), www.sec.gov/im-guidance-2017-02.pdf.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

Posted on Wednesday, April 5 2017 at 11:50 am by

SEC Issues Custody Rule Guidance

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

In February, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued two significant pieces of guidance on arrangements that may result in an investment adviser having “custody” of its client assets as that term is defined in Rule 206(4)-2 (Custody Rule)[1] of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (Advisers Act).[2] The first piece of guidance was a Guidance Update issued by the SEC’s Division of Investment Management. The second came in the form of a no-action letter (Letter) issued to the Investment Adviser Association (IAA) on February 21, 2017. This article discusses both and offers practical insight into compliance with the Custody Rule.

Background

Under the Custody Rule, an investment adviser is deemed to have custody of client assets when it or a related person “holds, directly or indirectly, client funds or securities, or has any authority to obtain possession of them, in connection with advisory services” it provides to its clients.[3] Additionally, the term custody includes any arrangement under which an investment adviser is “authorized or permitted to withdraw client funds or securities maintained with a custodian upon [its] instruction to the custodian.”[4] When an investment adviser is deemed to have “custody,” a number of regulatory requirements are triggered, including an independent verification by an accountant (a “surprise examination”).[5] Accordingly, investment advisers must understand when they have custody of client assets. The SEC’s recent guidance addresses instances in which investment advisers may not know that they have custody and, therefore, are subject to the various regulatory requirements of the Custody Rule.

Guidance Update

An IM Guidance Update published by the SEC’s Division of Investment Management stated that investment advisers may “inadvertently have custody of client funds or securities because of provisions in a separate custodial agreement entered into between its advisory client and a qualified custodian.”[6] The Division of Investment Management found that some custodial agreements grant an adviser the broad power “to instruct the custodian to disburse, or transfer, funds or securities.”[7] Where the adviser has that power, it may be deemed to have custody of the assets even though it did not intend to have such power and its contractual agreement with the client directly prohibits it from taking such action.[8]

The Division of Investment Management found that inadvertent custody arose from some commonly observed custodial agreement provisions:[9]

  • A custodial agreement that grants the client’s adviser the right to “receive money, securities, and property of every kind and dispose of same.”
  • A custodial agreement under which a custodian may rely on the “[adviser’s] instructions without any direction” from the client and asks the client to “ratify and confirm any and all transactions with [the custodian]” made by the adviser.
  • A custodial agreement that provides authorization for the client’s adviser to “instruct us to disburse cash from your cash account for any purpose . . . .”

After describing how advisers might have inadvertent custody of client assets, the SEC cautioned that rectifying inadvertent custody could not be accomplished through a bilateral agreement between the adviser and the client as the custody stems from the custodian’s perception of the adviser’s power.[10] The adviser can alter that perception by: (i) delivering a letter to the custodian that limits the adviser’s authority to “delivery versus payment” notwithstanding a greater grant of power in the custodial agreement; and (ii) obtaining written acknowledgement of the limitation from the client and custodian.[11]

After providing common custodial agreement provisions that may create inadvertent custody, the Guidance Update specified one common provision which does not, in itself, create custody. The SEC stated that where a custodial agreement permits merely the deduction of advisory fees, “an adviser may have custody but not need a surprise examination, provided it otherwise complies with the exception under Rule 206(4)-2(b)(3) available to advisers with limited custody due to fee deduction.”[12] A broader grant of power, however, likely constitutes custody.

We believe the Guidance Update may place a substantial burden on investment advisers. It will not be enough for investment advisers to review their own advisory agreements and other form documents. Instead, an adviser must work with all custodians holding its clients’ assets to obtain and examine any custodial agreement provisions that might create inadvertent custody for the adviser. Moreover, the adviser would need to monitor those agreements for material changes in perpetuity. Of course, the simpler, but still burdensome, path to compliance may be to send letters to all clients and their custodians and obtain their acknowledgement of the adviser’s limited power as a preventative measure.

