The Future of Futures: High-Speed Trading and CFTC Regulation & Enforcement

The future is now.

On June 29, 2017, the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry voted overwhelmingly to confirm the nomination of J. Christopher Giancarlo as Chairman of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), paving the way for his nomination to move forward to consideration on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Within two hours of this announcement, the CFTC announced its first non-prosecution agreements. These agreements and the related “spoofing” cases are discussed in more detail below. These same-day announcements reflect the advancing ambitious agenda outlined by Acting Chairman Giancarlo in his speech entitled “CFTC: A New Direction Forward,” given on March 15, 2017. Acting Chairman Giancarlo has since taken every opportunity to advise the industry of his goals to reduce regulatory burdens, modernize the agency, and maintain the CFTC’s aggressive enforcement efforts. All the while, the industry awaits the opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in the U.S. v. Coscia criminal trial and the opinion of the Honorable Judge Richard Sullivan from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in the CFTC v. Wilson and DRW Investments, LLC bench trial.

A NEW DIRECTION FORWARD

In his “CFTC: A New Direction Forward” speech, Acting Chairman Giancarlo admonished:

So much policymaking, rulemaking, and thought have been directed at building a regulatory superstructure that ostensibly would prevent another 2008-style crisis that we’ve lost sight of the emerging challenges just ahead and what is the right regulatory response …. America’s derivatives markets are struggling, in some cases, under the weight of flawed and excessive regulation …. Accordingly, financial market regulators, like the CFTC, must pursue their missions to foster open, transparent, competitive and financially sound markets in ways that best foster American economic growth and prosperity.

Acting Chairman Giancarlo also used this platform to announce “Project KISS”:

I am today announcing the launch of Project KISS, which stands for “Keep It Simple Stupid.” Project KISS will be an agency-wide review of CFTC rules, regulations and practices to make them simpler, less burdensome and less costly.

On May 9, 2017, the CFTC officially published its request for comments for Project KISS, seeking comments in these five areas:

  • “Registration” – addressing becoming registered and regulated by the CFTC;
  • “Reporting” – pertaining to all reporting requirements, including swap data and recordkeeping;
  • “Clearing” – pertaining to clearing services with respect to futures contracts, options on futures contracts, or swaps;
  • “Executing” – relating to marketplace transactions of futures and swaps; and
  • A miscellaneous category for anything not related to the four topic areas described above.

Comments are due by September 30, 2017.

On May 17, 2017, Acting Chairman Giancarlo gave a speech entitled “LabCFTC: Engaging Innovators in Digital Financial Markets.” He described this initiative as follows, “Simply put, LabCFTC is intended to help us bridge the gap from where we are today to where we need to be: Twenty-First century regulation for 21st century digital markets.” He further advised:

The world is changing. Our parents’ financial markets are gone. The 21st century digital transformation is well underway. The digital technology genie won’t go back in the bottle. Nor should it.

Yet, despite these 21st century innovations, the CFTC remains stuck in a 20th century time warp. Most of the CFTC’s rulebook for listed futures was written for 20th century analog markets, in which trading pits in Kansas City, Minneapolis, New York and Chicago conducted open outcry trading with colorful shouting and distinctive hand signals. Today, those trading pits are dormant, largely supplanted with electronic trade execution by remote software algorithms and, increasingly, artificial intelligence. Yet, CFTC oversight is still founded on recognition of such occupations as “floor traders” and “floor brokers.”

Thus, in just a few months the Acting Chairman has started to put his agenda into action. Assuming their pending nominations are successful, Commissioner Nominees Brian D. Quintenz and Dawn DeBerry Stump will assuredly be supporters of the Acting Chairman’s plans. This anticipated support, coupled with the June 20, 2017 announcement of Commissioner Sharon Y. Bowen’s resignation, provides the soon-to-be confirmed Chairman with a virtual mandate.

“REG AT”

For almost two years, the most controversial regulatory initiative of the CFTC in decades involves its ongoing efforts for Proposed Rulemaking on Regulation Automated Trading (“Reg AT”). Below we briefly summarize this history and analyze the Acting Chairman’s views regarding Reg AT.

