Written by:  Jay Gould and Michael Wu 

On February 21, 2013, the Staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “Staff” and the “SEC,” respectively) published its 2013 priorities for the National Examination Program (“NEP”) in order to provide registrants with the opportunity to bring their organizations into compliance with the areas that are perceived by the Staff to have heightened risk.  The NEP examines all regulated entities, such as investment advisers and investment companies, broker dealers, transfer agents and self-regulatory organizations, and exchanges.  This article will focus only on the NEP priorities pertaining to the investment advisers and investment companies program (“IA-ICs”) 

As a general matter, the Staff is concerned with fraud detection and prevention, corporate governance and enterprise risk management, conflicts of interest, and the use and implications of technology.  The 2013 NEP priorities, viewed in tandem with the “Presence Exam” initiative that was announced by the SEC in October 2012, makes it abundantly clear that the Staff will focus on the approximately 2000 investment advisers that are newly registered as a result of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd Frank”).

The Staff intends to focus its attention on the areas set forth below.   

New and Emerging Issues.

The Staff believes that new and emerging risks related to IA-ICs include the following:

  • New Registrants.  The vast majority of the approximately 2,000 new investment adviser registrants are advisers to hedge funds or private equity funds that have never been registered, regulated, or examined by the SEC.  The Presence Exam initiative, which is a coordinated national examination initiative, is designed to establish a meaningful “presence” with these newly registered advisers.  The Presence Exam initiative is expected to operate for approximately two years and consists of four phases: (i) engagement with the new registrants; (ii) examination of a substantial percentage of the new registrants; (iii) analysis of the examination findings; and (iv) preparation of a report to the industry on the findings.  The Presence Exam initiative will not preclude the SEC from bringing enforcement actions against newly registered advisers.  The Staff will give a higher priority to private fund advisers that it believes present a greater risk to investors relative to the rest of the registrant population or where there are indicia of fraud or other serious wrongdoing.  We expect to see the SEC bring enforcement actions against private equity and hedge fund managers for issues related to valuations, calculation of performance-related compensation and communications to investors that describe valuations and performance-related compensation. 
  • Dually Registered IA/BD.  Due to the continued convergence in the investment adviser and broker-dealer industry, the Staff will continue to expand coordinated and joint examinations with the broker dealer examination program of dually registered firms and distinct broker-dealer and investment advisory businesses that share common financial professionals.  It is not uncommon for a financial professional to conduct a brokerage business through a registered broker-dealer that the financial professional does not own or control and to conduct investment advisory business through a registered investment adviser that the financial professional owns and controls, but that is not overseen by the broker-dealer.  This business model presents many potential conflicts of interest.  Among other things, the Staff will review how financial professionals and firms satisfy their suitability obligations when determining whether to recommend brokerage or advisory accounts, the financial incentives for making such recommendations, and whether all conflicts of interest are fully and accurately disclosed.   
  • “Alternative” Investment Companies.    The NEP will also focus on the growing use of alternative and hedge fund investment strategies in registered open-end funds, exchange-traded funds (“ETFs”), and variable annuity structures.  The Staff intends to assess whether: (i) leverage, liquidity and valuation policies and practices comply with regulations; (ii) boards, compliance personnel, and back-offices are staffed, funded, and empowered to handle the new strategies; and (iii) the funds are being marketed to investors in compliance with regulations. 
  • Payments for Distribution In Disguise.    The Staff will also examine the wide variety of payments made by advisers and funds to distributors and intermediaries, the adequacy of disclosure made to fund boards about these payments, and boards’ oversight of the same.  With respect to private funds, the Staff will examine payments to finders or other unregistered intermediaries that may be conducting a broker dealer business without being registered as such.  Payments made pursuant to the Cash Solicitation Rule will also be a focus of private fund payment arrangements.

Ongoing Risks.

The Staff anticipates that the ongoing risks selected as focus areas for IA-ICs in 2013 will include:

