On January 11, 2018, the Fort Worth, Texas, Regional Office (“FWRO”) of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) held a first-of-its-kind call to increase transparency by discussing the 2017 regional examination findings and previewing some likely priorities for 2018.1 With over 2,000 participants, the teleconference reached capacity leaving many unable to participate. The hour-and-a-half-long call was structured into three parts: (1) discussion of the National and Regional Examination Programs; (2) investor risk highlights; and (3) a question and answer session. For those in the financial services industry in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the sampling of topics covered provides key insights of what is likely to come in the new year.
National & Regional Examination Programs
Concurrent to the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) National Exam Program (“NEP”), the Regional Exam Program identifies and tests specific areas that may be unique to the region. Through the 139 exams administered in the region in 2017, the FWRO identified 11 areas of deficiency. Much of the call, however, focused on two specific deficiencies:
1. Compliance Policies & Procedures. The FWRO reported that compliance-related citations pursuant to the Compliance Rule, 17 C.F.R. § 275.206(4)-7, were included in almost 50 percent of regional delinquency letters in 2017. Too frequently, firms used “canned” compliance policies that were not tailored to the firm’s own business dealings. Often, the FWRO found compliance programs containing policies that were inapplicable to the firm’s business operations and, in some instances, included the name of another firm instead of their own. As a result, many firms were already in violation of their own policies. The FWRO reminded listeners that the Compliance Rule requires annual review to address any compliance issues from the previous year, as well as any changes in applicable laws. Moreover, the FWRO noted that it was “no fan” of chief compliance officers that wear other hats in the firm or report to the general counsel instead of the firm’s CEO. Finally, the FWRO also mentioned it would be examining how firms affected by Hurricane Harvey implemented their business contingency, continuity, succession, and/or disaster plans.
2. Anti-fraud Provisions & the Fiduciary Duty. 33 percent of regional delinquency letters in 2017 cited anti-fraud and fiduciary duty related violations. The FWRO emphasized that Section 206 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940,2 as the Supreme Court interpreted it SEC v. Capital Gains Research Bureau, Inc.,3 imposes both a fiduciary duty to expose all conflicts of interest and an affirmative obligation of utmost good faith to place a client’s needs above that of an adviser’s. The FWRO also counseled firms to reevaluate their fiduciary duties to their clients to avoid misleading them, citing to the administrative decision of In re: Lawrence M. Labine,4 to warn of the interplay the anti-fraud provisions have with those trying to switch hats between a registered investment adviser representative and a registered representative of a broker. Furthermore, double billing and advisory fees would continue to be investigative priorities both nationally and regionally, according to the FWRO.
Investor Risk Highlights
Although time did not permit for much detail, the FWRO also highlighted areas of investor risk that would likely be priorities this year, including:
1. Abuse and improper use of Initial Coin Offerings (“ICOs”).
2. Federal government employee retirement investment scams.
3. Failure to disclose potential associated risk and loss of securities-based loans to consumers.
Question & Answer Session
Before ending the call, the FWRO fielded questions. Of particular interest were:
1. Will the SEC adopt the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule? The FWRO replied that SEC Chairman Jay Clayton has been vocal about his interest in taking a lead on the establishment of an overall fiduciary rule and that the Chairman will likely work with sister regulators to create a harmonized rule.
2. What triggers an “on-site” administration versus a “desk” administration of an examination? While this has historically been based on a time cycle, the FWRO answered that this determination is now risk based. After a risk analysis using data from both the D.C. and regional risk and surveillance offices around August or September, the FWRO discusses priorities with the national SEC office. Then, the FWRO develops regional priorities and an exam plan for the fiscal year that includes a range of exam types.
3. Are Exempt Reporting Advisers (“ERAs”) being examined routinely or for cause this year? The FWRO confirmed that these examinations would likely be for cause only. Moreover, while the FWRO does not anticipate ERAs will be a national or regional priority, many ERAs are involved with ICOs and, thus, may come to the SEC and FWRO’s attention in that manner.
The FWRO closed by expressing its hope that calls like this will be the first step in its continued effort to increase transparency and communication with the financial services industry in the region and that similar calls will likely occur biannually.
1 Telephone Call with Shamoil T. Shipchandler, et al., Director, Fort Worth Regional Office, U.S. Sec. & Exch. Comm’n (Jan. 11, 2018).
2 15 U.S.C. §§ 80b-1, et seq.
3 375 U.S. 180 (1963).
4 S.E.C. Release No. 973, 113 S.E.C. Docket 3334, 2016 WL 824588 (Mar. 2016).