On November 24, 2015, the CFTC announced unanimous approval of a comprehensive proposed rule known as Reg, AT that “takes a multilevel approach by proposing risk control and other requirements for: (a) market participants using algorithmic trading systems (ATSs), who are defined as ‘AT Persons’ in the rulemaking; (b) clearing member futures commission merchants (FCMs) with respect to their AT Person customers; and (c) DCMs executing AT Person orders.”

This rule was approved unanimously, however, then-Commissioner Giancarlo publicly expressed his reservations. Despite his approval vote, Commissioner Giancarlo cautioned:

I am unaware of any other industry where the federal government has such easy access to a firm’s intellectual property and future business strategies. Other than possibly in the area of national defense and security, I question whether the federal government has similarly unfettered access to the future business strategy of any American industrial sector. Does the SEC require such access from its registrants? Do other agencies in the federal government have ready access to businesses’ intellectual property and business strategies?

In response to the comments received, on November 4, 2016, the CFTC approved a supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking to Reg. AT (“Supplemental NPRM”). This Supplemental NPRM “amends and streamlines certain requirements of the NPRM.” This time though, Commissioner Giancarlo dissented and highlighted his ongoing concerns regarding the source code issues:

I have previously said that proposed Regulation Automated Trading (Reg AT) is a well-meaning attempt by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC or Commission) to catch up to the digital revolution in U.S. futures markets. However, I have also raised some concerns ranging from the prescriptive compliance burdens to the disproportionate impact on small market participants to the regulatory inconsistencies of the proposed rule. I have also warned that any public good achieved by the rule is undone by the now notorious source code repository requirement. Not surprisingly, dozens of commenters to the proposal echoed my concerns and vehemently opposed the source code requirement.

The Supplemental NPRM was published in the Federal Register on November 25, 2016 with a 90-day comment period. At the end of the 90-day comment period on January 24, 2017, the CFTC extended the comment period until May 1, 2017, when the comment period closed.

COMPARABLE & RECOMMENDED PRINCIPLES-BASED REG AT APPROACHES

By way of background, in March 2015, the Futures Industry Association (“FIA”) published its Guide to the Development and Operation of Automated Trading Systems (“FIA AT Guidelines”) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) issued Regulatory Notice 15-09 (“NTM 15-09”). Both FIA’s and FINRA’s guidance provided principles-based approaches, as opposed to the more proscriptive approaches for regulating algorithmic trading outlined in the Reg AT proposals.

In the securities industry, NTM 15-09 is applicable to FINRA member broker-dealer firms.  This regulatory notice, however, does not require furnishing source code to regulators. Rather, NTM 15-09 provides that participants: archive source code versions in a retrievable manner for a period of time that is reasonable in view of the firm’s size and the complexity of its algorithmic trading programs and maintain, at a minimum, a basic summary description of algorithmic strategies that enables supervisory, compliance, and regulatory staff to understand the intended function of an algorithm without the need to resort, as an initial matter, to direct code review. Regarding the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), its books and records rules are very broad, but do not specifically articulate and address source code. From a policy perspective, the SEC most assuredly will interpret the current statutory language broadly to cover source code. That said, source code is not specifically required to be made available to the SEC by any statute or rule in the federal securities laws. In practice, only one group in the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations seeks source code: the Quantitative Analytics Unit. The SEC’s Division of Enforcement only obtains source code on strategic occasions when warranted and by subpoena after obtaining a Formal Order of Investigation. Prosecutors in federal criminal investigations conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice only obtain source code pursuant to a grand jury subpoena. By way of perspective, in the U.S. v. Coscia case, there is no indication in the court docket or in the public record to indicate that the prosecution used source code as evidence to establish guilt.

In analyzing the recent Reg AT comment letters submitted by May 1, 2017, all corners of the industry weighed in: Futures Commission Merchants (“FCMs”); proprietary trading firms; commodity trading advisors; financial technology firms servicing the industry; the FIA; and designated contract markets (“DCMs”) / exchanges. Regarding the latter, the comment letter submitted by the CME Group Inc. (“CME”) attempted to forecast and provide for a principles-based approach for Reg AT by attaching as Appendix A to its comment letter a “Principles-Based Alternative to Reg AT.” The CME also cited the FIA AT Guidelines, “However, our recommended approach is much more in line with the best practices already developed by the industry and set forth in, for example, the Futures Industry Association’s Principal Traders Group’s Recommendations for Risk Controls for Trading Firms and FIA’s Guide to the Development and Operation of Automated Trading Systems.”

