Pastore LLC, as Co-Counsel with Skadden, Effectuates $1 Billion Purchase

Pastore LLC, as Co-Counsel with Skadden, Arps, Meagher & Flom LLP, is representing GPB Capital Holdings LLC in its $1+ billion sale of its automotive assets. Providing World Class Corporate Governance Advice, GPB and Skadden Arps tapped Pastore LLC to address a multitude of corporate governance issues to ensure that the dozens of GPB automotive entities were authorized to enter into the transaction. Working long nights and weekends, Pastore LLC was led by Managing Partner Christopher Kelly, a former Skadden Attorney, and a team of associates.

With Vinson & Elkins L.L.P as legal advisor to Group 1 Automotive, the transaction was signed the morning of September 13, 2021.  The signing encompasses the agreement of Group 1 Automotive to purchase substantially all the automotive assets of GPB. GPB’s automotive portfolio generated $1.8 billion in annual revenues in 2020 while retailing over 52,000 new and used vehicles. This acquisition by Group 1 Automotive will provide the acquirer with 30 additional dealership locations and three collision centers, coupled with GPB’s extensive portfolio of luxury and non-luxury vehicles.

Media coverage of this transaction has included Yahoo Finance, WSJ, PR Newswire and Seeking Alpha, among others.

Pastore Advises Clients on Accredited Investors

Recently, Pastore & Dailey advised clients on a unique issue related to accredited investors.  The client, an SEC registered investment advisor, asked Pastore & Dailey whether the death of an accredited investor had any legal implications for the funds it manages when the accredited investor bequeathed his investment to a non-accredited investor.  The simple answer is no.

Under the securities laws, the term “sale” is defined as to include every contract of sale or disposition of a security or interest in a security, for value. Additionally, the term “offer to sell”, “offer for sale”, or “offer” is defined to include every attempt or offer to dispose of, or solicitation of an offer to buy, a security or interest in a security, for value.  15 U.S.C. § 77b(a)(3).

Thus, an involuntary transfer by operation of law, such as a divestment of an investment upon death to beneficiaries will not be considered a “sale” or an “offer to sell.”  Therefore, the recipient is not required to be an accredited investor.

Special Rule for Family Offices

Pastore & Dailey also advised the client on the legal implications of this unique circumstance when the accredited investor is a family office.

An accredited investor now includes any family office as defined in Rule 202(a)(11)(G)-1 under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”): (i) with assets under management in excess of $5,000,000, (ii) that is not formed for the specific purpose of acquiring the securities offered, and (iii) whose prospective investment is directed by a person who has such knowledge and experience in financial and business matters that such family office is capable of evaluating the merits and risks of the prospective investment.  17 C.F.R. § 230.51(a)(12).

The accredited investor definition was also expanded to include a family client, as defined in Rule 202(a)(11)(G)-1 under the Advisers Act.  A family client as defined in Rule 202(a)(11)(G)-1 is: (i) Any family member; (ii) Any former family member; or (vi) Any estate of a family member, former family member or key employee.  17 C.F.R. § 275.202(a)(11)(G)-1(d)(4).

In the Adoption Release, the SEC explained that it is not excluding from the accredited investor definition a beneficiary that temporarily qualifies as a family client under the family office rule.  Thus, a beneficiary who receives the stocks from the decedent will be considered a family client for purposes of the accredited investor definition for exactly one year.  SEC Release No. 33-10824, August 26, 2020.

There are limitations to this rule.  Although a beneficiary would not be required to unwind any of the securities received in an involuntary transfer, the beneficiary would not be considered an accredited investor in connection with the purchase of additional securities, unless the beneficiary qualified as an accredited investor on another basis.[1]

In conclusion, the requirement that an offering or sale of restricted securities be made to an accredited investor applies at the “time of sale of the securities to that person.” Thus, an involuntary transfer such as a divestment of shares to a beneficiary upon death of the accredited investor should not pose a problem for a testator and their funds.

Summary

As the requirement that an offering or sale of restricted securities be made to an accredited investor applies at the “time of sale of the securities to that person,” a involuntary transfer, such as a divestment of shares to a beneficiary upon death of the accredited investor should not pose a problem for an RIA and its funds.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] SEC Expands the “Accredited Investor” and “QIB” Definitions and the Permitted Scope of “Testing the Waters.” Proskauer. September 9, 2020. https://www.proskauer.com/alert/sec-expands-the-accredited-investor-and-qib-definitions-and-the-permitted-scope-of-testing-the-waters#_ftnref3

SPACs Have Grown Up

In 2010, only $500 million of the IPO market was generated through special-purpose acquisition company (“SPAC”). SPACs have evolved from being an ignored strategy in reaching the public markets to becoming an attractive method to take a company public, pursue merger opportunities, and to create liquidity for existing shareholders.

As of October 16, 2020, there have been 143 SPAC IPO transactions in 2020. According to Dealogic, SPAC IPOs have raised $53 billion this year. SPACs have raised more money in 2020 than in the last ten years combined. Melissa Karsh & Crystal Tse, SPACs Have Raised More in 2020 Than the Last 10 Years Combined, Bloomberg (Sept. 24, 2020), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-09-24/spacs-have-raised-more-in-2020-than-the-last-10-years-combined.

Historically, Pastore & Dailey LLC has worked on SPAC offerings, litigation, and regulatory proceedings. SPACs have become popular in comparison to a traditional IPO because SPACs are cost-efficient and less time-consuming, and they face fewer amounts of due diligence and disclosure requirements than a traditional IPO. In the past, SPACs were generally used by small companies, but now small, mid-size, and large companies are using SPACs to become a public company and raise capital. While historically SPACs had a connotation of a back door method of taking a less than pristine company public, this is no longer the case.

A SPAC is a publicly traded company that raises capital with the intention of using that capital to acquire a private company. Through the acquisition, the SPAC takes the private company public. Many well-known companies have entered the public markets through a SPAC IPO, such as: DraftKings; Virgin Galactic; Nikola; and Opendoor, a real estate technology company.

Until a SPAC acquires a private company, the SPAC is just a company that holds cash. The cash is generally held in an escrow account until the SPAC acquires a private company. SPACs typically have a deadline of two years to acquire a private company. Andrew Ross Sorkin et al., SPACs Are Just Getting Started, N.Y. Times (Sept. 16, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/25/business/dealbook/spac-ipo-boom.html. If the SPAC does not acquire a private company in the two-year deadline, the SPAC is required to return the cash to its shareholders.

While SPACs are gaining a lot of momentum, they have historically had less success then traditional IPOs. From the start of 2015 through July 2020, 223 SPAC IPOs had been conducted; but 89 of the 223 SPACs have managed to take a company public. Ciara Linnane, 2020 Is the Year of the SPAC – Yet Traditional IPOs Offer Better Returns, Report Finds, MarketWatch (Sept. 16, 2020), https://www.marketwatch.com/story/2020-is-the-year-of-the-spac-yet-traditional-ipos-offer-better-returns-report-finds-2020-09-04. Just 26 of those 89 companies that went public through a SPAC acquisition generated positive returns, and the shares of those companies had an average loss of 18.8%.