  • Safety of Assets.  The Staff has indicated that recent examinations of investment advisers have found a high frequency of issues regarding the custody and safety of client assets under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”) Rule 206(4)-2 (the “Custody Rule”).   The staff will focus on issues such as whether advisers are: (i) appropriately recognizing situations in which they have custody as defined in the Custody Rule; (ii) complying with the Custody Rule’s “surprise exam” requirement; (iii) satisfying the Custody Rule’s “qualified custodian” provision; and (iv) following the terms of the exception to the independent verification requirements for pooled investment vehicles.  Many private equity funds and fund of funds have been slow to adopt policies and procedures that comply with the Custody Rule. 
  • Conflicts of Interest Related to Compensation Arrangements.  The Staff expects to review financial and other records to identify undisclosed compensation arrangements and the conflicts of interest that they present.  These activities may include undisclosed fee or solicitation arrangements, referral arrangements (particularly to affiliated entities), and receipt of payment for services allegedly provided to third parties. For example, some advisers that place client assets with particular funds or fund platforms are, in return, paid “client servicing fees” by such funds and fund platforms. Such arrangements present a material conflict of interest that must be fully and clearly disclosed to clients.  These types of compensation arrangements are commonplace among private equity fund advisers, many of which have just recently registered.  In fact, many private equity funds have compensation arrangements that the Staff believes requires broker dealer registration.  We believe that the Staff will make this point quite clearly by bringing enforcement actions against certain private equity fund general partners for engaging in unregistered broker dealer activity.  Enforcement actions are viewed as an effective way to get the message across to an industry that has long ignored this particular issue. 
  • Marketing/Performance.  Marketing and performance advertising is viewed by the Staff as an inherently high-risk area, particularly among private funds that are not necessarily subject to an industry standard for the calculation of investment returns.  Aberrational performance of certain registrants and funds can be an indicator of fraudulent or weak valuation procedures or practices.  The Staff will also focus on the accuracy of advertised performance, including hypothetical and back-tested performance, the assumptions or methodology utilized, and related disclosures and compliance with record keeping requirements.   The Staff is starting to think about how the anticipated changes in advertising practices related to the JOBS Act will affect their reviews regarding registrants’ use of general solicitations to promote private funds.  Whether private funds will be permitted to advertise performance under the JOBS Act rules remains to be seen.  Certainly, there have been loud and influential voices that advocated for the position that the SEC should continue to study performance advertising by private funds before allowing it in the adoption of the highly anticipated rules. 
  • Conflicts of Interest Related to Allocation of Investment Opportunities.  Advisers managing accounts that do not pay performance fees (e.g., most mutual funds), side-by-side with accounts that pay performance-based fees (e.g., most hedge funds) face potential conflicts of interest.  The Staff will attempt to verify that the registrant has controls in place to monitor the side-by-side management of its performance-based fee accounts and non-performance-based fee accounts with similar investment objectives, especially if the same portfolio manager is responsible for making investment decisions for both kinds of client accounts or funds.  For certain types of strategies, such as credit strategies, where one fund may be permitted to invest in all securities in the capital structure, whereas other funds may be limited in what they can purchase by credit quality or otherwise, these potential conflicts of interest are particularly acute.  Fund managers must have policies in place that account for these potential conflicts, manage the conflicts and document the investment resolution. 
  • Fund Governance.  The Staff will continue to focus on the “tone at the top” when assessing compliance programs.  The Staff will seek to confirm that advisers are making full and accurate disclosures to fund boards and that fund directors are conducting reasonable reviews of such information in connection with contract approvals, oversight of service providers, valuation of fund assets, and assessment of expenses or viability.  Chief Compliance Officers will want to make sure that those items that are required to be undertaken in the compliance manual actually occur as stated and scheduled.

Policy Topics.

The staff anticipates that the policy topics for IA-ICs will include:

  • Money Market Funds.  The SEC continues to delude itself regarding the regulation of money market funds.  This once sleepy and relatively benign product is now the pillar of the commercial paper market and functions like and deserves the regulation of a banking product.  But the SEC, and the mutual fund trade organization, are loathe to cede authority to banking regulators for this “dollar per share”  product.  Accordingly, the SEC will continue to try to find ways for thinly capitalized advisers to offer and manage  money market funds by requiring money market funds to periodically stress test their ability to maintain a stable share price based on hypothetical events, such as changes in short-term interest rates, increased redemptions, downgrades and defaults, and changes in spreads from selected benchmarks (i.e., basically, all of the market events that have proven fatal to money market funds in the past and which will be so again as long as these funds remain fundamentally flawed). 
  • Compliance with Exemptive Orders.  The staff will focus on compliance with previously granted exemptive orders, such as those related to registered closed-end funds and managed distribution plans, employee securities companies, ETFs and the use of custom baskets, and those granted to fund advisers and their affiliates permitting them to engage in co-investment opportunities with the funds.  Exemptive orders are typically granted pursuant to a number of well-developed conditions with which the registrant promises to adhere.  The market timing and late trading scandals of 2003 illustrated that once a registrant has obtained an exemptive order, it may or may not abide by all of the conditions of that order. 
  • Compliance with the Pay to Play Rule.  To prevent advisers from obtaining business from government entities in return for political “contributions” (i.e., engaging in pay to play practices), the SEC recently adopted and subsequently amended, a pay to play rule. The Staff will review for compliance in this area, as well as assess the practical application of the rule.  Advisers should be aware that most states have their own pay to play rules and many of them have penalties that are far more onerous than the SEC’s rule.

We will continue to monitor this and other new developments and provide our clients with up to date analysis of the rules and regulations that may affect their businesses.