Interestingly, the CME, one of the world’s largest and primary futures DCM groups, liberally borrowed from the securities industry and FINRA’s NTM 15-09:

We find FINRA’s guidance on this topic to be instructive, and we would expect that many of FINRA’s suggested actions would demonstrate compliance with our proposed requirement. FINRA states that those engaged in algorithmic strategies should consider:

  • Implementing controls, monitors, alerts, and reconciliation processes that enable the firm to quickly identify whether an algorithm is experiencing unintended results that may indicate a failure at the firm or in the market;
  • Periodically evaluating the firm’s controls and associated policies and procedures to assure that they remain adequate to manage access and changes to the firm’s infrastructure including, but not limited to, the hardware, connectivity, and algorithms;
  • Implementing a protocol to track and record significant system problems;
  • Documenting and periodically reviewing parameter settings for the firm’s risk controls, and making any parameter changes deemed appropriate;
  • Implementing checks on downstream market impacts;
  • Making system capacity scalable to the extent a firm anticipates growth and peak levels of market activity such as messaging volume;
  • Implementing security measures to limit code access and control system entitlements;
  • Placing appropriate controls and limitations on a trader’s ability to overwrite or otherwise evade system controls; and
  • Implementing controls to manage outbound message volume via threshold parameters.

Over the years, the CFTC and CME have periodically found themselves entrenched on the opposite sides of significant industry issues. We believe that this is not one of those times – that if and when the CFTC takes further action regarding Reg AT – it will adopt a principles-based approach, in line with the CME’s proposal and NTM 15-09.

CONTINUING FOCUS ON MANIPULATIVE TRADING & SPOOFING

Acting Chairman Giancarlo has repeatedly stated that his agenda includes reducing regulatory burdens – as described above – but he has also unequivocally made clear his intent to continue the CFTC’s aggressive enforcement efforts. While at first glance these two goals may seem contrary, historically this approach has been periodically utilized at the CFTC (and SEC) when more industry-friendly regulatory agendas were pursued while strict enforcement of the laws against bad actors remained a priority. In his “CFTC: A New Direction Forward” speech, the Acting Chairman sternly advised:

But, as I mention the CFTC’s Division of Enforcement, let me take this moment to warn those who may seek to cheat or manipulate our markets: you will face aggressive and assertive enforcement action by the CFTC under the Trump Administration. There will be no pause, let up or reduction in our duty to enforce the law and punish wrongdoing in our derivatives markets. The American people are counting on us.

CFTC Enforcement’s Recent Manipulative Trading Actions

Turning specifically to CFTC enforcement efforts, one of the most pressing enforcement priorities remains investigating and prosecuting manipulative trading and, more specifically, spoofing. The CFTC’s Enforcement Division’s efforts in this area have continued to be aggressive from the start of Acting Chairman Giancarlo’s tenure. Specifically, on January 19, 2017, the CFTC settled a spoofing case against a large, well-known FCM affiliated with a U.S.-based global bank. The manipulative trading occurred in U.S. Treasury futures and this FCM also settled failure to supervise charges. In settling the charges, the FCM paid $25 million in penalties and agreed to certain undertakings. The undertakings related to the failure to supervise charge. They included “Procedures and Controls to Detect Spoofing Activity.” More specifically, this undertaking includes a requirement that this FCM maintain systems and controls that: are reasonably designed to detect spoofing; at a minimum be designed to detect and generate a report regarding patterns of trading that “might” constitute spoofing activity, such as the placement and rapid cancellation of large-lot futures orders; and that the FCM’s personnel shall promptly review such reports and follow-up as necessary to determine whether spoofing activity has occurred. In short, the CFTC required this FCM to implement/maintain a manipulative trading surveillance system to detect and prevent spoofing (as was the case with the CFTC v. Oystacher and 3 Red Trading LLC settlement).

On March 30, 2017, in related individual cases, the CFTC charged two of this FCM’s traders with spoofing. The traders both agreed to a six-month ban from trading in the futures markets. That same day, Acting Chairman Giancarlo appointed former federal prosecutor, James McDonald, as the Director of the CFTC’s Enforcement Division. Under Director McDonald’s leadership, on June 2, 2017, the CFTC permanently banned another individual trader from trading in CFTC regulated markets for engaging in spoofing and other manipulative trading. Director McDonald used the announcement of this case as the first platform for him to share his views on this priority area for CFTC enforcement: “Today’s enforcement action demonstrates that the Commission will aggressively pursue individuals who manipulate and spoof in our markets.”