This current year, however, has proved to be a different story. SPACs in 2020 have generated a rate of return of 35%, significantly higher than the S&P 500’s year-to-date return of approximately 6%. Many of the large banks are starting to work on SPACs, as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, and Deutsche Bank have all conducted underwriting for SPAC IPOs. Richard Henderson et al., The Spac Race: Wall St Banks Jostle to Get In On Hot New Trend, Financial Times (Aug. 11, 2020), https://www.ft.com/content/1681c57d-e64d-4f58-b099-8885e85a708e.

Over the past ten years, the IPO market has significantly diversified. Direct listings gained a lot of momentum, and now SPACs are adding another strategic option in the IPO market.

Are RIAs Eligible for PPP?

Is a Registered Investment Advisor (“RIA”) eligible to participate in the Payment Protection Program (the “PPP”) administered by the Small Business Administration (“SBA”)? The short answer is “yes.”

The PPP was promulgated as part of the recently enacted Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the “CARES Act”) which in part set aside hundreds of billions of dollars to help small businesses retain their employees during the COVID-19 crisis and the resultant work from home orders set forth by governors across the country.

Background

We understand that many RIAs applied for and were granted a loan under the CARES act, and that some of these RIAs may be unsure of whether they were granted the loan in error, how they may spend the loan funds or if they can spend the loan funds. The guidance below will hopefully answer some of these questions because applying for and receiving a PPP loan in a knowingly false fashion is a criminal offense, and we strongly encourage any RIA unsure of its PPP eligibility to seek particular legal advice.

The guidance below hinges on whether an RIA engages in speculative operations, holds any securities or other speculative assets, or is simply engaged in financial advisory services.

SBA Guidance

The SBA published an Interim Final Rule on April 2, 2020 (the “Interim Final Rule”). Specifically, the Interim Final Rule provides that “Businesses that are not eligible for PPP loans are identified in 13 CFR 120.110 and described further in SBA’s Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 50 10, Subpart B, Chapter 2….” (the “SOP”).

Some of the ineligible financial markets and funds businesses listed in the SOP include, without limitation:

  • Banks;
  • Life insurance companies (but not independent agents);
  • Finance companies;
  • Investment companies;
  • Certain passive businesses owned by developers and landlords, which do not actively use or occupy the assets acquired or improved with the loan proceeds, and/or which are primarily engaged in owning or purchasing real estate and leasing it for any purpose; and
  • Speculative businesses that primarily “purchas[e] and hold[ ] an item until the market price increases” or “engag[e] in a risky business for the chance of an unusually large profit.”

On April 24, 2020, the SBA issued its Fourth Interim Final Rule on the PPP (the “Fourth Interim Final Rule”). The Fourth Interim Final Rule explicitly states that hedge funds and private equity firms are not eligible for a PPP loan.

Discussion

Ineligible Companies.

If the RIA is also a hedge fund or a private equity firm, then it may not be eligible to receive a PPP loan. If, however, the RIA is legally distanced from those entities through appropriate corporate structures, and the loan is only used for the RIA business, then the RIA should be eligible to receive the PPP funds.

Because most RIAs are not also banks or life insurance companies, the exclusions should not apply. However, as some RIAs also sell life insurance products, such individual situations may require more research.

Finance companies are also ineligible under the SBA guidelines to receive PPP funds. The SBA guidelines define a finance company as one “primarily engaged in the business of lending, such as banks, finance companies, and factors.” (Sec. 120.110(b) of the SBA’s Business Loans regulations). Thus, this exclusion should not apply. Similarly, an RIA may not be deemed an investment company, which is a company organized under the Investment Company Act of 1940, unless the RIA was in fact incorporated under that Act.

An RIA also may not meet the definition of a “speculative business” as defined above in the Interim Final Rule. If an RIA does not purchase or hold assets until the market price increases or engage in a risky business for the chance of an unusually large profit, then it will not meet this definition. Speculative businesses may also include: (i) wildcatting in oil, (ii) dealing in stocks, bonds, commodity futures, and other financial instruments, (iii) mining gold or silver in other than established fields, and (iv) building homes for future sale, (v) a shopping center developer, and (vi) research and development. (Sec 120.110(s) of the SBA’s Business Loans regulations, SBA Eligibility Questionnaire for Standard 7(a) Guaranty and SOP Subpart B D (Ineligible Businesses).  It is our understanding that an RIA that merely provides portfolio management services would not be deemed to be involved in a “speculative” business based on the examples of such businesses provided by the SBA. If the SBA had taken the position that financial advisory services are speculative, it could easily have so indicated by including such services in its lists of speculative services.

Financial Advisory Services.

Consistent with this view, the SBA has provided clear guidance that financial advisory services are eligible for SBA loans, including loans under the PPP. In the SBA’s SOP, the SBA provides the following: “A business engaged in providing the services of a financial advisor on a fee basis is eligible provided they do not use loan proceeds to invest in their own portfolio of investments.” (SOP Sec III(A)(2)(b)(v) pp.104-105) (emphasis added).

This guidance is clear that the focus of ineligibility is at the portfolio company level, not the advisory level, and this is consistent with the guidance noted above making hedge funds and private equity firms ineligible. Hedge funds and private equity firms make money based upon speculative investments and/or appreciation of the markets. An investment advisor operates at the consulting or services level. In other words, the SBA has distinguished between true speculative operations such as wildcatting, speculative real estate development and investing in securities, and service-based operations such as the investment advisory business. Assuming that an eligible RIA did not use any proceeds of the PPP loan at any investment level, such RIA should not be deemed a speculative business and is eligible for a PPP loan.

SEC Guidance

SEC guidance affirms that RIAs are eligible for PPP loans. While the SEC imparts certain burdens on RIAs that accept PPP loans, the fact that the SEC even acknowledges such burdens should give most RIAs confidence that a PPP loan is available to them.

For RIAs who are eligible to receive PPP funds under the SBA guidance set forth above, the SEC instructs that they must comply with their fiduciary duty under federal law and make a full and fair disclosure to their clients of all material facts relating to the advisory relationship. The SEC further posits that “If the circumstances leading you to seek a PPP loan or other type of financial assistance constitute material facts relating to your advisory relationship with clients, it is the staff’s view that your firm should provide disclosure of, for example, the nature, amounts and effects of such assistance.” An example of a situation the SEC would require such disclosures would be an RIA requiring PPP funds to pay the salaries of RIA employees who are primarily responsible for performing advisory functions for clients of the RIA. In this case the SEC would require disclosure as this may materially affect the financial well-being of an RIA’s clients.

