SEC Chairman Hints at Changes in Investor Standards. On August 29, Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) Chairman Jay Clayton spoke at the Nashville 36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival. He discussed issues the SEC is focused on or intends to focus on, including initial coin offerings (“ICOs”), promoting capital formation for public companies or companies considering going public, and rethinking the SEC’s current private offering exemption framework. Of note, Chairman Clayton stated that the SEC should explore how the current private offering exemption landscape could be simplified and streamlined. In particular, the Chairman noted that the SEC should examine the possibility of focusing on factors beyond investor wealth (i.e. accredited investor status), such as investor sophistication or investment amount.
SEC Releases Best Execution Deficiencies Alert. On July 11, the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations of the SEC released an alert outlining common deficiencies observed in examinations of advisers’ “best execution” obligations. These requirements come from the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, as amended, and impose a duty on advisers to execute trades so that total costs and proceeds are most favorable to clients. While best execution obligations depend on the facts of each situation, the SEC observed the following common deficiencies:
- Not Performing Reviews – advisers were unable to provide evidence that they periodically and systematically reviewed the broker-dealers used to execute transactions.
- Not Considering Materially Relevant Factors in Broker-Dealer Services – advisers did not consider the full range and quality of broker-dealers’ services.
- Not Seeking Other Broker-Dealers – advisers often used only one broker-dealer for all of their clients without evaluating the services, quality, and costs of others.
- Not Disclosing Best Execution Practices – advisers did not fully disclose best execution practices to their clients.
- Not Disclosing Soft Dollar Arrangements – soft dollar arrangements (i.e. commissions in exchange for brokerage and research services) were not fully and fairly disclosed in advisers’ Form ADVs.
- Not Properly Allocating Mixed Use Products and Services – advisers did not properly allocate the costs of mixed use products or services (i.e. products or services obtained using soft dollars, where that product or service is also used for non-investment purposes, such as accounting or marketing). Additionally, advisers did not properly document the reasons for mixed use product or service allocations.
- Inadequate Policies and Procedures – advisers lacked policies, had insufficient internal controls, or did not have policies tailored to their investment strategy.
- Not Following Policies and Procedures – advisers failed to follow their own best execution policies and procedures.
In light of the deficiencies listed above, advisers should review their best execution policies and procedures, and contact legal counsel or a compliance professional with any questions.
Hedge Fund Adviser Charged with Short-and-Distort Scheme. On September 12, the SEC charged a hedge fund advisor with illegally profiting from a “short-and-distort” scheme. The adviser is alleged to have released false information about a public pharmaceutical business after shorting the company. The adviser allegedly used reports, interviews, and social media to spread false claims that, for example, the pharmaceutical company was “teetering on the brink of bankruptcy”. The SEC is seeking a permanent restraining order, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, and civil penalties.
SEC Charges Adviser for Risky Investments and Secret Commissions. On July 18, the SEC charged an adviser and its CEO with misleading investors by putting their capital in risky investments and secretly pocketing large commissions from such investments. The adviser and CEO are accused of misleading investors about the risks of the investments, overbilling, concealing financial conflicts, and violating the anti-fraud and registration provisions of federal securities laws. The SEC is seeking a permanent injunction, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains and losses avoided plus prejudgment interest, and civil monetary penalties.
CFTC Chairman Outlines Increased CFTC Enforcement. On October 2, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) Chairman Christopher Giancarlo summarized the CFTC’s increased enforcement efforts from the prior fiscal year in a speech to the Economic Club of Minnesota. These efforts include:
- Enforcement Actions – in the prior fiscal year, the CFTC filed approximately 25% more enforcement actions than each of the prior three fiscal years.
- Large-Scale Matters – the CFTC has increased enforcement actions against large-scale matters (i.e. matters that threaten basic market integrity). In the CFTC’s last fiscal year, it brought more than three times the average number of large-scale actions as the previous administration.
- Manipulative Conduct – the CFTC has brought more than five times the previous average number of actions against manipulative conduct in the past fiscal year. Such conduct includes fraud, spoofing (i.e. bidding with the intent to cancel before execution), and the use of technology to manipulate order books.
- Accountability – the CFTC has prioritized individual accountability, and approximately 70% of the past fiscal year’s cases involved charges against individuals who committed illegal acts.
- Partnership with Criminal Enforcement – the CFTC has filed “far more actions in parallel” with criminal law enforcement partners than in any previous year.
- Whistleblower Awards – with respect to whistleblowers, the CFTC has strengthened protections, granted a record number of awards, and received a record number of tips and complaints.
With these increased enforcement efforts in mind, managers of funds subject to CFTC jurisdiction should ensure they are up-to-date with CFTC filings and regulations.
CTA Associated Person and Introducing Broker Charged with Fraud. On August 10, the CFTC settled charges against an associated person of a commodity trading adviser (“CTA”) and introducing broker. The charges were based on a fraudulent trading scheme where the trader entered unauthorized commodities trades in customers’ accounts, transferred profitable trades to his own account, and left losses in the clients’ accounts. The settlement included a cease and desist order, a permanent ban from engaging in trading with any CFTC-registered entity, and a $100,000 civil monetary penalty.
Digital Asset Matters
Regulators continued to show interest and initiate enforcement actions in the digital asset space. Below is a summary of certain key digital asset items from the third quarter. For a complete review of these and other crypto developments, please consult our Third Quarter Digital Asset Regulatory Items blog post.
