Private equity firms were put on notice last year that they may be subject to registration as broker dealers when David Blass, head of the Division of Markets and Trading at the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), provided his insights at an industry conference. Since that time, the SEC has published their examination priorities list, which included the presence exams of new registrants, a portion of which would review that status of private equity fund managers under the broker dealer rules. Following up on this warning to the industry, the SEC has also targeted unregistered brokers for enforcement action.
Recently, at a speech in front of another industry group, Mr. Blass provided further guidance on how a private equity firm might structure its compensation arrangements in order to avoid the need to register as a broker dealer. Consistent with the advice that Pillsbury has been providing private fund clients for many years, Mr. Blass warned against paying “transaction based” compensation and further suggested that if a private fund employee has “an overall mix of functions,” and sales is one aspect of those duties, it is less likely that the SEC staff would view such an arrangement as one that would require broker dealer registration. An employee of a private fund manager would not be prohibited from being compensated on the overall success of the firm, and certainly sales of fund securities contribute to that overall success. But tying compensation to assets raised looks like the traditional broker dealer compensation and should be avoided.
Mr. Blass indicated that the SEC is close to finalizing guidance on issues connected to private fund manager employee compensation. However, the SEC staff has further to go before providing guidelines to the industry on the broker dealer registration issues posed by deal fees that private equity firms sometimes collect on transactions. It is unlikely that Mr. Blass will see his initiatives through to completion, as he will soon be joining the staff of the Investment Company Institute where he will one day lobby against his former positions.
If you would like additional background on how the private fund managers came to find themselves in the gray zone of broker dealer registration as a result of paying their employees for performance, you may want to re-visit this article.