The SEC additionally provides that “if your firm is experiencing conditions that are reasonably likely to impair its ability to meet contractual commitments to its clients, you may be required to disclose this financial condition in response to Item 18 (Financial Information) of Part 2A of Form ADV (brochure), or as part of Part 2A, Appendix 1 of Form ADV (wrap fee program brochure). (SEC Division of Investment Management Coronavirus (COVID-19) Response FAQs).

Summary

While the Cares Act and PPP are recently enacted, and there is some confusion surrounding the eligibility requirements for the PPP, the SBA had a clear opportunity to deem financial advisors ineligible in the Interim Final Rule and Fourth Interim Final Rule, but specifically chose not to do so. Instead, the SBA followed the direction of its historical eligibility requirements, holding to ineligibility at the fund and portfolio company level, but continuing to permit loans to firms operating at the advisory level.

While it is possible that the SBA could interpret its own rules and regulations inconsistently with the specific guidance provided in the Interim Final Rule and Fourth Interim Final Rule, the weight of the evidence strongly suggests that an investment advisor is eligible for a PPP loan as long as it does not use the proceeds for fund or portfolio company purposes.

Pastore & Dailey Advises Clients on the Complexities of Family Offices

Recently Pastore & Dailey advised clients on complex questions regarding family offices and the compensation of non-family member “key employees” of such offices. Pastore & Dailey referenced the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, Dodd-Frank, and other securities act provisions to help the clients maneuver the complex structure of a family office and how to properly compensate non-family member employees pursuant to these provisions so as to not lose the family office exemption.

New DECD Commissioner

Connecticut’s former head of the Department of Economic Community Development (DECD), Catherine Smith invested over a billion dollars in major projects and programs that aimed to jumpstart job creation and retention in the State of Connecticut. During her tenure, Smith credited the agency with making strides by supporting job growth in major industries including: advanced manufacturing and technology, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

Governor Ned Lamont has recently appointed former Goldman Sachs executive David Lehman as Commissioner of the DECD and the Governor’s Senior Economic Advisor. Lehman, a Greenwich native, most recently led Goldman Sachs’ public sector and infrastructure finance group. Lehman spent over 15 years with Goldman and brings valuable business and financial experience to state government. Gov. Lamont and Lehman look to lead an “aggressive” strategy to recruit businesses through state agency collaborations and managing long-term strategies, including implementing new “opportunity zones,” emphasizing long-term financial sustainability and success of the state and its residents.

Pastore & Dailey Is Pleased to Welcome Allison “Alex” Frisbee and Christopher Kelly as Counsel to the Firm

Pastore & Dailey is pleased to welcome Allison “Alex” Frisbee and Christopher Kelly as Counsel to the Firm.

These additions build the Firm’s corporate investigations capabilities and further strengthened Pastore & Dailey’s  securities regulatory and corporate transactional practices.   Alex and Chris join an exceptionally talented and experienced group of attorneys in the securities and corporate practices, with experience at the SEC, NYSE, state attorney generals, AM Law 200 firms and  large wall street firms.

Alex Frisbee – At K&L Gates LLP in its Washington, DC office, Alex worked on corporate investigations, securities enforcement and white collar matters (including complex internal investigations), and represented clients before the SEC, FINRA and other regulatory bodies.  Prior to K&L Gates, Alex worked at the New York Stock Exchange in its Division of Enforcement (subsequently part of FINRA) and in the NYSE’s Office of General Counsel.  Alex has vast experience in securities regulatory matters working both as an investigator and attorney at the NYSE.   At KL Gates, she has drafted Wells Submissions, white papers, letters and other advocacy pieces to regulators on behalf of public and private companies, broker-dealers, investment companies, investment advisers, corporate officers, directors, and individuals. Alex is a graduate of Washington and Lee University School of Law and Davidson College.

Christopher Kelly – Chris has practiced corporate, securities, transactional, fund and banking law for over 30 years at the most sophisticated levels.  He has worked on a wide variety of complex transactions aggregating in value over $10 billion.  He has handled multi-billion-dollar mergers & acquisitions, asset deals, stock purchase and sale transactions, and public and private stock and debt offerings.  His securities offerings have included common stock, preferred stock, trust preferred, mortgage-backed securities, other asset-backed securities, medium-term notes and debentures.   Chris has extensive experience with fund formation (on-shore and off-shore), compliance and regulatory matters for hedge funds, private equity funds, banks, and other financial institutions, including compliance programs, compliance training, compliance testing, compliance manuals, AML/KYC, surveillance, valuations, business continuity plans, advertising and sales and trading.  He has served as general counsel and chief compliance officer of investment advisers and of a broker-dealer. Chris began his practice in New York with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.  He then served as a Partner at Silver, Freedman & Taff, a leading corporate/securities boutique representing banks and other financial institutions, before joining Proskauer Rose LLP as a Partner in its New York office.  He left Proskauer to pursue various entrepreneurial opportunities, and to now serve as Of Counsel to Pastore & Dailey LLC.  Chris is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and graduated with High Honors from the University of Virginia prior to attending law school there.

Initial Coin Offerings: The New (Controversial) Way to Raise Capital

With Bitcoin exploding in market value to over $19,000 per coin at the close of 2017, investors are intrigued by the alluring concepts of cryptocurrency, blockchain, and the decision of whether to invest in startup companies utilizing cryptocurrency.[1] Recently, initial coin offerings (ICOs) have been the primary way for cryptocurrency startup companies to raise capital, and most notably, avoid the high costs associated with the traditional initial public offering (IPO). In 2017, over $4 billion was raised through the use of initial coin offerings, and that figure was forecasted to rise significantly.[2] This article will summarize what an initial coin offering is, why it is controversial, and what the near future may hold regarding regulation for this method of raising capital.

What is an Initial Coin Offering?

An initial coin offering is a means for cryptocurrency startup companies to raise capital through crowdfunding. There are two primary reasons to create an initial coin offering: first, to create a new kind of cryptocurrency (different from Bitcoin) that has its own blockchain, or, second, to fund a project that requires a new unique currency to be effective. Most ICOs involve the second type, known as token generation events (TGE). To begin the process of an ICO, the issuing company publishes a whitepaper detailing their company business model, projections, fundraising goals, what type of currency is accepted in the offering, company timelines, and other information to incentivize investors. Upon making the decision to participate in the ICO, investors use cryptocurrency (or fiat currencies like U.S. dollars (hereinafter, “cash”), in some cases) to purchase coins, or “tokens,” from the coin issuing company. Bitcoin is the most commonly used form of cryptocurrency by investors in ICOs. Tokens purchased by the investor do not necessarily represent shares of ownership in the company, but they are similar in varying respects. Technically, they reflect a percentage of the total amount of the initial cryptocurrency produced and can be redeemed or sold on secondary markets for cash value (or Bitcoin) once the issuing company meets its funding benchmarks and launches the venture.