SEC Charges Digital Asset Hedge Fund Manager. On September 11, the SEC announced the settlement of charges against a digital asset hedge fund and its manager. The charges include misleading investors, offering and selling unregistered securities, and failing to register the hedge fund as an investment company. After being contacted by the SEC, the fund offered rescission and disclosed its previous misstatements to investors. The settlement included cease-and-desist orders, censure, and a $200,000 penalty. This is the first action the SEC has taken against a digital asset fund based on violations of the investment company registration requirements.
SEC Charges ICO Platform for Operating as Unregistered Broker-Dealer. On September 11, the SEC settled charges against an ICO platform. The business was charged with failing to register as a broker-dealer, as well as offering and selling unregistered securities. This is the SEC’s first charge against an unregistered broker-dealer in the digital asset space following the SEC’s 2017 DAO Report, which cautioned anyone offering or selling digital assets to comply with federal securities laws.
New York Attorney General Releases Report on Digital Asset Exchanges. On September 18, the Office of the Attorney General of New York (the “OAG”) released a report summarizing a crypto exchange fact-finding initiative. Based on the digital asset exchanges examined, the OAG outlined three primary areas of concern: potential conflicts of interest, lack of anti-abuse controls, and limited customer fund protection.
NFA Requires CPOs and CTAs to Disclose Digital Asset Activity. On July 20, the National Futures Association (“NFA”) released a notice that imposed new disclosure requirements on futures commission merchants, commodity pool operators (“CPOs”), and CTAs that are NFA members engaged in certain digital asset activities. The new disclosures cover, for example, the volatility and cybersecurity risks of digital assets. Additional details are available in our recent blog post.
Cayman Islands Delays AML Officer Deadline. Under new Cayman Islands requirements, investment funds that conduct business in or from the Cayman Islands must appoint individuals to new anti-money laundering officer positions. The Cayman Islands Monetary Authority (“CIMA”) has delayed certain deadlines for funds that launched prior to June 1, 2018:
- CIMA-Registered Cayman Funds – registered funds still must have appointed the new officers by September 30, 2018, but now do not need to confirm the identity of the officers via CIMA’s Regulatory Enhanced Electronic Forms Submission (“REEFS”) portal until December 31, 2018.
- Unregistered Cayman Funds – unregistered funds do not need to appoint the new officers until December 31, 2018, and they do not need to confirm the identity of these officers via the REEFS portal.
Funds formed on or after June 1, 2018 must have appointed the officers (and confirmed such officers through REEFS for registered funds) at launch. The new roles must be filled by individuals, and some service providers may be willing to provide individuals to serve such roles. We recommend fund managers discuss anti-money laundering compliance with offshore counsel and the fund’s administrator.
FINRA Warns of Regulator Impersonators. On July 13, FINRA issued a warning that persons claiming to be working for FINRA have been calling firms and attempting to obtain confidential information. In particular, FINRA warned that the use of overseas telephone numbers or email addresses indicates a likely scam, as well as emails from suspicious domains that do not end with “@finra.org” and that contain attachments or embedded links. If you have questions about the legitimacy of purported FINRA communications, contact your FINRA Coordinator.
New York Issues Sexual Harassment Compliance Mandate. Managers with operations in New York State and New York City should be aware of recent changes to employers’ obligations with respect to sexual harassment. Effective October 9, 2018, all employers in New York State are required to adopt a sexual harassment prevention policy equal to or greater than the standards of the state-issued model policy. Additionally, New York State employers must provide sexual harassment prevention training annually that is equal to or greater than the state-created model. This training must be completed by current employees by January 1, 2019, and by new hires within 30 days of being hired. Managers that may be subject to these new requirements can learn more on New York State’s Combating Sexual Harassment in the Workplace website. New York City has also implemented similar training requirements for employers with 15 or more employees, which will take effect on April 1, 2019. Additionally, effective September 6, 2018, New York City employers must post a sexual harassment poster and distribute a fact sheet to new employees.
SEC Charges Firm for Deficient Cybersecurity. On September 26, the SEC settled charges against a broker-dealer/investment adviser based on the firm’s deficient cybersecurity procedures after parties posing as contractors accessed customers’ personal information. The charges are a reminder of the importance of maintaining strong cybersecurity policies and procedures. Firms should be aware that cybersecurity is an on-going obligation and has become a focus of the SEC.
IRS Ends Voluntary Disclosure Program. On September 28, the Internal Revenue Service ended the 2014 Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (“OVDP”). U.S. taxpayers are required to report and pay taxes on certain offshore assets and face potential stiff criminal and civil penalties for failing to do so, and the OVDP was designed to offer taxpayers certain protections from these penalties. Fund managers with unreported foreign assets that were not able to meet the September 28, 2018 deadline should discuss their options with tax counsel.
New Law Expands Disclosure and Approval Requirements for Investments by Foreign Entities. On August 13, the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (“FIRRMA”) was signed into law. It expands the scope of investments by non-U.S. investors in critical domestic tech companies that must be disclosed to and approved by the federal government in an effort to strengthen national security. An example investment within the scope of FIRRMA is an investment by a non-U.S. entity in a tech company that gives the investing entity access to material non-public technical information. While there are limits and exemptions to the scope of FIRRMA and the typical fund will not need to worry about its new requirements, venture funds with foreign limited partners or foreign co-investors should be mindful of the expanded approval requirements.
Compliance Calendar. As you plan your regulatory compliance timeline for the coming months, please keep the following dates in mind: