Articles Tagged with Conflicts Of Interest

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On November 3, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced that Fenway Partners, LLC (Fenway Partners), a private equity fund adviser, agreed to pay more than $10 million to settle charges that it failed to disclose conflicts of interest to a fund client and omitted material facts to investors.

SEC Findings

Fenway Partner’s current and former principals as well as the chief financial officer did not:

  • Disclose to Fenway Capital Partners Fund III, L.P. (the Fund) or its investors that Fenway Partners caused certain portfolio companies of the Fund to cancel management services agreements—subject to management fee offsets—between Fenway Partners and portfolio companies.
  • Disclose to the Fund or its investors the creation of the affiliated entity Fenway Consulting Partners, LLC (Fenway Consulting).
  • Disclose to the Fund or its investors that Fenway Consulting received $5.74 million for providing services to portfolio companies similar to those previously provided by Fenway Partners and often using the same employees—without a management fee offset against the fees paid to Fenway Partners.
  • Disclose in its capital call notice to investors in connection with a portfolio company investment that $1 million of the $4 million total capital call would be used to pay Fenway Consulting fees.
  • Disclose to the advisory board or the investors the conflict of interest concerning cash incentive plan payments to current and former Fenway Partner principals.
  • Disclose, as related party transactions, in the financial statements provided to investors, those payments received by Fenway Consulting for its services to portfolio companies.

The press release is available HERE.

A full copy of the SEC order is available HERE.

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The SEC, again, makes it clear:  all aspects of fee, expense and other arrangements must be disclosed accurately and in detail before commitments are accepted.

The SEC recently announced a settlement with three investment advisor affiliates of The Blackstone Group (the Advisors) that were accused of breaching their fiduciary duty to funds they manage or managed, failing to make necessary disclosure to the funds’ investors and failing to adopt and implement policies and procedures reasonably designed to prevent violations of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and its rules. The charges leveled against the Advisors centered on conflicts of interest involving monitoring fees and legal fee discounts. At the time the alleged violations occurred, each of the Advisors was an SEC-registered investment advisor. Although the Advisors neither admitted nor denied the SEC’s findings, they made several changes to existing business practices, agreed to pay the SEC a $10 million penalty and agreed to remit to their funds fees and interest approximating $29 million in response to allegations of violations of Section 206(2) and Section 206(4) of the Investment Advisers Act and Rules 206(4)-8 and 206(4)-7 thereunder.

Accelerated Monitoring Fees

According to the SEC, the Advisors entered into monitoring agreements with each portfolio company owned by their funds and received, in addition to the annual management fees paid by their funds, monitoring fees from the portfolio companies. In accordance with the funds’ limited partnership agreements, fifty percent of the Advisors’ monitoring fees was used to offset the annual management fee otherwise payable by the funds. Under certain of the monitoring agreements, in the event of a private sale or initial public offering of a portfolio company, monitoring fees could be accelerated for the remaining years of the agreements’ terms (including extension periods), discounted to present value and paid in advance upon termination of the agreements. Notwithstanding that fifty percent of the accelerated monitoring fees inured to the benefit of the funds and their limited partners, the SEC found the arrangements problematic because the value of the funds’ assets was reduced by the net amount of the accelerated monitoring fee payments when the portfolio companies were sold or taken public, thereby reducing amounts available for distribution to the limited partners.

The SEC was particularly offended by the fact that, in certain instances, fees were accelerated beyond the period during which a fund owned the relevant portfolio company or beyond the period during which services were performed by the Advisors. In addition, the SEC alleged that, although the Advisors disclosed their ability to collect monitoring fees to the funds and the funds’ limited partners before capital was committed to the funds, the Advisors did not disclose the practice of accelerating monitoring fees prior to the time the Advisors received the accelerated fees. The SEC conceded, however, that monitoring fee acceleration was disclosed in distribution notices, quarterly management fee reports and, where there were public offerings of portfolio companies, in SEC filings on Form S-1. The SEC further acknowledged that the funds’ limited partner advisory committees could have objected to acceleration and arbitrated the matter, but never took such action. The problem, according to the SEC, is that, because of the conflict of interest, the Advisors could not effectively consent to the acceleration.

Disparate Discounts on Legal Fees

The Advisors also negotiated a single agreement with legal counsel pursuant to which legal counsel provided services to the funds and the Advisors.  According to the SEC, although the funds generated significantly more work than the Advisors, the Advisors received substantially greater discounts than the funds. In addition, the difference in the discounts was not disclosed to the funds, the funds’ advisory committees or limited partners. Again, because of the conflict, the Advisors could not consent effectively.

Takeaways

The findings made and penalties imposed by the SEC in the Blackstone matter highlight the SEC’s disdain of conflicts of interest between advisors and the private funds they manage. More importantly, the matter makes clear the SEC’s intention to go after even the most common business practices in private equity, if the SEC determines that aspects of those practices are not disclosed fully prior to the time capital commitments are accepted. Nothing is sacrosanct.