On June 29, 2017, three additional traders for the FCM matters described above entered into the CFTC’s first non-prosecution agreements, while each also admitted to engaging in “spoofing.” Director McDonald credited these traders with – readily admitting their own wrongdoing, identifying misconduct of others, and providing valuable information – “all of which expedited our [the CFTC’s] investigation and strengthened our cases against the other wrongdoers.”

Industry-Impactful Opinions Are Coming

As mentioned at the start, the industry awaits the Seventh Circuit opinion for the U.S. v. Coscia criminal trial and the opinion of the Hon. Judge Richard Sullivan from the CFTC v. Wilson and DRW Investments, LLC bench trial. Within a matter of days, weeks, or months of each other, these two opinions will be issued and may provide case law analyses and interpretations of legal standards that may impact how the government investigates and prosecutes manipulative trading in the futures industry.

The Seventh Circuit previously heard oral arguments in the appeal of Michael Coscia’s criminal conviction from U.S. v. Coscia . Regardless of the appellate victor, it is unlikely either party will obtain a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, likely giving the Seventh Circuit the “final say.” Thus, when issued, this opinion will provide a precedential-setting legal discussion and analysis for spoofing. The bench trial for CFTC v. Wilson and DRW Investments, LLC wrapped up at the end of last year. A bench trial almost always results in a written opinion issued by the trial judge to support his or her ruling. When the Hon. Judge Richard Sullivan issues his ruling and opinion, he will provide an important legal analysis of the CFTC’s charged manipulative trading theories, including “banging the close.” If the Court rules in the CFTC’s favor, an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is virtually guaranteed. If the Court rules in the Defendants’ favor, then the Acting Chairman and his Enforcement Director will have a critical decision to make regarding whether to appeal to the Second Circuit for a case that was investigated, approved, and charged under the prior regime.

CONCLUSION / TAKEAWAYS

The future of futures continues to unfold before us as we await: a final CFTC rule for Reg AT; the comments for Project KISS; Mr. Quintenz and Mrs. Stump to take their chairs at the Commission; and the Coscia and DRW Investment LLC opinions, amongst other developments. As discussed above, Acting Chairman Giancarlo’s agenda will be the driving force behind where the agency’s priorities take the industry. For firms and traders to attempt to address all of these evolving dynamics, here are some recommended takeaways:

  • Reg AT will likely be finalized and passed in some form. Virtually all commenters repeatedly agreed that some form of rulemaking and increased regulation for high-speed, algorithmic trading is appropriate. That said, based on the Acting Chairman’s repeated public statements, we should anticipate that Reg. AT may ultimately look very different from how the CFTC first proposed it. These authors, along with numerous commenters and industry participants, believe that it will ultimately be principles-based.
  • With Project KISS, industry participants should anticipate reduced regulatory burdens and a more modernized regulator, monitor these developments, and adjust their business models accordingly.
  • While regulatory burdens may be reduced, the CFTC will continue to aggressively pursue investigations into manipulative trading and, in particular, spoofing. The prospects of traders being investigated for this conduct do not appear to be declining. Thus, for every order and cancel entered, a bona fide and reasonable basis to support that trading decision is a must. A possible appropriate way to justify and defend these trading decisions may be by preparing a daily or weekly log appropriately describing the contemporaneous, bona fide reasoning for the trading strategies. As for the firms, the CFTC is investigating and charging firms with failing to supervise related to these violations. It also is requiring surveillance as an undertaking. Firms should heed the messages the CFTC is sending and assess their compliance and supervisory processes, policies, and procedures to obtain appropriate assurances that they can reasonably detect and prevent manipulative trading and spoofing.

Acting Chairman Giancarlo and his ambitious agenda make this an exciting time for the futures industry and, from a regulatory perspective, the future looks bright. But for those continuing to manipulate or attempt to manipulate the markets, their futures remain bleak.

SEC Names Co-Directors of Enforcement

Last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced that Acting Enforcement Director Stephanie Avakian and former federal prosecutor Steven Peikin had been named Co-Directors of the Division of Enforcement. In making the announcement, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton advised:

There is no place for bad actors in our capital markets, particularly those that prey on investors and undermine confidence in our economy. Stephanie and Steve will aggressively police our capital markets and enforce our nation’s securities laws as Co-Directors of the Division of Enforcement. They have each demonstrated market knowledge, impeccable character, and commitment to public service, and I am confident their combined talents and experience will enable them to effectively lead the Division going forward.

Prior to being named Acting Director in December 2016, Ms. Avakian served as Enforcement’s Deputy Director since June 2014. Mr. Peikin joins the SEC for the first time from private practice. Prior to that, from 1996 to 2004, Mr. Peikin served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York. He was Chief of the Office’s Securities and Commodities Fraud Task Force, where he supervised some of the nation’s highest profile prosecutions of accounting fraud, insider trading, market manipulation, and abuses in the foreign exchange market. As a prosecutor, Mr. Peikin also personally investigated and prosecuted a wide variety of securities, commodities, and other investment fraud schemes, as well as other crimes.

As Chairman Clayton continues to appoint the Division leadership at the SEC and establish his own agenda for the Commission as its new Chairman, these Co-Director appointments bear a strong resemblance to those of his predecessors, Chair Mary Jo White and Chair Mary Schapiro. First, in 2009, Chair Schapiro appointed a former federal prosecutor for the first time to lead the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. Second, in 2013, Chair White appointed another former federal prosecutor, Andrew Ceresney. In furtherance of the striking similarities, Chair White appointed Mr. Ceresney as a Co-Director with the then Acting Director. Mr. Ceresney eventually took over the Directorship on his own. Thus, while many forecasted that the new Commission may perhaps be friendlier to the industry, with these Co-Director appointments Chairman Clayton looks to be following the lead of his recent predecessors rather than breaking from them. Lastly, if the precedent of the only prior Co-Directorship is any indication, then at some point in the foreseeable future Mr. Peikin will be occupying the Director’s chair on his own, as Mr. Ceresney ultimately did.

SEC Insider Trading Update: A New Remedy, A Governmental Insider Case, & An Emboldened SEC After Salman

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently announced two significant insider trading cases. These pronouncements serve as reminders that the new Commission under the Trump Administration, while pursuing its agenda, will continue to ensure that the financial industry is “playing by the rules.” In addition, these particular cases involve: the SEC using a remedy that it had not used before in this context; and the SEC continuing to investigate and bring cases that involve governmental “insider” information.

Regarding the SEC extending the use of a “tool” from its remedy arsenal to the insider trading area, last week the SEC entered into a settlement with a billion-dollar hedge fund and its founder, which included an undertaking for an independent compliance consultant. The novel extension of this remedy to an insider trading settlement prompted the Acting Enforcement Division Director to issue a statement. In addition to the typical insider trading settlement terms, this settlement included an undertaking for an on-site “Compliance Consultant” to monitor and review for any future potential violative conduct through 2022. The SEC describes this process as “onsite monitoring by an independent compliance consultant with access to their electronic communications and trading records.” The SEC historically seeks independent consultants and monitors in other types of cases, including matters involving public companies with material accounting and control weaknesses. More recently, however, regulators have expanded the use of this remedial undertaking. For example, this past year, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission extended the use of independent monitors to a manipulative trading settlement.

Various publications hailed this insider trading settlement as a victory for individuals facing insider trading investigations. However, that perspective may be short-sighted. The SEC’s use of this remedy may allow it to “lower the bar” for insider trading investigations knowing that it may be able to obtain settlements such as this which do not result in a suspension or bar. While the avoidance of the suspension or bar is of course paramount to individuals, an undertaking such as this involves an invasive-type relationship with a third party who – while “independent” – may have an allegiance to a regulator or a court. Further, the defendant/respondent firm almost always bears the full cost of the services provided by the consultant or monitor. It’s not a stretch to describe these costs as additional/hidden monetary penalties that over a period of years (through 2022 for this matter) may increase to hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Thus, while this may be a positive result for the head of this hedge fund, it may be an unfortunate development for individuals and entities whom the SEC investigates in the future who – before this settlement – the SEC may not have considered charging.

