Published on:

Broker-Dealer Update: FINRA and the OCIE Release Guidance on Broker-Dealer Branch Inspections

Written by Peter J. Chess

On November 30, 2011, FINRA and the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) released a National Exam Risk Alert on effective procedures and policies for broker-dealer branch inspections. This follows other recent guidance for broker-dealers regarding the Market Access Rule and reasonable investigations in Regulation D Offerings, in addition to recent FINRA sanctions against broker-dealers related to Regulation D Offerings.

Under Sections 15(b)(4)(E) and 15(b)(6)(A) of the Exchange Act, the SEC can impose sanctions on any firm or any person that fails to reasonably supervise someone subject to supervision that violates the federal securities laws. A broker-dealer can defend such a charge with a showing of effective procedures and policies designed to prevent and detect potential violations.

The National Exam Risk Alert jointly released on November 30 by FINRA and the OCIE (“November 30 Alert”) concerns broker-dealer branch inspections which are required by the Exchange Act and FINRA rules. Examination staff have observed that firms that execute these inspections well typically:

  • tailor the focus of branch exams to the business conducted in that branch and assess the risks specific to that business;
  • schedule the frequency and intensity of exams based on underlying risk;
  • engage in a significant percentage of unannounced exams selected based on both risk analysis and random selection;
  • deploy sufficiently senior branch office examiners to conduct the examinations; and
  • design procedures to avoid conflicts of interest with examiners.

The November 30 Alert also lists typical findings about firms with deficiencies in their inspection process, including the utilization of generic examination procedures for all branch offices; the use of novice or unseasoned branch office examiners; the performance of “check the box” inspections; and, the lack of adequate procedures and policies.

The November 30 Alert is the second such Alert released this quarter by the OCIE. On September 29, 2011, OCIE released a National Exam Risk Alert  (September 29 Alert) regarding the master/sub-account structure and potential risks of noncompliance for broker-dealers with the recently adopted Rule 15c3-5 (the Market Access Rule).

The Market Access Rule requires broker-dealers to have a system of risk management control and supervisory procedures reasonably designed to manage the financial, regulatory and other risks of the business activity associated with providing a customer or other person with market access. Deficiencies in risk management control and supervisory procedures raise significant regulatory concerns with respect to money laundering, insider trading, market manipulation, account intrusions, information security, unregistered broker-dealer activity, and excessive leverage.

Recent FINRA Enforcement Actions Against Broker-Dealers

On September 29, 2011, FINRA also announced it had sanctioned another eight firms and ten individuals and ordered restitution totaling more than $3.2 million due to violations related to private placements. FINRA previously announced similar sanctions against broker-dealers in April 2011, and the most recent announcement brings the total to ten firms and seventeen individuals sanctioned by FINRA since April for involvement in problematic private placements.

The sanctions stem from a variety of issues uncovered by FINRA related to firms selling private placement offerings, including the lack of a reasonable basis for recommending the offering; failure to conduct a reasonable investigation of the offering; failure to have adequate supervisory systems in place; failure to conduct adequate due diligence of offerings; lack of reasonable grounds regarding the suitability of the offering for customers; and, lack of reasonable grounds to allow registered representatives of firms to continue selling the offerings, despite numerous “red flags.”

These sanctions follow FINRA’s release of a Regulatory Notice in April 2010 (“April 2010 Notice”) regarding the obligation of broker-dealers to conduct reasonable investigations in Regulation D, or private placement, offerings. The April 2010 Notice provided guidance on many of the issues at the heart of the recent sanctions by FINRA related to private placements. The April 2010 Notice noted that broker-dealers had many requirements triggered by private placement offerings, including: a duty to conduct a reasonable investigation concerning the security and the issuer’s representations about it; a duty to possess reasonable grounds to recommend transactions that are suitable for the customer; and, other specific responsibilities that could be triggered based on specific factors with each transaction.