As was the case with Blackstone, a fund’s private placement memorandum typically discloses that the fund’s management entities and affiliates of those entities may receive fees to which the fund will not be entitled. It also customarily discloses actual and potential conflicts involving fund counsel. The SEC has made clear that those disclosures will not be sufficient if they do not describe all aspects of the relevant conflicts clearly, accurately and completely. Broad and generalized disclosures, even where sophisticated and experienced fund investors are able to discern the nature of the conflict, will not protect against violations of Sections 206(2) and 206(4) of the Investment Advisers Act and the rules promulgated under those sections of the Act. Further, disclosures made after investors’ capital commitments are accepted may not be sufficient.

This case also highlights the fact that the SEC will push back against attempts by an SEC-registered investment advisor to limit its fiduciary duty to the funds it advises. In addition, it appears that the SEC will apply Section 206(2) and Section 206(4) of the Investment Advisers Act broadly and with a big stick.

As is always the case, cooperation with the SEC in connection with an examination or investigation is critical. In addition, as is evidenced in the Blackstone matter, taking remedial action to eliminate or ameliorate conflicts can be very helpful to an advisor that is under SEC scrutiny and seeking to minimize exposure to punitive action.

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Pillsbury hosted a panel event for 100 Women in Hedge Funds on July 28 discussing conflicts of interests hedge fund managers face in managing multiple account types, such as funds, institutional separate accounts and sub-advised mutual funds.  Kristin Snyder, Associate Regional Director for Examinations, San Francisco Regional Office of the Securities and Exchange Commission, emphasized that while the SEC does not expect advisers to have conflict-free business models, clear disclosure and effective mitigation of material conflicts are essential fiduciary duties of an adviser.  Other panelists and representatives of hedge fund managers (Frank Martin, President, Standard Pacific Capital, LLC) and institutional investors (Michelle Young, Managing Director, Ohana Advisors), provided insights into identifying, assessing, mitigating, and managing those conflicts. Ildiko Duckor, Partner and co-head of Pillsbury’s Investment Funds and Investment Management group, moderated the panel and offered tips and comments on practical solutions to account conflicts.

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Pillsbury partner Ildiko Duckor will participate in the 100 Women in Hedge Funds sponsored event titled “HOT topics in Compliance: Conflicts of Interests in Account Management and more” on July 28, 2015.

In quest for assets and investors, hedge fund managers continue to diversify their client base. When they are successful, they may end up with a broad spectrum of accounts: managed accounts, 40 Act registered funds and proprietary accounts in addition to hedge funds. With variety comes complication – from a compliance perspective.

Are your side-by-side account management procedures up to par?

Join us in a panel discussion with experts from the SEC, Legal/Compliance, and Managers/Investors highlighting just what you need to know about the following compliance hot button topics:

  • Conflicts of interests in the center of the SEC’s focus – arising from trade allocations, expense allocations, related party transactions, side letters and proprietary account biases
  • Best practices you should have in place now
  • Investors’ main concerns during negotiations with the managers and what you need to know about their due diligence expectations

For more information, visit 100 Women in Hedge Funds.

Date & Time
7/28/2015
6:00 pm PT

Location
Pillsbury’s San Francisco office
Four Embarcadero Center
22nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94111

Event Contact
Jessica Slater

Speakers

Ildiko Duckor
Kristin Synder, Securities and Exchange Commission
Frank Martin, Standard Pacific Capital, LLC
Michelle Young, Ohana Advisors

Sponsors
Pillsbury
100 Women in Hedge Funds

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On April 20, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued an order against an investment advisory firm and its former chief compliance officer, for violating Sections 206(2) and 206(4) and rule 206(4)-7 of the Investment Advisers Act and rule 38a-1 of the Investment Company Act. The SEC charged BlackRock Advisors LLC with breaching its fiduciary duty by failing to disclose a conflict of interest involving the outside business activity of one of its top-performing portfolio managers, Daniel J. Rice III. BlackRock agreed to be censured and to settle the charges by paying a $12 million penalty and engaging an independent compliance consultant to conduct an internal review.

During his tenure as an energy sector portfolio manager at BlackRock, Rice founded an oil and gas exploration and production company, formed a joint venture with a public company held in his managed funds, and acquired a second public company also held in BlackRock portfolios. BlackRock learned of Rice’s outside business activity, but allowed him to continue his involvement. The SEC found that BlackRock failed to report the conflicts of interest to the board of directors of the affected registered funds or advisory clients and failed to monitor and reassess Rice’s outside business activity after discovering the conflicts of interest. The SEC also censured BlackRock for failing to maintain and implement internal policies regarding the outside activities of employees. While Blackrock’s policies required employees to report potential conflicts and to seek pre-approval before serving on a board of directors, the firm failed to outline how employees’ outside activities would be assessed for conflicts purposes or to identify the individuals responsible for assessing outside activities.

Additionally, the SEC found BlackRock’s former chief compliance officer personally liable for causing the failure by BlackRock funds to report material compliance matters—namely Rice’s violation of BlackRock’s private investment policy—to their board of directors. The ex-officer agreed to pay a $60,000 civil penalty to settle the charge.

If you have question concerning your firm’s internal policies on the outside business activities of employees, please reach out to your Pillsbury attorney contact.