Turning to another matter, the other day, the SEC charged a former government employee, turned political intelligence consultant with insider trading. The SEC has historically brought insider trading cases involving “inside” governmental information; however these cases are not as common as tipper-tippee or misappropriation cases involving individuals associated with firms or public companies. In the SEC’s release, the Acting Director of the Enforcement Division provided this message, “As alleged in our complaint, a federal employee breached his duty to protect confidential information by tipping a political consultant who then passed along those illegal tips.” She further warned, “There’s no place on Wall Street or in our government for such blatant misuse of highly confidential information.” Further indicating the aggressive approach to this governmental insider trading matter, in a parallel action, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced related criminal charges. Thus, as stated above, at the start of this new Commission under the Trump Administration, the SEC remains creative and aggressive in its pursuit of insider trading violations.

In the not too distant past, the ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in U.S. v. Newman indicated a possible chilling effect on the government’s pursuit of insider trading cases and the various creative and aggressive strategies that it had started to apply in the decade prior. Less than six months ago, however, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with prosecutors in Salman v. U.S. The resulting opinion returned us to the standard first espoused in Dirks v. SEC in 1983. The Dirks opinion has been subjected to various criticisms over the decades from all sides for vagueness, amongst other issues. One of the collateral results of this vagueness is that it has allowed for creative and aggressive investigative and prosecutorial tactics that the government uses to investigate and charge insider trading cases. The timing of these two SEC cases and the recent issuance of the Salman opinion may be more than coincidental – as we may be witnessing an SEC emboldened by this Supreme Court ruling.

Compliance and Legal Officer Guidelines to Prevent Non-Line Supervisory Liability

Chicago partner Jim Lundy and associate Carrie DeLange, members of Drinker Biddle’s SEC & Regulatory Enforcement Team, authored “Compliance and Legal Officer Guidelines to Prevent Non-Line Supervisory Liability” for the National Society of Compliance Professionals’ (NSCP) professional journal, Currents, March 2017 edition.

The article provides guidance and recommendations to compliance officers and in-house attorneys with investment management and broker-dealer firms regarding the legal background and recommended practices to avoid supervisory liability with respect to the violative conduct of business personnel. Specifically, the article examines the applicable statutes and rules, the controversial “Gutfreund Standard,” and the SEC’s more recent guidance from a Division of Trading and Markets “FAQ” and speeches. Jim and Carrie build on this information to provide recommendations for investment management and broker-dealer compliance and in-house personnel to manage satisfying their compliance obligations while dealing with the potentially problematic conduct of business personnel.

Read “Compliance and Legal Officer Guidelines to Prevent Non-Line Supervisory Liability.”

The SEC Heightens Its Interest in Robo-Advisers

Over the last two weeks, the SEC has put robo-advisers on notice that they are on the staff’s radar. First, on February 23, 2017, the SEC’s Division of Investment Management, along with the SEC’s Office of Compliance, Inspections, and Examinations, issued a Guidance Update for robo-advisers. The term “robo-adviser” refers to registered automated investment advisers that provide investment advice that uses computer algorithms. Robo-advisers generally collect information about a client’s financial goals, income, assets, investment horizon, and risk tolerance by way of an online or electronic questionnaire. With limited human interaction, robo-advisers use this information to create and manage investment portfolios for clients. Robo-advisers are often more economical than traditional investment advisers. Robo-advisers, which began as an appeal to millennials, are now widely becoming popular with all age groups and types of investors.

The Guidance Update focused on in three unique areas of the investment relationship: (1) the substance and presentation of disclosures to clients about the robo-adviser and the investment advisory services it offers; (2) the obligation to obtain information from clients to support the robo-adviser’s duty to provide suitable advise; and (3) the adoption and implementation of effective compliance programs reasonable designed to address particular concerns relevant to providing automated advice.

This Guidance Update specifically encourages robo-advisers to keep clients well-informed with respect to their use of algorithms to manage client funds. Robo-advisers must be diligent in their disclosures to clients of the risks and limitations inherent in the use of algorithms to manage investments. For example, an algorithm may not address prolonged changes in market conditions and investors need to know that. The Guidance Update also reminds robo-advisers that because of the limited human interaction with the client, issues, like disclosures, would most likely be done online. As such, communications, including written disclosures, should be effective, not hidden or indecipherable. Finally, the Guidance Update highlighted that for robo-advisers, compliance with the Advisory Act of 1940 may require more written documentation than regular investment advisers must provide. For example, robo-advisers should consider documenting the development, testing, and backtesting of the algorithms, the process by which they collect client information, and the appropriate oversight of any third party that develops or owns the algorithm or software utilized by the robo-adviser.

