CFTC and NFA and Hedge Fund Regulation: Report by the GAO

This article is part of a series examining the statements in a report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in February 2008.  The items in this report are important because they provide insight into how the government views the hedge fund industry and how that might influence the future regulatory environment for hedge funds.  The excerpt below is part of a larger report issued by the GAO; a PDF of the entire report can be found here.

The following expert provides a good summary of the roles and duties of both the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the National Futures Association (NFA) with regard to hedge funds and their commodities trading activities. Specifically, the report describes the central ways that these groups regulate hedge funds, including the following:

Once registered, CPOs and CTAs become subject to detailed disclosure, periodic reporting and record-keeping requirements, and periodic on-site risk-based examinations. However, regardless of registration status, all CPOs and CTAs (including those affiliated with hedge funds) remain subject to CFTC’s anti-fraud and anti-manipulation authority.

One item to note is that this report was prepared in early 2008 so it does not include the subsequent jurisdictional grant to the CFTC to regulate spot forex.  This grant was provided by the Farm Bill, passed by Congress in June of 2008 (please see CFTC announces retail forex fraud task force).  Subsequent to passing the Farm Bill the CFTC began drafting regulations (yet to be formally proposed) to require the registration of forex managers.  When the CFTC and the NFA eventually regulate the spot forex markets and require forex managers to be registered, it is likely that their duties will increase with regard to forex hedge fund managers, who are currently unregulated at the federal level.

With regard to future regulatory oversight of hedge funds by the CFTC and the NFA, there will probably not be greater mandates for registration.  One thing that could be done is to take away the CPO exemptions, but this seems unlikely.

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CFTC Can Monitor Hedge Fund Activities through Its Market Surveillance, Regulatory Compliance Surveillance, and Delegated Examination Programs:

Although CFTC does not specifically target hedge funds, through its general market and financial supervisory activities, it can provide oversight of persons registered as CPOs and CTAs that operate or advise hedge funds that trade in the futures markets. As part of its market surveillance program, CFTC collects information on market participants, regardless of their registration status, to monitor their activities and trading practices. In particular, traders are required to report their futures and options positions when a CFTC-specified level is reached in a certain contract market and CFTC electronically collects these data through its Large Trader Reporting System (LTRS).[1] CFTC also uses the futures and options positions information reported by traders through the LTRS as part of its monitoring of the potential financial exposure of traders to clearing firms, and of clearing firms to derivatives clearing organizations. CFTC collects position information from exchanges, clearing members, futures commission merchants (FCM), and foreign brokers and other traders– including hedge funds–about firm and customer accounts in an attempt to detect and deter manipulation.[2] Customers, including hedge funds, are required to maintain margin on deposit with their FCMs to cover losses that might be incurred due to price changes. FCMs also are required to maintain CFTC-imposed minimum capital requirements in order to meet their financial obligations. Such financial safeguards are put in place to mitigate the potential spillover effect to the broader market resulting from the failure of a customer or of an FCM.

According to CFTC officials, the demise (due to trading losses related to natural gas derivatives) in the fall of 2006 of Amaranth Advisors, LLC (Amaranth), a $9 billion multistrategy hedge fund, had no impact on the integrity of the clearing system for CFTC-regulated futures and option contracts. The officials said that at all times Amaranth’s account at its clearing FCM was fully margined and the clearing FCM met all of its settlement obligations to its clearinghouse. They also said that the approximate $6 billion of losses suffered by Amaranth on regulated and unregulated exchanges did not affect its clearing FCM, the other customers of the clearing FCM, or the clearinghouse.[3]

CFTC investigates and, as necessary, prosecutes alleged violators of the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA) and CFTC regulations and may conduct such investigations in cooperation with federal, state, and foreign authorities. Enforcement referrals can come from several sources, including CFTC’s market surveillance group or tips. Remedies sought in enforcement actions generally include permanent injunctions, asset freezes, prohibitions on trading on CFTC-registered entities, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, restitution to victims, revocation or suspension of registration, and civil monetary penalties. On the basis of CFTC enforcement data, from the beginning of fiscal year 2001 through May 1, 2007, CFTC brought 58 enforcement actions against CPOs and CTAs, including those affiliated with hedge funds, for various violations.[4] A summary of the violations cited in the actions includes misrepresentation with respect to assets under management or profitability; failure to register with CFTC; failure to make required disclosures, statement, or reports; misappropriation of participants’ funds; and violation of prior prohibitions (i.e., prior civil injunction or CFTC cease and desist order).

