Investment Management

Posted on Monday, November 27 2017 at 5:46 pm by

Another Shoe Drops: UBS Withdraws from the Broker Protocol

By Paul Foley, John I. Sanders, and Lauren Henderson

Only one month after Morgan Stanley withdrew from the Protocol for Broker Recruiting (the “Protocol”), a second major brokerage firm has announced its intention to withdraw effective December 1st. UBS says it is withdrawing as part of a strategy to focus on retaining its current brokers instead of recruiting brokers from competitors. [i] Still, many observers believe Morgan Stanley’s and UBS’s withdrawals are meant “to stanch the flow of brokers and client assets.”[ii] This flow, of course, has quickened in recent years as advisers have left traditional, large brokerage firms to form independent advisory firms.[iii]

When Morgan Stanley withdrew from the Protocol, many speculated as to whether the Protocol would survive.[iv] Such speculation has only increased as sources have confirmed that Morgan Stanley’s withdrawal was the catalyst for UBS’s departure.[v] We expect more firms are currently considering how to respond to two of the largest brokerage firms withdrawing from the Protocol, and we would not be surprised to see similar announcements before year-end.

If you have questions about the recent withdrawals from the Protocol or general questions about the complexities that arise in establishing an independent advisory firm, please feel free to contact us directly.

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

[i] Lisa Beilfuss, UBS to Pull Out of Pact on Broker Recruiting, WALL ST. J., Nov. 27, 2017, available at https://www.wsj.com/articles/ubs-to-pull-out-of-pact-on-broker-recruiting-1511799020 .

[ii] Id.

[iii] Neil Weinberg, Broker Protocol Reduced to a Sell Game, OnWallSteet, Oct. 18, 2016, available at https://www.onwallstreet.com/news/broker-protocol-reduced-to-a-shell-game.

[iv] Lisa Beilfuss, Morgan Stanley to Exit Accord on Broker Recruiting, WALL ST. J., Oct. 30, 2017, available at https://www.wsj.com/articles/morgan-stanley-to-exit-accord-on-broker-recruiting-1509380038

[v] Beilfuss, supra note 2.

Posted on Thursday, November 9 2017 at 11:10 am by

Four Key Takeaways for Investment Advisers from Chairman Clayton’s PLI Address

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

On November 8, 2017, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton gave the keynote address at the Practicing Law Institute’s 49th Annual Institute on Securities Regulation.[i] Chairman Clayton’s remarks shed considerable light on the SEC’s priorities in the near-term. We believe there are four key takeaways from the address for investment advisers:

  • The SEC will deemphasize formal rulemaking and focus instead on enforcement actions that will improve “transparency in our securities markets”;[ii]
  • The SEC will scrutinize whether investment advisers’ proxy voting decisions are maximizing value for their clients;[iii]
  • The SEC will prioritize enforcement actions related to “complex, obscure, or hidden fees and expenses that can harm investors” (e.g., investing client assets in a mutual fund share class that charges a 12b-1 fee when a lower-cost share class of the same fund is available);[iv] and
  • The SEC will help investors track bad actors by creating a website with a searchable database of “individuals who have been barred or suspended as a result of federal securities law violations.”[v]

Chairman Clayton is clearly signaling to investment advisers that the SEC, in the near-term, will focus its energy on whether they are making complete and accurate disclosures to their clients.

If you have questions about Chairman Clayton’s keynote address or the regulations that govern investment advisers generally, please feel free to contact us.

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] SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, Remarks at the PLI 49th Annual Institute on Securities Regulation – New York, N.Y. (Nov. 8 2017), available at https://www.sec.gov/news/speech/speech-clayton-2017-11-08.

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

Posted on Wednesday, November 1 2017 at 8:46 am by

Morgan Stanley’s Withdrawal from the Broker Protocol Shocks the Industry

By Paul Foley, John I. Sanders, and Lauren Henderson

In 2004, the Protocol for Broker Recruiting (the “Protocol”) was established with the goal of furthering “client interest of privacy and freedom of choice in connection with the movement of their Registered Representatives between firms.”[1] The Protocol defined what information a registered representative could take when moving between signatory firms, how that information could be used, and when it could be used.[2] The Protocol has provided brokers and registered representatives important clarity for the past 13 years, which has cut down significantly on litigation associated with moves from one signatory firm to another, including from brokers to investment advisers.

