As a practicing securities lawyer for more than thirty years, I have in the past advised boards of directors, including mutual fund boards, and I am well acquainted with the important work that you do. I also understand the essential role that independent directors play in ensuring good corporate governance. As fiduciaries, you play a critical role in setting the appropriate tone at the top and overseeing the funds’ business. Thus, I commend the Mutual Fund Directors Forum’s efforts in providing a platform for independent mutual fund directors to share ideas and best practices. Improving fund governance is vital to investor protection and maintaining the integrity of our financial markets.
Posts Tagged ‘Investment advisers’
The increase in institutional ownership of corporate stock has led to questions about the role of financial intermediaries in the corporate governance process. This post focuses on the issues associated with the so-called “separation of ownership from ownership,” arising from the growth of three types of institutional investors, pensions, mutual funds, and hedge funds.
To a great extent, individuals no longer buy and hold shares directly in a corporation. Instead, they invest, or become invested, in any variety of institutions, and those institutions, whether directly or through the services of one or more investment advisers, then invest in the shares of America’s corporations. This lengthening of the investment chain, or “intermediation” between individual investor and the corporation, translates into additional agency costs for the individual investor and the system, as control over investment decisions becomes increasingly distanced from those who bear the economic benefits and risks of owners as principals. The rapid growth in intermediated investments has led to concerns about the consequences of intermediation and the role of institutional investors and other financial intermediaries in the corporate governance process. These concerns are particularly relevant against a background of increasing demands for shareholder engagement and involvement in the governance of America’s corporations.
The SEC settled claims against a registered investment adviser (the “Adviser”), its affiliated broker-dealer (the “Broker-Dealer”), and the founder, owner, and president of each (the “CEO”) that related to (1) investments in Class A shares of underlying funds made by funds managed by the Adviser (the “Funds”) and (2) commissions paid by the Funds to the Broker-Dealer for trades in exchange-traded funds (“ETFs”). Without admitting or denying its findings, the Respondents agreed to the settlement order (the “Order”), available here, which this post summarizes.
On October 14, 2013, FINRA issued a Report on Conflicts of Interest. The report summarizes FINRA’s observations following an initiative, launched in July 2012, to review conflict management policies and procedures at a number of broker-dealer firms. The report focuses on approaches to identifying and managing conflicts of interest in three broad areas: enterprise-level conflicts governance frameworks; new product conflicts reviews; and compensation practices.
While the report does not break new ground or create or alter legal or regulatory requirements, it offers insight into the approach that FINRA expects firms to take in implementing a robust conflict management framework. In particular, the report identifies effective practices that FINRA observed at various firms. Broker-dealers should use this report as a basis for reviewing and potentially strengthening their policies and procedures relating to managing conflicts of interests.
The facts surrounding Bernie Madoff’s unprecedented fraud are well-known. Through a Ponzi scheme, he stole untold billions over decades. What is not as well-appreciated is that during the vast majority of this time, he operated solely as a registered broker-dealer. This led to the inevitable conclusion that the regulatory framework for broker-dealer custody required urgent strengthening.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“Commission” or “SEC”) has finally adopted amendments to strengthen the framework governing broker-dealer custody practices to prevent another Madoff. The adoption of these amendments comes more than four and a half years after Madoff’s scheme came to light in December, 2008, and more than two years after they were proposed. As a Commissioner, I have often been asked about steps the Commission has taken to prevent another Madoff, and it has concerned me that these issues have not been addressed.
I. Overview of the First Half of 2013
The first six months of 2013 represented a time of transition for the SEC’s enforcement program, with a new Chairman and new Co-Directors for the Division of Enforcement at the helm. It is too soon to predict exactly how they may reshape the program—in contrast with this period four years ago, when Chairman Mary Schapiro and Enforcement Director Robert Khuzami assumed their positions in the wake of Madoff and the financial crisis and with a mandate for major reform, the new team is moving more incrementally. However, there can be little doubt that, when it comes to enforcement, the new leadership will be striking an aggressive tone. For the first time in the Commission’s history, the Chairman and the Enforcement Division leadership are all former criminal prosecutors. As Chair Mary Jo White recently emphasized: “The SEC is a law-enforcement agency. You have to be tough. You have to try to send as strong a message as you can, across as broad a swath of the market as you regulate.”