The IAA No-Action Letter

Dovetailing the Guidance Update, in a letter dated February 15, 2017, the IAA asked the SEC staff to clarify that an investment adviser does not have custody under the Custody Rule “if it acts pursuant to a standing letter of instruction or other similar asset transfer authorization arrangement established by a client with a qualified custodian.”[13] In the alternative, the IAA asked the SEC to state it would not recommend an enforcement action under Section 206(4) of the Act and the Custody Rule against an investment adviser acting pursuant to a standing letter of authorization (SLOA), as described in the Letter, without obtaining a surprise examination of the custodied assets as required by the Custody Rule.[14]

The IAA stated that it is common for an advisory client to grant its registered investment adviser the power, through a SLOA, to disburse funds to specifically-designated third parties. Granting such power to an investment adviser is especially helpful where the client owns multiple accounts with different purposes across multiple custodians. Under such an arrangement, the client grants authority to the adviser, then the client instructs the custodian to transfer assets to the designated third parties on the adviser’s command. After issuing a SLOA, the client retains the power to change or revoke the arrangement, and the adviser’s authority is limited by the specific terms of the SLOA.[15] It was the IAA’s positon that such an arrangement did not constitute custody.[16]

The SEC determined that a SLOA, as described by the IAA may, in fact, lead to an investment adviser having custody of its client assets as contemplated by the Custody Rule. The general rule, as articulated by the SEC, is that an “investment adviser with the power to dispose of client funds or securities for any purpose other than authorized trading has access to the client’s assets” and thus has custody of those assets.[17] Because the SLOA or other similar authorization would permit the investment adviser “to withdraw client funds or securities maintained with a qualified custodian upon its instruction,” an investment adviser entering into an SLOA or similar arrangement would have custody of client assets and would be required to comply with the Custody Rule.

The SEC then stated that it would not recommend enforcement action under Section 206(4) of the Adviser Act or the Custody Rule against an investment adviser that enters into a SLOA that meets the following requirements and does not obtain a surprise examination:[18]

  1. The client provides an instruction to the qualified custodian, in writing, that includes the client’s signature, the third-party’s name, and either the third-party’s address or the third-party’s account number at a custodian to which the transfer should be directed.
  2. The client authorizes the investment adviser, in writing, either on the qualified custodian’s form or separately, to direct transfers to the third party either on a specified schedule or from time to time.
  3. The client’s qualified custodian performs appropriate verification of the instruction, such as a signature review or other method to verify the client’s authorization, and provides a transfer of funds notice to the client promptly after each transfer.
  4. The client has the ability to terminate or change the instruction to the client’s qualified custodian.
  5. The investment adviser has no authority or ability to designate or change the identity of the third party, the address, or any other information about the third party contained in the client’s instruction.
  6. The investment adviser maintains records showing that the third party is not a related party of the investment adviser or located at the same address as the investment adviser.
  7. The client’s qualified custodian sends the client, in writing, an initial notice confirming the instruction and an annual notice reconfirming the instruction.

We believe few SLOAs or similar arrangements currently in place would satisfy these extensive requirements. The SEC seems to agree. It noted that investments advisers, qualified custodians, and their clients would need “a reasonable period of time” to comply with the relief provided by the no-action letter.[19] Further, the SEC stated that any investment adviser that is party to a SLOA that results in custody would not need to include the affected client assets in its response to Item 9 of Form ADV until the next annual updating amendment after October 1, 2017.[20]

The Letter, on its face, could be construed broadly to cover a number of common arrangements. However, the Letter was limited by a SEC statement published the same day.[21] In that statement, the SEC explained that the limited authority to transfer assets between accounts, whether with the same custodian or different custodian, provided that the client has authorized the adviser to make the transfers between specified accounts and has provided the custodians a copy of the authorization, does not constitute custody.[22] The SEC also noted that an adviser’s ability to transfer client assets between accounts at the same custodian or between affiliated custodians that have access to both account numbers and client account name does not amount to custody.[23] Therefore, the Letter seems to directly affect only SLOAs and similar arrangements under which the adviser has the authority to withdraw and disburse clients assets.

Despite the limiting effect of the SEC’s statement, advisers who are currently parties to a SLOA or similar arrangement should carefully review the terms of those arrangements. Where the arrangements do not meet the seven conditions for relief stated in the Letter, the adviser should work to either: (i) change the terms of the arrangement; or (ii) comply with the terms of the Custody Rule and disclose those assets in the next annual amendment to Form ADV after October 1, 2017.

Conclusion

The SEC’s recent guidance may generate significant anxiety among investment advisers concerned about becoming subject to the requirements of the Custody Rule. In particular, the SEC’s recent guidance raises the specter of custody arising from longstanding SLOA arrangements or even from contracts the investment advisers have not seen or do not regularly review. Please feel free to contact us with any questions you may have.

Paul Foley is a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton’s New York and Winston-Salem offices. John I. Sanders is an associate based in the firm’s Winston-Salem office.

13776971v.4

[1] 17 CFR 275.206(4)-2 (2017).

[2] 15 USC 80b et al (2017).

[3] 17 CFR 275.206(4)-2(d)(2) (2017).

[4] 17 CFR 275.206(4)-2(d)(2)(ii) (2017).

[5] 17 CFR 275.206(4)-2 (2017). Under the Custody Rule, among other things, an investment adviser must: maintain client funds and securities with a “qualified custodian” either under the client’s name or under the investment adviser’s name as agent or trustee for the client; notify its clients promptly upon opening a custodial account on their behalf and when there are changes to the information required in the notification; and have a reasonable basis, after due inquiry, for believing that the qualified custodian sends quarterly account statements directly to the client.

[6] SEC, IM Guidance Update: Inadvertent Custody: Advisory Contract Versus Custodial Contract Authority (Feb. 2017), available at www.sec.gov.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] SEC, Investment Advisers Act of 1940 – Section 206(4) and Rule 206(4)-2; Response to the Investment Adviser Association (Feb. 21, 2017), available at https://www.sec.gov/divisions/investment/noaction/2017/investment-adviser-association-022117-206-4.htm.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] SEC, Staff Responses to Questions About the Custody Rule (Feb. 21, 2017), available at https://www.sec.gov/divisions/investment/custody_faq_030510.htm.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

Posted on Wednesday, March 8 2017 at 10:41 am by

SEC Issues Guidance to Ease Fund Implementation of “Clean Shares”

By Andrew Sachs and John I Sanders

In January, we authored a post[i] discussing an SEC no-action letter, dated January 11, 2017, to Capital Group (the “Capital Group Letter”), the parent company of American Funds.[ii]  In the Capital Group Letter, the SEC agreed that Section 22(d) of the Investment Company Act of 1940 (the “Act”), which prohibits selling securities except at “a current public offering price described in the prospectus”, does not apply to brokers when acting as agent on behalf of its customers and charging customers commissions for effecting transactions in so-called “Clean Shares”.[iii]

Clean shares are mutual fund shares stripped of any front-end load, deferred sales charge, or other asset-based fee for sales or distribution that are sold by brokers who set their own commissions in connection with such sales.[iv]  We noted in January that the ability to replace the distribution fees typically charged by its mutual funds with commissions charged by a broker would give funds a new measure of flexibility to meet the demands of the Fiduciary Rule and competition generally, and we anticipated that many mutual fund companies would explore the concept of Clean Shares.

On February 15, 2017, just a month after publication of the Capital Group Letter, the SEC was compelled to issue guidance (the “FAQ”) addressing some of the questions it had received from mutual fund companies to-date.[v]  Below, we summarize FAQ as it relates to Funds seeking to implement Clean Shares.