In a letter dated October 24th, Morgan Stanley, one of the largest employers of registered representatives, announced its withdrawal from the Protocol.[3] According to Morgan Stanley, the Protocol is “replete with opportunities for gamesmanship and loopholes” and is “no longer sustainable.”[4] In particular, Morgan Stanley has been frustrated by the ability of talented advisers to take advantage of the Protocol’s terms to establish independent registered investment advisers (“RIAs”) and solicit the clients they served while employed by Morgan Stanley.[5] Still, the firm’s withdrawal is the most significant in the history of the Protocol. Since 2004, more than 1,600 firms have become signatories, and only 100 have withdrawn.[6]

Following Morgan Stanley’s announcement, speculation as to its significance for the investment advisory industry has been rampant. Some are asking whether “Morgan Stanley’s exit from the protocol will usher in its end.”[7] Supporting that speculation is the silence of Morgan Stanley’s largest competitors in response to the withdrawal.[8]

Some large firms may determine that they are able to derive a competitive advantage in recruiting by remaining signatories of the Protocol. However, large firms that decide to withdraw from the Protocol, will likely be forced to offer top talent some of the same post-termination rights found in the Protocol and will experience significantly greater litigation cost. Those rights can be inserted into employment contracts. Alternatively, firms could increase financial incentives to compensate top advisers for the loss of those rights. Either way, this course of action will increase the cost and complexity of maintaining a talented team of advisers.

The more likely scenario is that Morgan Stanley’s withdrawal (and any similar firm’s withdrawal) is likely to hasten, not slow, the flow of advisers from the traditional, large brokerage firms to independent advisory firms. That flow has been so great in recent years that assets under management at registered investment advisers doubled between 2007 and 2015.[9] The most significant change for advisers employed by firms that withdraw from the Protocol is that they will need more sophisticated legal counsel to handle the process of establishing and transitioning to an independent advisory firm.

If you have questions about Morgan Stanley’s withdrawal from the Protocol or general questions about the complexities that arise in establishing an independent advisory firm, please feel free to contact us directly.

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

[1] Protocol for Broker Recruiting, available at http://www.bressler.com/DE0ED6/assets/files/Documents/Copy_of_Broker_Protocol.pdf.

[2] Id.

[3] Lisa Beilfuss, Morgan Stanley to Exit Accord on Broker Recruiting, WALL ST. J.,Oct. 30, 2017, available at https://www.wsj.com/articles/morgan-stanley-to-exit-accord-on-broker-recruiting-1509380038.

[4] Id.

[5] Neil Weinberg, Broker Protocol Reduced to a Sell Game, OnWallSteet, Oct. 18, 2016, available at https://www.onwallstreet.com/news/broker-protocol-reduced-to-a-shell-game.

[6] Beilfuss, supra note 3.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Weinberg, supra note 5.

Posted on Monday, October 30 2017 at 8:39 am by

Advisers Trading in Europe or Advising E.U. Clients Must Prepare for MiFID II

By Paul Foley, John I. Sanders, and Lauren Henderson

On January 3, 2018, the European Commission’s sweeping reform, the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II (“MiFID II”), will become effective. MiFID II applies to firms providing investment services or performing investment activities in the European Union (the “E.U.”).[1] E.U. investment advisers, naturally, will be among those effected. However, U.S. investment advisers who transact in European financial markets or offer investment advice to E.U. citizens through separately managed accounts (“SMAs”), pooled products (e.g., hedge funds), or indirectly through sub-advisory arrangements may be effected as follows:

  • Trading Equities and Derivatives: Under MiFID II, equity trading must occur on regulated markets, multilateral trading facilities, systematic internalisers, or equivalent third country venues.[2] Accordingly, over-the-counter trading of European equities may be severely restricted and the cost of trading certain securities may increase substantially. In addition, derivatives are subject to new reporting requirements and national regulators are empowered to set position limits for certain derivatives.[3]
  • Marketing Separately Managed Accounts: Each U.S. investment adviser must review licensing requirements in each jurisdiction where an E.U. client or potential client resides to determine whether the adviser must establish a branch or obtain a license to do business in the jurisdiction.[4]
  • Marketing Pooled Products: U.S. investment advisers that offer alternative investment funds (“AIFs”) will be governed by the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive (“AIFMD”) and jurisdiction-specific private placement rules, not MiFID II, when engaging in marketing activities for an AIF.[5] Likewise, U.S. investment advisers offering Undertakings for Collective Investment in Transferable Securities (“UCITSs”) are not directly subject to MiFID II when marketing a UCITS to E.U. clients, but will be indirectly impacted by MiFID II’s investor protection regime.[6]
  • Providing Sub-Advisory Services to E.U. Firms: E.U. firms subject to MiFID II may attempt to delegate compliance obligations to U.S. investment advisers serving as their sub-advisors. Among compliance obligations likely to be passed to the U.S. sub-advisor are those related to transparency and reporting.[7]

We invite you to contact us directly if you have any questions about the application of MiFID II to U.S. investment advisers.

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

[1] Directive 2014/65/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 May 2014 on Markets in Financial Instruments and Amending Directive 2002/92/EC and Directive 2011/61/EU, 2014 O.J. (L 173) 349, 374.

[2] Id. at 409.

[3] Id. at 440, 444.

[4] Christopher D. Christian & Dick Frase, MiFID II: Key Considerations for US Asset Managers, 23 The Investment Lawyer. 1, 4 (May 2016).

[5] Id. at 5.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 4.

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 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 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 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.