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Posted on Thursday, August 17 2017 at 8:39 am by

DOL Proposes an Extension of the Fiduciary Rule Transition Period

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

When the DOL Fiduciary Rule became effective on June 9th, it marked the start of a transition period that was scheduled to end on January 1, 2018 (the “Transition Period”).[i]  During the Transition Period, compliance burdens under the Fiduciary Rule are relaxed.  For example, those seeking to rely on the Best Interest Contract Exemption (the “BIC Exemption”) will face less stringent requirements.[ii]  Also, the DOL stated that it would not bring enforcement actions during the Transition Period against “fiduciaries who are working diligently and in good faith to comply with the new rule and exemptions.”[iii]

Last week, the DOL submitted proposed amendments to the BIC Exemption and certain other exemptions to the Fiduciary Rule.[iv]  We learned of this development through a 2-page filing the DOL made in relation to ongoing litigation.[v]  Unfortunately, the filing provided little detail, and the full text of the proposed amendments will not be available to the public until the conclusion of an interagency review.[vi]  However, what seems apparent, based upon the title of the proposed amendments in the filing, is that the proposed amendments include an extension of the Transition Period from January 1, 2018 to July 1, 2019.[vii]

In the long term, we believe that the DOL’s proposed amendments foreshadow either significant modifications to or a full repeal of the Fiduciary Rule and its exemptions.  In the near term, we believe the extension of the Transition Period, coupled with the temporary non-enforcement policy, provides fiduciaries with a reason to breathe easier.

Please contact us if you have any questions about this article or the DOL Fiduciary Rule generally.

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.

[i] 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-1.pdf.

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Thrivent Financial for Lutherans v. Acosta, et al., No. 0:16-cv-03289 (D. Minn. Sept. 29, 2016), available at http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjTqJP_utzVAhWI7CYKHdKTDrcQFggrMAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fmedia.thinkadvisor.com%2Fthinkadvisor%2Farticle%2F2017%2F08%2F09%2Fthriventvdolnotice8-9-2017.pdf&usg=AFQjCNFWeSsTSR6C69Z17yHF1q1a7bkDpg.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id.

Posted on Wednesday, July 26 2017 at 8:58 am by

Six Ways to Improve Cybersecurity Policies and Procedures

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

The SEC has declared cybersecurity to be an examination priority for financial institutions (i.e., broker-dealers, investment advisers, and registered investment companies) in each of the past four years.[1]  While the SEC’s comments in these examination priority releases are helpful for financial institutions, we believe that the SEC may have provided more useful guidance concerning cybersecurity practices through investor bulletins designed to help investors avoid online fraud.[2]  This guidance reveals helpful insights into the SEC’s evolving approach to cybersecurity.  Accordingly, based on the SEC’s most recently issued guidance to investors, we identify six ways financial institutions could improve their cybersecurity policies and procedures below.[3]

1. Passwords. The SEC has recommended that investors choose a strong password (e., one that includes symbols, numbers, and both capital and lowercase letters) for online access, keep their password secure, and change it regularly.[4]  Consistent with this recommendation, financial institutions may want to consider requiring clients to choose strong passwords and change them regularly.

2.  Biometric Safeguards. The SEC has recommended that investors contact their financial institutions to determine whether they offer biometric safeguards (g., fingerprinting, facial and voice recognition, and retina scans) for mobile device access.[5]  Although biometric safeguards are not currently a standard security feature, financial institutions may want to consider ways they can add biometric safeguards as a feature of mobile device access for their clients.

3.  Public Computers. The SEC has recommended that investors avoid using public computers to access investment accounts.[6]  When an investor does use a public computer, the SEC recommends investors take the following precautions:  disable password saving; delete files, caches, and cookies; and log out of accounts completely when finished.[7]  Financial institutions could help investors follow the SEC’s helpful, but often forgotten, advice by, for example, requiring them to proactively check a box to enable password saving on each new device and automatically logging users out of their online accounts after relatively short periods of inactivity.

4.  Secure Websites. The SEC has recommended that investors not log in to an account unless the relevant financial institution’s website has a secure “https” address.[8]  Many financial institutions have a secure website already, but those that do not may want to consider implementing one.

5.  Links. The SEC has recommended that clients never click on links sent to them by financial institutions with which they do not have a relationship, and to confirm the legitimacy of links sent to them by their financial institutions by calling or emailing the purported sender.[9]  In response to this advice, financial institutions may want to use links judiciously, and ensure that those who will receive calls and emails from clients know what links have been sent to which clients and under what circumstances.  Without such knowledge, financial institution employees may be unable to confirm or deny the legitimacy of the link, undermining client confidence in the financial institution’s cybersecurity policies and procedures.

6.  Review Account Statements. The SEC has recommended that investors regularly review statements and trade confirmations for suspicious activity and contact their financial institution with a written complaint if there is suspicious activity.[10]  In response, financial institutions may want to evaluate their security procedures with respect to redemptions and distributions.  Adopting reliable technological innovations can help prevent suspicious activity and create a business advantage (g., using biometric safeguards or two-factor authentication may be more reliable and less time-consuming than requiring signature guarantees).

Please contact us if you have any questions about this article or the SEC’s cybersecurity guidance.

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, Examination Priorities for 2014 (Jan. 9, 2014), available at http://www.sec.gov/about/offices/ocie/national-examination-program-priorities-2014.pdf; SEC, Examination Priorities for 2015 (Jan. 13, 2015), available at http://www.sec.gov/about/offices/ocie/national-examination-program-priorities-2015.pdf; SEC, Examination Priorities for 2016 (Jan. 11, 2016), available at http://www.sec.gov/about/offices/ocie/national-examination-program-priorities-2016.pdf;  SEC, Examination Priorities for 2017 (Jan. 12, 2017), available at https://www.sec.gov/about/offices/ocie/national-examination-program-priorities-2017.pdf.

[2] SEC, Cybersecurity, the SEC and You (last visited July 25, 2017), available at https://www.sec.gov/spotlight/cybersecurity (containing a library of resources of both investors and securities industry professionals related to cybersecurity).

[3] SEC, Updated Investor Bulletin:  Protecting Your Online Investment Accounts from Fraud (April 26, 2017), available at https://investor.gov/additional-resources/news-alerts/alerts-bulletins/updated-investor-bulletin-protecting-your-online.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

Posted on Monday, July 24 2017 at 2:41 pm by

Wyoming Mid-Sized Advisers Can No Longer Register with the SEC

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

Wyoming required investment advisers to register with the state for the first time on July 1, 2017.[i]  Wyoming’s decision primarily affects those Wyoming-based advisers with between $25 million and $100 million in assets under management (“Mid-Sized Advisers”).  Generally, Mid-Sized Advisers may not register with the SEC.[ii]  However, Wyoming-based Mid-Sized Advisers were required to register with the SEC pursuant to an exception to the general rule.[iii]  That exception requires a Mid-Sized Adviser to register with the SEC if its principal office or place of business is in a state that does not require it to register.[iv]  Wyoming’s lack of a registration requirement for Mid-Sized Advisers and the SEC’s exception made Wyoming a destination for Mid-Sized Advisers who wanted to tout SEC registration.[v]  Some Mid-Sized Advisers went as far as to fraudulently claim to be based in Wyoming so that they could boast SEC registration.[vi]  Wyoming’s decision to require investment advisers to register with the state means that Wyoming-based Mid-Sized Advisers (real and fictitious) are no longer permitted to register with the SEC.  Instead, they must register with Wyoming and comply with its new regulatory regime.[vii]  This continues a shift, which we first noted in 2011, of primary responsibility for the regulatory oversight of Mid-Sized Advisers to the states.[viii]

Please contact us if you have any questions about the new law or its potential impact on your investment advisory business.

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.

[i] Wyoming Secretary of State, FAQs (March 14, 2017), available at http://soswy.state.wy.us/Investing/Docs/investment_faq_final.pdf.

[ii] 15 USC 80b-3a (2017); see also SEC, Division of Investment Management: Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Mid-Sized Advisers, available at https://www.sec.gov/divisions/investment/midsizedadviserinfo.htm (providing additional commentary related to the effect of certain Dodd-Frank Act provisions on Mid-Sized Advisers).