In a nut shell, investors are simply being offered the opportunity to “get in on the ground floor” and purchase coins for a significantly lower price than the coin is projected to reach in the whitepaper. Should the company not meet its funding benchmarks, these tokens are supposed to be refunded for the principle price paid in the currency used by the investor. Ultimately, the decision to invest in an ICO depends on the investor’s prediction on whether the issuing company will successfully attain funding milestones to produce a viable cryptocurrency that will increase in value over time, or at least will be able to return all investments made by the investor should the benchmarks not be reached.

Ethereum is an example of a successful ICO that generated a substantial return on investment for those who participated.  Ethereum uses Ether as its cryptocurrency, which was issued in 2014 at $.40 per Ether, translating to roughly $18 million in Bitcoin at the time.[3] Ethereum’s project went live in 2015, and as of today the cryptocurrency trades at $873.72 per Ether, and is the second most successful cryptocurrency to date behind Bitcoin.[4] Returns like Ethereum make headlines across the nation, and are a focal point in driving investors to take a hard look into the “cryptocurrency bubble.”

Securities Regulation of ICOs

ICOs are quite similar to a traditional IPO, save for one major aspect: enforced regulation. On July 25th, the SEC issued its first sweeping statement (a “21(a) Report”) regarding the transfer and sale of digital currency like “tokens” sold in ICOs, declaring that the federal securities laws may apply to ICOs after its investigation into The DAO.[5]

The DAO was a decentralized autonomous organization (“dao”) that used distributed ledger or blockchain technology to operate as a virtual entity, and sold tokens representing interests in the company to investors in exchange for cryptocurrency. In the 21(a) Report, the SEC confirmed that cryptocurrency in the form of tokens or “coins” sold in ICOs can be a security, and that ICO issuers and  ICOs may be subject to federal securities regulation law.[6] How these laws will be applied and when further enforcement will go into effect are uncertain at this time, but the signs of SEC movement on the issues of cryptocurrency transactions are present.

At the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs hearing on February 9, 2018, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton was quoted as saying, “You can call it a coin, but if it functions like a security, then it’s a security,” and, most notably, “A note for professionals in these markets: those that engage in semantic gymnastics … are squarely within the crosshairs of our Enforcement Division.”[7] In most types of ICOs listed today, if one were to apply the “Howey test” (from the landmark 1946 U.S. Supreme Court decision that helped clarify what defines an “investment contract,” which itself is part of the definition under the Securities Act of 1933 of a “security”), the tokens offered would most likely be interpreted by the SEC to be securities, in that they are “a contract, transaction or scheme whereby a person invests his money in a common enterprise and is led to expect profits solely from the efforts of the promoter or a third party.”[8]

Clayton’s comments in February echo the sentiments of his statement  from December 11, 2017regarding cryptocurrency’s treatment under the Howey test and the 21(a) Report, in which he stated, “In the 21(a) Report, the Commission applied the longstanding securities law principles to demonstrate that a particular token constituted an investment contract and therefore was a security under our federal securities laws. Specifically, we concluded that the token offering represented an investment of money in a common enterprise with a reasonable expectation of profits to be derived from the entrepreneurial or managerial efforts of others.”

Recently, there has been a growing number of public statements from prominent figures regarding online market trading regulation, which indicates a possible regulatory turf war between the SEC and the CTFC. On March 7, 2018, the SEC published a statement detailing considerations both investors and market participants should assess regarding online market exchanges for ICO-based coins and tokens.[9] In addressing investor considerations, the SEC urged investors to utilize national exchanges, broker dealers, or other traditional platforms that are heavily regulated. Specifically, the SEC made it clear that even though many of these online trading markets call themselves “exchanges,” they are, in fact, not as heavily regulated at this present time the same way as traditional national exchanges. Regarding whether or not all online trading exchanges shall be subject to regulation, the SEC states:

“Some online trading platforms may not meet the definition of an exchange under the federal securities laws, but directly or indirectly offer trading or other services related to digital assets that are securities.  For example, some platforms offer digital wallet services (to hold or store digital assets) or transact in digital assets that are securities.  These and other services offered by platforms may trigger other registration requirements under the federal securities laws, including broker-dealer, transfer agent, or clearing agency registration, among other things.  In addition, a platform that offers digital assets that are securities may be participating in the unregistered offer and sale of securities if those securities are not registered or exempt from registration.” (Id.)

This statement suggests that certain circumstances and types of transactions occurring in the online market platforms will determine what kinds of regulation requirements will be enforced, but most importantly, that there will be forthcoming enforcement on a large scale.

The SEC’s statement was issued on the heels of an opinion from the District Court for the Eastern District of New York, which on March 6, 2018 held that the CTFC had standing to bring a lawsuit for fraud and to oversee cryptocurrency (including Bitcoin and the similar Litecoin, but not necessarily including ICO-based coins and tokens), for it is within the plain language definition of a “commodity.”[10] The CTFC initially determined in 2015 that cryptocurrency was a commodity, and this Federal District Court holding strengthens the CTFC’s claim to regulatory jurisdiction over cryptocurrency.

Both the SEC and the CTFC will issue regulations on cryptocurrency, and the turf war over this hot topic will ensue for the foreseeable future as the market for virtual currency continues to grow. On March 14, Congress held its first hearing on ICOs, where “House Financial Services Committee members asked questions about such topics as hacking, use of digital currencies by criminals, defining securities, and protecting investors.”[11] Also of note, the Governor of the Bank of England gave a statement in which he said, “The time has come to hold the crypto asset ecosystem to the same standards as the rest of the financial system. Being part of the financial system brings enormous privileges, but with them great responsibilities…In my view, holding crypto asset exchanges to the same rigorous standards as those that trade securities would address a major underlap in the regulatory approach.”[12]

This regulatory crackdown by the SEC and the CTFC comes as no surprise, as there are numerous market factors that triggered the initial SEC and CFTC investigations and that continue to command the regulators’ attention, including the explosion of token offering companies and investors participating in ICOs, the exponential increase in value of cryptocurrencies, and ICO scams that defraud investors.[13]

ICO Scams Defraud Investors

ICO scams are of particular concern to the SEC, as the underlying premise of the federal securities laws are to protect investors from being deceived, by mandating public companies to file numerous types of disclosures for investor transparency. These scams occur when news spreads that startup cryptocurrency companies forecasting massive growth are preparing to launch an ICO, which prompts scammers into setting up fake website domains and portals that deceive investors. The scammers will utilize social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to quickly capture non-sophisticated investors who are researching the ICO. Once the investor submits their cryptocurrency investment into the scammer’s system, any effort to try and reclaim that investment is futile as it recedes into the dark web.

Telegram is a current example of immense market backlash from scammers hijacking ICO market anticipation. Telegram is hosting a widely anticipated ICO beginning in March, but already has faced a prominent scam that stole millions of dollars worth of cryptocurrency from investors who thought they were buying into Telegram’s ICO. English and Russian versions of the actual whitepaper were leaked, and hosted by these scammer websites, of which Gramtoken.io was the most prominent. Gramtoken.io posted project road maps, copies of the whitepaper, and information regarding the ICO to trick investors into depositing their cryptocurrency into their system. Once Gramtoken.io reached its fundraising goal of $5 million dollars, the website went dark, and the investments through Gramtoken.io cannot be located.