In addition to the Guidance provided to robo-advisers, the SEC Office of Investor Education and Advocacy also issued an Investor Bulletin on the subject of robo-advisers to alert potential clients to specific areas when dealing with a robo-adviser would be different from a more traditional adviser. Such areas include (1) the minimized level of personal interaction a client would receive, e.g., do you ever speak to a human?; (2) the standard information a robo-adviser uses to formulate recommendations, e.g., are the robo-advisers asking all the pertinent questions in their questionnaires?; (3) the robo-adviser’s approach to investing, e.g., are the robo-advisers using pre-determined portfolios or can you customize your investments?; and (4) the fees and charges involved, e.g., could you be charged penalties or fees if you want to withdraw your investment?  Investors should consider using robo-advisers because of the economic advantages but must be aware of the differences inherent in this new 21st century version of the investment advisor.

The SEC requires robo-advisers to be registered and makes them subject to the same substantive and fiduciary obligations as traditional investment advisers. In addition to the Alert and the Guidance Update, the SEC staff also addressed robo-advisers at SEC Speaks on February 24, 2017. At the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) panel, the office’s senior leadership put the audience and industry on notice of OCIE’s “Electronic Investment Advice Initiative.” Specifically, OCIE advised that it will be dedicating staff and resources to prioritize examining robo-advisers for this SEC fiscal year. Due to OCIE applying a risk-based approach to its examination program, they will likely focus on robo-advisers with large platforms or business models that OCIE believes pose potential risks to investors. For robo-advisers to prepare, we recommend that firms review the February 23, 2017 Guidance Update and the Office of Investor Education and Advocacy Investor Bulletin described above to proactively plan to be in compliance with this guidance. This way, firms examined as part of the Electronic Investment Advice Initiative, can attempt to avoid significant deficiencies or enforcement referrals from OCIE’s increased scrutiny of robo-advisers.

SEC Speaks 2017 – OCIE Had Something To Say

Last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Acting Chairman, senior leadership across Divisions and Offices, and former SEC Commissioners spoke at the “SEC Speaks” Conference 2017. Senior leadership from the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) used its panel and workshop to provide guidance on the reshaping of its examination programs that it began in 2016. Below we outline the revamped OCIE.

OCIE’s Reorganization & Reallocation of Resources

The OCIE panel included OCIE’s Acting Director and its Deputy Director. The commentators for the panel were former SEC Chairman Hon. Harvey L. Pitt and former SEC Commissioners Hon. Paul S. Atkins and Hon. Daniel M. Gallagher. At the beginning of the presentation, OCIE’s Acting Director reminded the audience that OCIE’s mission is to protect investors, ensure market integrity, and support responsible capital formation through risk-focused strategies that: 1) improve compliance; 2) prevent fraud; 3) monitor risk; and 4) inform policy. The panel explained that OCIE monitors and assesses its various programs to align with OCIE’s mission and strategies. The panel described that OCIE had developed and implemented a plan to revise its programs to better align with the evolving nature of the various registrants subject to its oversight.

The Investment Adviser / Investment Company Program

This past year, OCIE re-allocated 100 broker-dealer staff examiners to the Investment Adviser / Investment Company (IA/IC) Program, which increased the total number of OCIE staff in the IA/IC Program to over 600. OCIE’s Deputy Director reminded the audience that the investment management industry lacks a self-regulatory organization and that the number of investment advisers registered with the SEC continues to grow. For example, since January 1, 2017, approximately 200 additional investment advisers have registered with the SEC. Thus, the SEC and OCIE determined that a re-allocation of staff was necessary to manage the SEC’s responsibility as the sole inspection and examination authority for this industry. One of the goals of this reallocation appears to be to address the number of examinations per examiner, if feasible, from last year’s high of 4.91 per examiner. Following up on a proposal to the Commission last fall under Chair Mary Jo White, Commissioner Gallagher encouragingly questioned whether OCIE needs to consider the use of non-SEC, third-party examination firms. Although OCIE senior leadership did not seem enthused about this possibility, they replied that they would be willing to work with whatever ideas and initiatives the new Commission may have to assist with OCIE’s resource constraints, in particular with the continuing expansion of the investment advisory industry.