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] See Danielle Andrus, ThinkAdvisor, Wyoming to Begin Registering RIAs (July 13, 2016), available at http://www.thinkadvisor.com/2016/07/13/wyoming-to-begin-registering-rias; see also Christine Idzelis, Investment News, Wyoming poised to scrutinize its RIA industry for the first time (July 6, 2016), available at http://www.investmentnews.com/article/20160706/FREE/160709978/wyoming-poised-to-scrutinize-its-ria-industry-for-the-first-time.

[vi] See In re Matter of New Line Capital, LLC and David A Nagler, IA-4017 (February 4, 2015), available at https://www.sec.gov/litigation/admin/2015/ia-4017.pdf; and In the matter of Wyoming Investment Services, LLC and Criag M. Scariot, IA-4014 (February 4, 2015), available at https://www.sec.gov/litigation/admin/2015/ia-4014.pdf.

[vii] Wyoming Secretary of State, Proposed Rules, available at http://soswy.state.wy.us/Investing/Docs/WyomingProposedRulesforIA.pdf.

[viii] Paul Foley, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, LLP Investment Management Blog, Deadline for Meeting the New Investment Adviser Regulatory Requirements Under the Dodd-Frank Act is Quickly Approaching (Sept. 20, 2011), available at http://www.kilpatricktownsend.com/en/Knowledge_Center/Alerts_and_Podcasts/Legal_Alerts/2011/09/Deadline_for_Meeting_the_New_Investment_Adviser_Regulatory_Requirements.aspx.

Posted on Friday, July 14 2017 at 12:01 pm by

Broker-Dealers and Investment Advisers Exempted from CFPB’s Arbitration Agreement Rule

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (the “CFPB”) issued a final rule on July 10, 2017 that has received widespread attention.[1]  The rule, promulgated pursuant to section 1028(b) of the Dodd-Frank Act, generally regulates “arbitration agreements in contracts for specified consumer financial products and services.”[2]  More specifically, the rule prohibits the use of arbitration agreements by providers of certain financial products and services “to bar the consumer from filing or participating in a class action.”[3]  Despite the apparent wide sweep of the rule, it includes important exemptions for broker-dealers and investment advisers.

First, the rule expressly exempts from its prohibitions “broker-dealers and investment advisers, as well as their employees, agents, and contractors, to the extent regulated by the SEC.”[4]  Also, the rule exempts those “regulated by a State securities commissioner as a broker-dealer or investment adviser.”[5]  As a result of these exemptions, the use of arbitration agreements by broker-dealers and investment advisers will continue to be regulated by the SEC and state regulators.  So far, the SEC has not exercised its authority under section 921 of the Dodd-Frank Act to restrict the use of arbitration agreements as the CFPB has done, and there is no indication it will do so soon.[6]

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] See e.g., Megan Leonhardt, Money Magazine, CFPB Just Issued a New Rule That Would Protect Consumers From Predatory Fine Print (July 11, 2017), available at http://time.com/money/4852123/cfpb-mandatory-arbitration-rule/; Maria LaMagna, MarketWatch, CFPB Announces Rule That Could Help Consumers Sue Financial Firms for Millions (July 11, 2017), available at http://time.com/money/4852123/cfpb-mandatory-arbitration-rule/; and Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Michael Corkery, The New York Times, U.S. Agency Moves to Allow Class-Action Lawsuits Against Financial Firms (July 10, 2017), available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/10/business/dealbook/class-action-lawsuits-finance-banks.html.

[2] CFPB, Final Rule: Arbitration Agreements (July 10, 2017), available at https://www.consumerfinance.gov/policy-compliance/rulemaking/final-rules/arbitration-agreements/ (hereinafter “Arbitration Rule”).

[3] Id. at p. 1.

[4] Id. at p. 478.

[5] Id. at p. 479.

[6] 15 U.S.C. 78o(o) (authorizing the SEC to regulate broker-dealer arbitration agreements) and 15 U.S.C. 80b-5(f) (authorizing the SEC to regulate investment adviser arbitration agreements).

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.

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