Regardless of whether a financial advisor is an “investment advisor” or a “broker” or neither under federal securities laws, the advisor might be an agent of the client under the common law of agency. If so, then as a matter of state law the advisor is a fiduciary who will be subject to liability for breach of any of several fiduciary duties to the client. In a recent paper sponsored by Federated Investors that is available for download here, I examine the fiduciary obligations of financial advisors who are agents under the common law of agency. The paper draws on earlier work on the economic structure of fiduciary law.
The debate about whether to impose a harmonized federal fiduciary standard of conduct on investment advisors and brokers notwithstanding, a financial advisor who is an agent under state agency law is subject to fiduciary duties of loyalty, care, and a host of subsidiary rules that reinforce and give meaning to the broad standards of loyalty and care as applied to specific circumstances. In the event of the advisor’s breach of duty, the client will be entitled to an election among remedies that include compensatory damages to offset losses incurred or to make up gains forgone owing to the breach; disgorgement by the advisor of any profit accruing from the breach or compensation paid by the client; or punitive damages. A financial advisor who ignores the possibility of fiduciary status under state agency law acts at his peril.
In many respects, 2012 was another year of aggressive SEC enforcement. The SEC’s Division of Enforcement again logged a near record number of enforcement actions. More important, the cases reflected a marked increase in the number and proportion of actions against registered investment advisers and broker-dealers, and their associated persons. This increased focus derives from a culmination of factors, including Enforcement’s creation of specialized units for the asset management industry and for structured products, the hiring of industry experts, and the close collaboration between staff from Enforcement and the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”). With the expansion of the registered private fund adviser population under financial reform legislation, and the launch of an initiative to conduct focused, risk-based examinations of these new registrants, this trend will likely continue for the foreseeable future.
At the same time, in the latter half of 2012 the SEC confronted significant challenges in litigating previously filed enforcement actions against individuals in cases related to the financial crisis. Whether these cases will cause the SEC to reevaluate its approach with respect to charging decisions in the future is unknown. However, in the short term, Enforcement seems undeterred by individual litigation results in its pursuit of continued enforcement actions.
The last six months of 2012 mark the beginning of another transition for the SEC generally, and for Enforcement in particular. As the year drew to a close, Mary Schapiro announced her departure as Chairman, followed by several division directors. Most notably, on January 9, 2013, the SEC announced that Robert Khuzami would step down as Director of Enforcement. As we look ahead to 2013, a new leadership team at the SEC and in Enforcement will seek to make their own imprint on the SEC’s priorities and processes. In addition, as more time has passed since the depth of the financial crisis, Enforcement’s priorities will shift to more recent conduct and emerging industry risks.
I plan to speak about the Enforcement Division’s and in particular the Asset Management Unit’s priorities in the hedge fund space. I’ll discuss the importance of specialization and expertise to this effort; the risks for investors; how these risks are informed by the hedge fund operating model; and how a hedge fund manager’s business may be at odds with the manager’s fiduciary duty to the fund. I’ll also discuss the types of misconduct we’ve seen crossing our desks in the Asset Management Unit, and I’ll conclude with certain best practices to avoid the specter of an enforcement referral or inquiry.
These are uncertain times for our nation’s investors and for those who issue and sell investment products, including variable insurance. A positive sign is that assets in variable annuities, at almost $1.6 trillion, remain near their all-time high.  In addition, the retirement income solutions offered by the industry are designed to address the needs of the many investors moving toward retirement in today’s uncertain market environment. However, there are significant challenges facing the business, particularly those presented by the persistent low interest rate environment and by volatile equity markets both here and abroad.
The Division has observed the industry undertaking several initiatives to address these challenges and curtail risk exposure in the contracts being offered. In addition, some insurers have chosen to exit the business. An industry on solid financial footing is important for investors, who rely on insurers’ ability to pay promised benefits. At the same time, some contract changes are not good for investors. For example, many recent changes have reduced benefits for new investors. Other changes have limited the ability of existing contract owners to make additional payments into their contracts in order to take advantage of the benefits of those contracts.