The difficulty in protecting cryptocurrency investments is the driving force behind these scams and is a serious concern for investors. Cryptocurrency transactions are tremendously hard to track for several reasons. First, traditional financial institutions are not involved with cryptocurrency transactions, making traceability of the flow of currency unusual. Second, cryptocurrency transactions are happening on an international scale, which restricts what information the SEC, CFTC and/or other federal and state regulators can compile on the transactions, depending on where the issuing entity is located. Third, there is no central authority or market for cryptocurrency transactions and collection of user information at this time. Finally, law enforcement has no current ability to freeze any cryptocurrency transactions, as cryptocurrency is encrypted and cannot be held by a third-party custodian like a traditional security. Together, these factors significantly impede federal, state and private legal actions and remedies for investors in cryptocurrency transactions.

Celebrity ICO Endorsements and Differing Perspectives

On February 27th, Microsoft founder Bill Gates was asked for his opinion on cryptocurrency during a question and answer session on the popular website Reddit, and responded with, “The main feature of cryptocurrencies is their anonymity. I don’t think this is a good thing. The government’s ability to find money laundering and tax evasion and terrorist funding is a good thing. Right now, cryptocurrencies are used for buying fentanyl and other drugs, so it is a rare technology that has caused deaths in a fairly direct way. I think the speculative wave around ICOs and cryptocurrencies is super risky for those who go long.”[14] Other high-profile individuals have made public statements that appeared to be endorsing specific ICOs, especially pop culture celebrities. Floyd Mayweather, DJ Khaled, Paris Hilton, Jaime Foxx, and other celebrities have made public social media endorsements of a variety of ICOs.[15] These endorsements are problematic and could potentially lead to violations of securities law regarding proper disclosures and solicitations of investors if these celebrities are interpreted to be promoters of the ICO.

Conclusion

Initial coin offerings have become the most prevalent way for cryptocurrency companies to raise capital. With the advent of cryptocurrency (including ICO-based coins and tokens) taking markets by storm, it appears they are here to stay for the foreseeable future as well. The SEC’s statements are clear that securities regulation law will be applied to coins and tokens arising out of ICOs, but numerous investor rights issues regarding traceability, jurisdiction, and lack of central authority over all cryptocurrency render enforcement challenging. While ICOs in their current form are a hot ticket item for now, a massive legal and regulatory overhaul for United States cryptocurrency transactions is undoubtedly in the works.

 

[1] Coindesk, Bitcoin (USD) Price (last visited Feb. 26, 2018) https://www.coindesk.com/price/

[2] Forbes, ICOs In 2017: From Two Geeks And A Whitepaper To Professional Fundraising Machines (Dec.18, 2017) https://www.forbes.com/sites/outofasia/2017/12/18/icos-in-2017-from-two-geeks-and-a-whitepaper-to-professional-fundraising-machines/#40e99c4e139e

[3] Investopedia, Breaking Down Initial Coin Offerings (ICO) (Feb 26, 2018) https://www.investopedia.com/terms/i/initial-coin-offering-ico.asp

[4] EthereumPrice, Ethereum (USD) Price, (last visited Feb 26, 2018) https://ethereumprice.org/

[5] Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement, Statement by the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement on the Report of Investigation on The DAO (July 25, 2017) https://www.sec.gov/news/public-statement/corpfin-enforcement-statement-report-investigation-dao

[6] Id.

[7] Joseph Young, SEC Hints at Tighter Regulation for ICOs, Smart Policies for “True Cryptocurrencies”(Feb. 9, 2018) https://cointelegraph.com/news/sec-hints-at-tighter-regulation-for-icos-smart-policies-for-true-cryptocurrencies

[8] “In other words, an investment contract for purposes of the Securities Act means a contract, transaction or scheme whereby a person invests his money in a common enterprise and is led to expect profits solely from the efforts of the promoter or a third party, it being immaterial whether the shares in the enterprise are evidenced by formal certificates or by nominal interests in the physical assets employed in the enterprise.” S.E.C. v. W.J. Howey Co., 328 U.S. 293, 66 S. Ct. 1100, 1104, 90 L. Ed. 1244 (1946)

[9] Divisions of Enforcement and Trading and Markets, Statement on Potentially Unlawful Online Platforms (Mar. 7, 2018) https://www.sec.gov/news/public-statement/enforcement-tm-statement-potentially-unlawful-online-platforms-trading

[10] Brenden Pierson, Virtual currencies are commodities, U.S. judge rules, THOMPSON REUTERS (Mar. 6, 2018) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-cftc-bitcoin/virtual-currencies-are-commodities-u-s-judge-rules-idUSKCN1GI32C

[11] Kia Kokalitcheva, Congress holds first hearing on initial coin offerings, AXIOS (Mar. 14, 2018) https://www.axios.com/crypto-ico-congress-1521059028-8807c852-22de-461a-8c9e-8a8a9f85d452.html

[12] John D’Antona Jr., BoE Push for Cryptocurrency Regulation Can Boost Markets, TRADERS (Mar. 14, 2018) http://www.tradersmagazine.com/news/cryptocurrencies/boe-push-for-cryptocurrency-regulation-can-boost-markets-117387-1.html?ET=tradersmagazine:e3646:1189431a:&st=email

[13] Jon Russell, Scammers are cashing in on Telegram’s upcoming ICO, TECHCRUNCH (Jan. 20, 2018) https://techcrunch.com/2018/01/20/telegram-ico-scammers/

[14] Reddit, I’m Bill Gates, Co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Ask Me Anything (Feb. 28, 2018) https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/80ow6w/im_bill_gates_cochair_of_the_bill_melinda_gates/

[15] Jonathan Burr, The Bubble in Celebrity Cryptocurrency Endorsements, CBS NEWS (Nov. 6, 2017) https://www.cbsnews.com/news/bitcoin-celebrity-endorsements-cryptocurrency-sec-warning/

Cryptocurrency Technology Is Driving Innovation

Interest in cryptocurrency and its underlying technology has steadily rose over the past several years. The final week of 2017 alone saw the debut of over a dozen new cryptocurrencies within the market. Moreover, Bitcoin’s explosive increase in value in 2017 from $1,000 to almost $20,000 has made “Bitcoin” and “cryptocurrency” household terms.[1] The accelerating rate of creation of new currencies and the fluctuation in value of various existing currencies have provided investors with substantial profit opportunities. Unsurprisingly, the financial services industry is making significant investments in the underlying block-chain technology. From individual programmers to large fintech firms, there is a race to secure the intellectual property rights for all aspects of block-chain and cryptocurrency technology.