Pursuant to CFTC-delegated authority, NFA, a registered futures association under the CEA and a self-regulatory organization, oversees the activities, and conducts examinations, of registered CPOs and CTAs.[5] As such, hedge fund advisers registered as CPOs or CTAs are subject to direct oversight in connection with their trading in futures markets.[6] More specifically, to the extent that hedge fund operators or advisers trade futures or options on futures on behalf of hedge funds, the funds are commodity pools and the operators of, and advisers to, such funds are required to register as CPOs and CTAs, respectively, with CFTC and become members of NFA if they are not exempted from registration. Once registered, CPOs and CTAs become subject to detailed disclosure, periodic reporting and record-keeping requirements, and periodic on-site risk-based examinations. However, regardless of registration status, all CPOs and CTAs (including those affiliated with hedge funds) remain subject to CFTC’s anti-fraud and anti-manipulation authority.

Our review of NFA documentation found that 29 advisers of the largest 78 U.S. hedge funds (previously mentioned) are registered with CFTC as CPOs or CTAs. In addition, 20 of the 29 also are registered with SEC as investment advisers or broker-dealers. According to NFA officials, because there is no legal definition of hedge funds, it does not require CPOs or CTAs to identify themselves as hedge fund operators or advisers. NFA, therefore, considers all CPOs and CTAs as potential hedge fund operators or advisers. According to NFA, in fiscal year 2006 NFA examined 212 CPOs, including 6 of the 29 largest hedge fund advisers registered with NFA. During the examinations, NFA staff performed tests of books and records and other auditing procedures to provide reasonable assurance that the firm was complying with NFA rules and all account balances of a certain date were properly stated and classified. Our review of four of the examinations found that 3 of the CPOs examined generally were in compliance with NFA regulations and the remaining 1 was found to have certain employees that were not properly registered with CFTC. According to examination documentation, subsequent to the examination, the hedge fund provided a satisfactory written response to NFA noting that it would soon properly register the employees.

According to an NFA official, since 2003 NFA has taken 23 enforcement actions against CPOs and CTAs, many of which involved hedge funds. Some of the violations found included filing fraudulent financial statements with NFA, not providing timely financial statements to investors, failure to register with CFTC as a CPO, failure to maintain required books and records, use of misleading promotional materials, and failure to supervise staff. The penalties included barring CPOs and CTAs from NFA membership temporarily or permanently or imposing monetary fines ranging from $5,000 to $45,000.

[1] According to CFTC officials, the LTRS captures 70 to 90 percent of the daily activity on registered futures exchanges.

[2] FCMs are individuals, associations, partnerships, corporations, or trusts that solicit or accept orders for the purchase or sale of any commodity for future delivery on or subject to the rules of any contract market or derivatives transaction execution facility; and in connection with such solicitation or acceptance of orders, accept money, securities, or property (or extend credit in lieu thereof) to margin, guarantee, or secure any trades or contracts that result or may result therefrom.

[3] In the CFTC complaint filed against Amaranth Advisors, LLC; Amaranth Advisors (Calgary), ULC, and Brian Hunter, CFTC alleged that the defendants attempted to manipulate the price of natural gas contracts on the New York Mercantile Exchange, Inc., in 2006. Complaint for Injunctive and Other Equitable Relief and Civil Monetary Penalties under the Commodity Exchange Act, CFTC v. Amaranth Advisors, LLC, No. 07-6682 (S.D.N.Y., July 25, 2007).

[4] Because “hedge fund” is not a defined term under the CEA or any other federal statute, CFTC and NFA records do not identify whether a commodity pool is a hedge fund. Thus, CFTC cannot report on the exact
number of examinations that involve hedge funds. In the event the CPO or CTA self-designates itself as a hedge fund, the Division of Enforcement typically incorporates that designation in the enforcement action, and that designation is often used in the press release notifying the public of the enforcement action.

[5] A registered CPO or CTA seeking to engage in futures business with the public or with any member of NFA must itself be a member of NFA.

[6] For the purpose of this report the term “hedge fund advisers” includes, as the context requires, CPOs, CTAs, or securities investment advisers.

Other HFLB articles include:

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