Initial Implementation of Clean Shares

A mutual fund company issuing Clean Shares must, of course, amend its registration statement to include disclosure of the new share class.  Such an amendment might be affected through a Rule 485(a) filing or through a Rule 485(b) filing, depending on whether the amendment is “material”.[vi]  Typically, funds prefer Rule 485(b) filings because they become effective immediately,[vii] while Rule 485(a) filings are subject to a 60 day review.[viii]

In the FAQ, the SEC confirmed that “Funds should create these new Clean Shares, like any new class, by making a filing under Rule 485(a).”  To minimize the burdens of filing under Rule 485(a), if the only disclosures being amended are those describing the new share class, we advise mutual fund companies to seek selective review of the Rule 485(a) filing.  The request for a selective review should be made in the cover letter accompanying the 485(a) filing and must include (i) a statement as to whether the disclosure in the filing has been reviewed by the staff in another context; (ii) a statement identifying prior filings that the registrant considers similar to, or intends as precedent for, the current filing; (iii) a summary of the material changes made in the current filing from the previous filings; and (iv) any specific areas that the registrant believes warrant the SEC staff’s particular attention.[ix]

Adding Clean Shares to Multiple Funds

A mutual fund family adding Clean Shares to multiple funds need not file Rule 485(a) filings for each fund.  Instead, the FAQ confirms that mutual funds companies introducing Clean Shares across multiple funds can request Template Filing Relief pursuant to Rule 485(b)(i)(vii).  A registrant requesting Template Filing Relief would make a single Rule 485(a) filing with a Template Filing Relief request for all other funds with “substantially identical disclosure”.[x]

We note, however, that a request for Template Filing Relief must include (i) the reason for making the post-effective amendment; (ii) the identity of the Template filing;[xi] (iii) the identity of the registration statements that intend to rely on the relief (“Replicate filings”).[xii]  Additionally, the registrant must represent to the SEC that (i) the disclosure changes in the template filing are substantially identical to disclosure changes that will be made in the replicate filings; (ii) the replicate filings will incorporate changes made to the disclosure included in the Template filing to resolve any staff comments thereon; and (iii) the replicate filings will not include any other changes that would otherwise render them ineligible for filing under rule 485(b).[xiii]  Selective Review and Template Filing Relief can save registrants adding Clean Shares to existing funds time and money.

Existing Share Classes Qualify as Clean Shares

One of the more interesting aspects of the FAQ was the acknowledgement by the SEC that certain existing share classes of funds (such as institutional class shares) might already meet the requirements of Clean Shares, thereby offering a path to offering Clean Shares to many registrants without a Rule 485(a) filing.[xiv] In such a case, the SEC noted that a 485(a) filing would not be necessary “solely to add the prospectus disclosure described in the [Capital Group Letter]”[xv] where the fund already offers a share class that meets the requirements of the Capital Group Letter.[xvi]  Instead, a Rule 485(b) or Rule 497 filing will suffice.

Conclusion

The introduction of Clean Shares to the mutual fund industry presents an opportunity for mutual fund companies to improve the competitive position of their products, and we anticipate that there will be continued interest in Clean Shares even if the Department of Labor’s Conflict of Interest Rule does not become effective.[xvii]  If you have questions about Clean Shares of the SEC’s recent guidance, we encourage you to contact us.

 

[i] Andrew Sachs and John I. Sanders, Effects of the DOL Fiduciary Rule Reach Mutual Fund Industry, Kilpatrick Townsend: Investment Management News and Notes (Jan. 27, 2017), http://blogs.kilpatricktownsend.com/investmentmanagement/.

[ii] SEC, Response of the Office of Chief Counsel Division of Investment Management, available at https://www.sec.gov/divisions/investment/noaction/2017/capital-group-011117-22d.htm (“Capital Group Letter”).

[iii] Id.

[iv] John Waggoner, Brace for Thousands of New DOL Fiduciary-Friendly Mutual Fund Share Classes, INVESTMENT NEWS (Jan. 6, 2017), http://www.investmentnews.com/article/20170106/FREE/170109955/brace-for-thousands-of-new-dol-fiduciary-friendly-mutual-fund-share.

[v] SEC, Frequently Asked Questions on IM Guidance Update 2016-06 (Mutual Fund Fee Structures, available at https://www.sec.gov/divisions/investment/guidance/frequently-asked-questions-mutual-fund-fee-structures.htm (“FAQ”).

[vi] 17 CFR 230.485(a)-(b) (2017).

[vii] 17 CFR 230.485(b) (2017).

[viii] 17 CFR 230.485(a) (2017).

[ix] SEC: IM Guidance 2016-06, available at https://www.sec.gov.

[x] Id.

[xi] This identifying information should include the name of the Fund and the registrant, the Securities Act file number, and the filing date of the rule 485(a) filing.

[xii] This identifying information should include the name of the registrant, the Securities Act file number, and the series and class name for each of the Funds that intend to rely on the relief.

[xiii] SEC: IM Guidance 2016-06, available at https://www.sec.gov.

[xiv] FAQ, supra note 7.

[xv] Id. at Question 5.

[xvi] See, Capital Group Letter, supra note 2 (Listing the registrant’s representations to the SEC:  The broker will represent in its selling agreement with the fund’s underwriter that it is acting solely on an agency basis for the sale of Clean Shares; The Clean Shares sold by the broker will not include any form of distribution-related payment to the broker; The fund’s prospectus will disclose that an investor transacting in Clean Shares may be required to pay a commission to a broker, and if applicable, that shares of the fund are available in other share classes that have different fees and expenses; The nature and amount of the commissions and the times at which they would be collected would be determined by the broker consistent with the broker’s obligations under applicable law, including but not limited to applicable FINRA and Department of Labor rules; and Purchases and redemptions of Clean Shares will be made at net asset value established by the fund (before imposition of a commission).

[xvii] Paul Foley and John I. Sanders, Department of Labor Set to Eliminate the Fiduciary Rule, JD SUPRA (March 3, 2017), http://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/department-of-labor-set-to-eliminate-92801/.

Posted on Friday, January 27 2017 at 10:34 am by

Effects of the DOL Fiduciary Rule Reach Mutual Fund Industry

By Andrew Sachs and John I. Sanders

The Department of Labor finalized the so-called “Fiduciary Rule” in April 2016 and announced it would go into effect in April 2017.[i]  Since the finalization of the Fiduciary Rule, the annuities,[ii] brokerage,[iii] and advisory industries[iv] have all seen substantial changes to products or fee structures.  Now, the effects of the rule have reached the mutual fund industry as well, with the SEC’s recent approval of American Funds’ “Clean Shares” – shares stripped of any front-end load, deferred sales charge, or other asset-based fee for sales or distribution that are sold by brokers who set their own commissions in connection with such sales.[v]

On January 11th, the SEC issued a no-action letter to Capital Group, the parent company of American Funds.[vi]  The no-action letter stated that the SEC concurred with Capital Group’s view that Section 22(d) of the Investment Company Act of 1940 (the “Act”), which prohibits selling securities except at “a current public offering price described in the prospectus,” does not apply to brokers when acting as agent on behalf of its customers and charging customers commissions for effecting transactions in Clean Shares.[vii]

At least one publication predicts that thousands of mutual funds will create similar classes of shares.[viii]  We believe that the ability to replace the distribution fees typically charged by its mutual funds with commissions charged by the broker will give funds a new measure of flexibility to meet the demands of the Fiduciary Rule and competition generally.  For those wishing to more fully understand the costs and benefits of adopting a similar share class, we are here to help.

Andrew Sachs is a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton’s Winston-Salem office. John I. Sanders is an associate in the firm’s Winston-Salem office.

 

[i] Department of Labor, Fact Sheet: Department of Labor Finalizes Rule to Address Conflicts of Interest in Retirement Advice, Saving Middle Class Families Billions of Dollars Every Year, https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ebsa/about-ebsa/our-activities/resource-center/fact-sheets/dol-final-rule-to-address-conflicts-of-interest.

[ii] Greg Iacurci, Insurers Developing Fee-Based Fixed-Index Annuities Post-DOL Fiduciary Rule, INVESTMENT NEWS (July 14, 2016), http://www.investmentnews.com/article/20160714/FREE/160719964/insurers-developing-fee-based-fixed-indexed-annuities-post-dol.

[iii] Katherine Chiglinsky and Margaret Collins, AIG CEO Blames Obama Retirement Rule for Broker-Dealer Exit, BLOOMBERG (Jan. 27, 2016), http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-01-27/aig-broker-dealer-exit-fueled-by-obama-retirement-rule-ceo-says.

[iv] Darla Mercado, How the New “Fiduciary” Rule Will Actually Affect You, CNBC (Oct. 13, 2016), http://www.cnbc.com/2016/10/13/how-the-new-fiduciary-rule-will-actually-affect-you.html.

[v] John Waggoner, Brace for Thousands of New DOL Fiduciary-Friendly Mutual Fund Share Classes, INVESTMENT NEWS (Jan. 6, 2017), http://www.investmentnews.com/article/20170106/FREE/170109955/brace-for-thousands-of-new-dol-fiduciary-friendly-mutual-fund-share.

[vi] SEC, Response of the Office of Chief Counsel Division of Investment Management, available at https://www.sec.gov/divisions/investment/noaction/2017/capital-group-011117-22d.htm.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Waggoner, supra note 5.

Posted on Tuesday, January 24 2017 at 3:08 pm by

Constitutionality of SEC Judges Questioned

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

Among the many provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act were some that gave the SEC greater ability to hear cases and levy punishments in internal administrative courts without resort to ordinary federal courts.[i]  These provisions resulted in alarming results, including a 90% success rate for the SEC in front of its own newly-minted administrative law judges.[ii]  For comparative purposes, the SEC’s previous success rate was below 70%.[iii]

A legal challenge brought against the SEC argued that these judges are “inferior officers” that, pursuant to the Appointments Clause of the U.S. Constitution,[iv] must be appointed by an executive branch member and approved by the Senate.  Because such steps were never taken, the judges’ actions would be unconstitutional if they are, in fact, found to be “inferior officers”.  The 10th Circuit has agreed with the plaintiffs, but the SEC is expected to appeal.[v]

If the challenge is ultimately successful, there will be two significant impacts.  First, the cases decided by the SEC’s judges may be void.  Second, the SEC will be forced to use the old, less certain procedure of bringing enforcement actions in federal district court.  If you’d like to know more, I encourage you to read a succinct review of the matter in today’s Wall Street Journal.[vi]

Paul Foley is a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton’s New York and Winston-Salem, North Carolina offices.  John I. Sanders is an associate based in the firm’s Winston-Salem office.

[i] Giles D. Beal IV, Judge, Jury, and Executioner:  SEC Administrative Law Judges Post-Dodd Frank, 20 N.C. Banking Inst. 413 (2016), available at https://litigation-essentials.lexisnexis.com/webcd/app?action=DocumentDisplay&crawlid=1&doctype=cite&docid=20+N.C.+Banking+Inst.+413&srctype=smi&srcid=3B15&key=e7ef73edd6e64a6ec56e122360340a35.

[ii] Jean Eaglesham, SEC Wins with In-House Judges, Wall St. Journal (May 6, 2015), http://www.wsj.com/articles/sec-wins-with-in-house-judges-1430965803.

[iii] Id.

[iv] U.S. Const. art. II, sec. 2, cl. 2.

[v] Alison Frankel, 10th Circuit Strikes Down SEC ALJ Regime, Debates Reach to Other Agencies, Reuters (Dec. 28, 2016), http://www.reuters.com/article/otc-sec-idUSKBN14H1S3.

[vi] David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman, When is a Judge Not Really a Judge?, Wall St. Journal (Jan. 23, 2017), http://www.wsj.com/articles/when-is-a-judge-not-really-a-judge-1485215998.

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