Financial Services

The block-chain technology functions to increase security and decrease inefficiencies regarding cyber transactions. The software accomplishes this by securely hosting a transaction between two individuals without the requirement of a third party to transfer and record the exchange of funds (i.e. banks, credit card companies, etc.). The transactions are then publicly memorialized in a distributed ledger as a link in the chain’s archive. At its core, the block-chain model is a peer-to-peer system; because of this, the software has the potential to revolutionize the financial services industry by reducing the number of parties required to send and receive payments. This decentralized model is one of the characteristics that makes block-chain unique, and financial firms have recognized the tremendous value of the software.

As the value of the block-chain model became more apparent, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) was flooded with new patent applications concerning block-chain and cryptocurrencies. At the end of 2017, Bank of America, Mastercard, Paypal and Capital One were leading the field in research and development, and represented the top four patent holding entities in the realm of block-chain and cryptocurrencies.[2] The primary technological focus of these top four firms has been financial forecasting, digital data processing and transmission of secure digital data.[3] In fact, Bank of America was recently issued its latest patent from the USPTO, which outlined a cryptocurrency exchange system that would seamlessly convert one digital currency to another.[4] It may be no coincidence that the top four firms leading research and development on block-chain are those that stand to lose the most from the elimination of third-parties in cyber transactions. It is important, at this point in block-chain’s development, that such firms secure a position on the new playing field if cryptocurrency does displace traditional transaction models.

Internet Data Usage

The sprint to secure intellectual property rights does not, however, solely focus on the current block-chain technology; firms are also looking ahead on how to improve the software and how to benefit from future developments and applications. Several firms are focusing specifically on the distributed ledger aspect of block-chain in order to create a personal virtual identity for each of the software’s users.[5] This concept has significant potential to allow individuals to begin to profit off of their personal data. Currently, websites such as Google, Amazon and Facebook track individual’s internet usage and gain considerable value from their personal data with little to no benefit to the user. The creation of an online avatar that hoards this data in a ledger, and makes it available only with the user’s permission, could bring significance to an individual’s internet browsing data. Users could begin to charge companies a fee to gain limited access to this information, even in miniscule amounts. Cryptocurrency effortlessly weaves itself into the system because currencies like Bitcoin are divisible to the hundredth of a millionth degree. This divisibility makes it possible for you to extract value from as little as 0.00000001 of a Bitcoin for a company to see that you have been looking at Volkswagens on Craigslist all afternoon.

This virtual identity system may not be too far off. In 2017, the state of Illinois launched a block-chain pilot for the digitization of personal data, such as birth certificates.[6] The system has the potential to be the framework for the digital identities discussed above, and could further establish an extraordinarily convenient method of sharing verified personal documents.[7] Although this system immediately raises the question of cybersecurity in the minds of most, block-chain technology is, in fact, vastly more secure than our current systems.[8]

Cyber Security

In 2017, Equifax saw one of the largest cyber security breaches in history. The current method of storing millions of individuals’ personal data is piling it together on the same system, which is then encrypted and secured. The issue, as illustrated by Equifax, is that once the security mechanisms are breached, the cyber burglar then has access to the entirety of the stored data.[9] Block-chain, however, stores each individual’s data separately in its own encrypted and secured space. If a hacker wished to steal data from a block-chain, they would be required to decrypt each of the individual’s data separately; in the case of Equifax, the hacker(s) would have been required to bypass 140,000,000 encryptions.[10] For this reason, cyber security firms are becoming increasingly involved in block-chain technology as well.

Mobile Applications

The cyber security and financial services industries are not the only industries honing in on the cryptocurrency craze. It is also worth mentioning the flood of new applications from the mobile software market. The rapid origination rate of mobile applications, no matter how redundant or superfluous they may seem, is compelling United States intellectual property filings. Cryptocurrency mobile applications can provide a wide range of services for their users: market information through applications such as zTrader, Bitcoin Checker and Bitcoin Price IQ; portfolio services through Cryptonator, CoinDex and Mycelium; and trading platforms through Coinbase, CEX.IO and CoinCap. More significantly, many of the most popular websites which provide mobile application support are beginning to accept cryptocurrency as a payment method. Notably, online retailer Overstock.com, online dating service OkCupid.com, electronics retailer Newegg.com, and travel booking agency Expedia.com are among the firms now accepting bitcoin as payment for their services.[11] Cryptocurrency also has the potential to transform the mobile gaming industry.

A dimension of mobile applications which has received a lot of negative publicity over the past few years is predatory in-app purchases. Many mobile gaming applications, which are typically marketed to children and teenagers, are free to download and play, but incentivize frequent micro-transactions from the user. These aptly dubbed “freemium” games result in cases of young users racking up a bill in the range of several hundreds of dollars, to their parent’s surprise. In fact, many applications offer purchases of in-game currencies up to $99 per transaction. This model may change, for better or for worse, with the rise of cryptocurrency. As discussed above, the Bitcoin is divisible to the hundredth of a millionth degree. The mobile gaming industry could see a transition from incentivizing young players to make frequent large transactions, to mobile games charging a fraction of a Bitcoin per minute (or second) of game time. The application would likely request access to your Bitcoin wallet and simply deduct fragments of a Bitcoin for as long as the game remains active. Whether this will be a welcome change is to be determined.

Conclusion

Cryptocurrency and block-chain technology are causing us to rethink our current financial and cyber-social systems. The characteristics that make block-chain unique—the decentralized model, distributed ledger, individual security, sense of virtual identity—are quickly being applied in new and innovative ways. The result is a surge in new intellectual property from forward thinking firms as we move into what may be an important technological shift for many of our country’s industries.

____________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Coindesk, Bitcoin (USD) Price, Coindesk (last visited Jan. 2, 2018) https://www.coindesk.com/price/.

[2] Jay Sharma, How Bitcoin Became a Game Changer Overnight, IPWatchdog (Dec. 4, 2017), http://www.ipwatchdog.com/2017/12/04/bitcoin-game-changer-overnight/id=90519/.

[3] Id.

[4] Nikhilesh De, Bank of America Wins Patent for Crypto Exchange System (Dec. 7, 2017, 3:00 UTC), https://www.coindesk.com/bank-of-america-outlines-cryptocurrency-exchange-system-in-patent-award/; the Bank of America patent granted by the USPTO is identified by United States Patent No. 9,936,790.

[5] Michael Mainelli, Blockchain Could Help Us Reclaim Control of Our Personal Data, Harvard Business Review (Oct. 5, 2017), https://hbr.org/2017/10/smart-ledgers-can-help-us-reclaim-control-of-our-personal-data.

[6] Michael del Castillo, Illinois Launches Blockchain Pilor to Digitize Birth Certificates, Coindesk (Aug. 31, 2017, 23:00 UTC), https://www.coindesk.com/illinois-launches-blockchain-pilot-digitize-birth-certificates/.

[7] Id.

[8] See Mainelli, supra note 5.

[9] See Mainelli, supra note 5.

[10] Id.

[11] Mariam Nishanian, 8 surprising places where you can pay with bicoin, Business Insider (Oct. 11, 2017 6:00 PM), http://www.businessinsider.com/bitcoin-price-8-surprising-places-where-you-can-use-2017-10/#expediacom-1.

SEC Proposes Regulation Best Interest for Brokers

On April 18, 2018, the SEC proposed “Regulation Best Interest,” which is the latest in a long and disputed line of proposed attempts by various governmental bodies to homogenize the duties owed by brokers and investment advisers to their respective clients. Professionals in the financial services industry and others should take note that they have until approximately July 23, 2018i to file a public comment on the proposed SEC rule, and investors should take this opportunity to educate themselves on the current differences between “brokers” and “investment advisers,” including the different standard of care that each owe their clients.

BACKGROUND

For decades, customers of the financial services industry have been confused by (if not outright unaware of) the different “standards of care” that their “brokers” and “investment advisers” have owed them.

On the one hand, “[a]n investment adviser is a fiduciary whose duty is to serve the best interests of its clients, including an obligation not to subordinate clients’ interests to its own. Included in the fiduciary standard are the duties of loyalty and care.”ii Investment advisers typically charge for their services via an annual fee assessed as a percentage of the “assets under management” (the so-called “AUM”) that the investment adviser “manages” for the client. The primary regulator of an investment adviser is either the SEC (usually for relatively larger investment advisers – i.e., those managing more than $100 million AUM) or a state securities commission (usually for relatively smaller investment advisers – i.e., those managing less than $100 million AUM).

On the other hand, brokers “generally must become members of FINRA” and are merely required to “deal fairly with their customers.”iii  FINRA Rule 2111 requires, in part, that a broker “must have a reasonable basis to believe that a recommended transaction or investment strategy involving a security or securities is suitable for the customer, based on the information obtained through the reasonable diligence of the [broker] to ascertain the customer’s investment profile” (the “suitability” standard).iv  Rather than a percentage of AUM, brokers’ compensation is typically derived from commissions they charge on each of the trades they execute for their clients. FINRA, a non-governmental organization, is the primary regulator for almost all brokers in the U.S.

At first blush, a layman retail client could easily be excused for struggling to understand the difference between the requirements of an investment adviser to “serve the best interests of its clients” and those of a broker to “deal fairly with their clients.” This confusion is exacerbated when a broker is also registered as an investment adviser, thus clouding what “hat” the advisor is wearing when dealing with a client.

Tortured Regulatory History

Regulator concern about this confusion has existed for decades.  In 2004, the SEC retained consultants to conduct focus group testing to ascertain, in part, how investors differentiate the roles, legal obligations, and  compensation between investment advisers and broker-dealers. The results were striking:

In general, [the focus] groups did not understand that the roles and legal obligations of investment advisers and broker-dealers were different. In particular, they were confused by the different titles (e.g., financial planner, financial advisor, financial consultant, broker-dealer, and investment adviser), and did not understand terms such as “fiduciary.”v

In 2006, the SEC engaged RAND to conduct a large-scale survey on household investment behavior, including whether investors understood the duties and obligations owed by investment advisers and broker-dealers to each of their clients. First, it should be noted, “RAND concluded that it was difficult for it to identify the business practices of investment advisers and broker-dealers with any certainty.”vi  Second, RAND surveyed 654 households (two-thirds of which were considered “experienced”) and conducted six focus groups, and reported that such participants –

…could not identify correctly the legal duties owed to investors with respect to the services and functions investment advisers and brokers performed. The primary view of investors was that the financial professional – regardless of whether the person was an investment adviser or a broker-dealer – was acting in the investor’s best interest.vii

In 2010, the Dodd-Frank Act mandated the SEC to conduct a study to evaluate, among other things, “Whether there are legal or regulatory gaps, shortcomings, or overlaps in legal or regulatory standards in the protection of retail customers relating to the standards of care for providing personalized investment advice about securities to retail customers that should be addressed by rule or statute,” and to consider ”whether retail customers understand or are confused by the differences in the standards of care that apply to broker-dealers and investment advisers.”viii A conclusion of that study was as follows:

[T]he Staff recommends the consideration of rulemakings that would apply expressly and uniformly to both broker-dealers and investment advisers, when providing personalized investment advice about securities to retail customers, a fiduciary standard no less stringent than currently applied to investment advisers under Advisers Act Sections 206(1) and (2).

In 2013, the SEC issued a “request for information” on the subject of a  potential “uniform fiduciary standard,”ix but never promulgated a rule after receiving more than 250 comment letters from “industry groups, individual market participants, and other interested persons[….]”x

Finally, on April 8, 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor adopted a new, expanded definition of “fiduciary” to include those who provide investment advice or recommendations for a fee or other compensation with respect to assets of an ERISA plan or IRA (in other words, certain “brokers”) (the “DOL Fiduciary Rule”). Many brokerage firms and others (such as insurance companies) made operational and licensing adjustments to prepare for the DOL Fiduciary Rule while various lawsuits were filed in attempts to invalidate the controversial rule. Most recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit vacated the DOL Fiduciary Rule on March 15, 2018.xi

“Suitability” Standard vs. “Fiduciary” Standard

The “suitability” standard of a broker is a far cry from the “fiduciary” standard of an investment adviser.  As the SEC has stated, “Like many principal-agent relationships, the relationship between a broker-dealer and an investor has inherent conflicts of interest, which may provide an incentive to a broker-dealer to seek to maximize its compensation at the expense of the investor it is advising.”xii  Put more bluntly, “there is no specific obligation under the Exchange Act that broker-dealers make recommendations that are in their customers’ best interest.”xiii

FINRA (including under its former name, NASD) has certainly striven to close that gap via its own interpretations and disciplinary proceedings, and has succeeded to a point.  Specifically, a number of SEC administrative rulings have confirmed FINRA’s interpretation of FINRA’s suitability rule as requiring a broker-dealer to make recommendations that are “consistent with his customers’ best interests” or are not “clearly contrary to the best interest of the customer.”xiv However, the SEC has highlighted that these interpretations are “not explicit requirement[s] of FINRA’s suitability rule.”xv

This lower duty of care for brokers (as opposed to investment advisers, who have a fiduciary duty) has had and continues to have purportedly large and definitive financial consequences for retail investors:

Conflicted advice causes substantial harm to investors. Just looking at retirement savers, SaveOurRetirement.com estimates that investors lose between $57 million and $117 million every day due to conflicted investment advice, amounting to at least $21 billion annually.xvi

A 2015 report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) estimated that –

[…]conflicts of interests cost middle-class families who receive conflicted advice huge amounts of their hard-earned savings. It finds conflicts likely lead, on average, to:

  • 1 percentage point lower annual returns on retirement savings.
  • $17 billion of losses every year for working and middle class families.
SEC”S NEWLY-PROPOSED “REGULATION BEST INTEREST”

Despite the controversy over the DOL Fiduciary Rule and its recent, apparent defeat, the SEC has been working under the guidance of Chairman Jay Clayton since 2017 to finally rectify the confusion among investors as to the different standards of care applicable to brokers versus investment advisers.xvii

The latest development in that regard has been the proposal by the SEC of “Regulation Best Interest” (“Reg. BI”) on April 18, 2018.xviii  The proposed rule is significant in its proposed breadth. Subparagraph (a)(1) of the proposed rule would provide as follows:

A broker, dealer, or a natural person who is an associated person of a broker or dealer, when making a recommendation of any securities transaction or investment strategy involving securities to a retail customer, shall act in the best interest of the retail customer at the time the recommendation is made, without placing the financial or other interest of the broker, dealer, or natural person who is an associated person of a broker or dealer making the recommendation ahead of the interest of the retail customer.xix

This is a sea change in the duty of care owed by brokers to their retail clients, as it would effectively enhance a broker’s duty of care to approximate that of an investment adviser’s (at least in regard to retail clients).xx

To satisfy the “best interest” obligation in subparagraph (a)(1), subparagraph (a)(2) of Reg. BI would impose four component requirements: a Disclosure Obligation, a Care Obligation, and two Conflict of Interest Obligations.xxi

For the “Disclosure Obligation,” subparagraph (a)(2)(i) of Reg. BI would require the broker to –

reasonably disclose[] to the retail customer, in writing, the material facts relating to the scope and terms of the relationship with the retail customer, including all material conflicts of interest that are associated with the recommendation.xxii

For the “Care Obligation,” subparagraph (a)(2)(ii) of Reg. BI would require the broker to “exercise[] reasonable diligence, care, skill, and prudence to” do the following:

(A) Understand the potential risks and rewards associated with the recommendation, and have a reasonable basis to believe that the recommendation could be in the best interest of at least some retail customers;

(B) Have a reasonable basis to believe that the recommendation is in the best interest of a particular retail customer based on that retail customer’s investment profile and the potential risks and rewards associated with the recommendation; and

(C) Have a reasonable basis to believe that a series of recommended transactions, even if in the retail customer’s best interest when viewed in isolation, is not excessive and is in the retail customer’s best interest when taken together in light of the retail customer’s investment profile.xxiii

Finally, for the two “Conflict of Interest Obligations,” subparagraph (a)(2)(iii) of Reg. BI would require the following:

(A) The broker or dealer establishes, maintains, and enforces written policies and procedures reasonably designed to identify and at a minimum disclose, or eliminate, all material conflicts of interest that are associated with such recommendations.

(B) The broker or dealer establishes, maintains, and enforces written policies and procedures reasonably designed to identify and disclose and mitigate, or eliminate, material conflicts of interest arising from financial incentives associated with such recommendations.xxiv

Furthermore, Reg. BI would expand the SEC’s records requirement rules (i.e., Rules 17a-3 and 17a-4) to  provide that “[f]or each retail customer to whom a recommendation of any securities transaction or investment strategy involving securities is or will be provided,” a broker obtain and maintain for six years “[a] record of all information collected from and provided to the retail customer pursuant to [Reg. BI].”xxv

CONCLUSION

The SEC’s proposed “Regulation Best Interest” is a significant proposal that could have far-reaching impact across the securities brokerage and other segments of the financial services industries. Whether this latest regulatory effort to establish a more consistent standard of care for brokers and investment advisers will succeed is unknown, but the proposed rule is certainly an aggressive step in that regard.

All those interested will have until approximately July 23, 2018 to file a public comment on the proposed rule. Meanwhile, investors should take this opportunity to educate themselves on the current differences between “brokers” and “investment advisers,” including the different standard of care that each owe their clients.

ENDNOTES

i   The specific date will be established once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register.

ii   Staff of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Study on Investment Advisers and Broker-Dealers As Required by Section 913 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Jan. 2011) (“Study”), at iii, available at www.sec.gov/news/studies/2011/913studyfinal.pdf.

iii  Study at iv.

iv  FINRA Rule 2111(a), available at http://finra.complinet.com/en/display/display.html?rbid=2403&record_id=15663&element_id=9859&highlight=2111#r15663, as of April 23, 2018.

v   Study at 96.

vi  Study at 97.

vii Study at 98.

viii Study at i.

ix  See Request for Data and Other Information: Duties of Brokers, Dealers and Investment Advisers, Exchange Act Release No. 69013 (Mar. 1, 2013), available at http://www.sec.gov/rules/other/2013/34-69013.pdf.

x   Regulation Best Interest, Exchange Act Release No. 34-83062 (April 18, 2018) (“Reg. BI Proposal”), at 20, available at https://www.sec.gov/rules/proposed/2018/34-83062.pdf.

xi  Reg. BI Proposal at 27.

xii     Reg. BI Proposal at 7.

xiii Reg. BI Proposal at 8.

xiv Reg. BI Proposal at 14, fn. 15.

xv Reg. BI Proposal at 8, fn. 6.

xvi Reg. BI Proposal at 20, fn. 28, quoting Letter from Marnie C. Lambert, President, Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association (Aug. 11, 2017) (“PIABA Letter”).

xvii    Chairman Jay Clayton, Public Comments from Retail Investors and Other Interested Parties on Standards of Conduct for Investment Advisers and Broker-Dealers, Public Statement, June 1, 2017, available at https://www.sec.gov/news/public-statement/statement-chairman-clayton-2017-05-31.

xviii   See Reg. BI Proposal.

xix Reg. BI Proposal, at 404.

xx In a related SEC proposal regarding investment advisers that was also dated April 18, 2018, the SEC stated that “[a]n investment adviser’s fiduciary duty is similar to, but not the same as, the proposed obligations of broker-dealers under Regulation Best Interest,” and that “we are not proposing a uniform standard of conduct for broker-dealers and investment advisers in light of their different relationship types and models for providing advice[….]” See Proposed Commission Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers; Request for Comment on Enhancing Investment Adviser Regulation, Investment Advisers Act Release No. IA-4889 (April 18, 2018), available at https://www.sec.gov/rules/proposed/2018/ia-4889.pdf.

xxi Reg. BI Proposal, at 404.

xxii Reg. BI, subparagraph (B), Reg. BI Proposal, at 404.

xxiii   Reg. BI Proposal, at 404-405.

Subparagraph (b)(2) of Reg. BI would define “retail customer’s investment profile” as including, but not be limited to, “the retail customer’s age, other investments, financial situation and needs, tax status, investment objectives, investment experience, investment time horizon, liquidity needs, risk tolerance, and any other information the retail customer may disclose to the broker, dealer, or a natural person who is an associated person of a broker or dealer in connection with a recommendation.” Reg. BI Proposal, at 406.

xxiv   Reg. BI Proposal, at 405.

xxv      Reg. BI Proposal, at 406-407