The Broker-Dealer, FINRA and Securities Industry Oversight, and National Broker-Dealer Exchange Group Programs

For the above three programs, OCIE has restructured its examination oversight of the brokerage industry and for certain other registrants. First and foremost, OCIE’s Broker-Dealer (BD) Program – as the industry has known it for the past few decades – no longer exists. Second, in addition to the reallocation of 100 examiners from the BD Program to the IA/IC Program, OCIE senior leadership outlined the creation and responsibilities of two new programs: the FINRA and Securities Industry Oversight (FSIO) Program; and the National Broker-Dealer Exchange Group (BDX) Program. While the BDX Program will maintain some broker-dealer examination staff, as explained below, this will be a significantly reduced number of examiners who will be focused on targeted examinations in coordination with FSIO’s oversight responsibilities.

FSIO is a national program with staff in the SEC’s home office and across various regional offices. OCIE created FSIO for several reasons, including avoiding the duplication of efforts and resources that sometimes occurred with FINRA. FSIO’s primary responsibility is the enhanced oversight of FINRA. FSIO also will oversee the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (for purposes of this blog, we focus on FINRA). While FSIO will maintain oversight responsibility, OCIE senior leadership emphasized that the plan is to work collaboratively with FINRA, as appropriate. FSIO’s Program will oversee FINRA in two ways; with programmatic and oversight examinations. The former will focus on FINRA’s programs and operations to provide guidance and recommended improvements, while the latter will involve specific FINRA examinations of member firms that FSIO will sample, examine, and provide feedback to FINRA.

The BDX Program has a broader mandate, including responsibility for: exchanges; transfer agents; the clearing and settlement program; (only) municipal advisors; the Securities Investor Protection Corporation; and the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board. BDX is also a national program with staff in the SEC’s home office and regional offices. As mentioned, the BDX Program also includes a limited number of broker-dealer examination staff to conduct targeted examinations and coordinate with FSIO regarding FINRA oversight examinations.

Conclusion / Takeaways

OCIE’s reallocation of staff resources to the IA/IC Program, dissolution of the BD Program, and creation of the FSIO and BDX programs reflect an SEC Office that is attempting to keep pace with the increasing and evolving registrant populations for which it is responsible by restructuring programs and targeting its limited resources. These efforts will likely have unintended (or intended) consequences for the investment management and broker-dealer industries. First, OCIE appears to be making its oversight of the investment management industry its main focus. This is the continuation of a multi-year effort, as this industry presents the greatest risk to OCIE and its understaffed IA/IC Program. That said, with a staff increase of 100 and the continuing emphasis on this program, the number of significant deficiencies and enforcement referrals generated by the IA/IC Program will correspondingly increase, as the quantity and frequency of examinations increases. With respect to OCIE’s BD, FSIO, and BDX Programs, with FINRA’s evolution and increased resources to examine the broker-dealer industry, it is not too surprising that the SEC, via OCIE, ceded responsibility to FINRA and dissolved the BD Program. A collateral result for the broker-dealer industry, however, will likely be an empowered FINRA that may seek to increase the assertiveness of its examination and enforcement programs. In conclusion, while the IA/IC Program and FINRA appear poised to enjoy increased authority, OCIE’s efforts are laudable in reorganizing itself to better allocate its limited resources to manage its responsibilities over its evolving registrant population.

Acting SEC Chairman Limits Delegated Formal Order Authority

Acting SEC Chairman Michael Piwowar has apparently revised the staff’s ability to subpoena records and investigative testimony (“formal order authority”) by returning the authority to grant formal order authority to the agency’s Director of Enforcement. While the SEC has not formally recognized this policy shift, multiple sources, including Law360 and the Wall Street Journal, have reported that Acting Chair Piwowar has recently implemented this change, which revokes the delegated authority to regional directors and enforcement associate directors to approve the staff’s requests for formal order authority.

In 2009, under Chair Mary Schapiro and as part of certain initiatives to enhance enforcement’s capabilities in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the SEC delegated its authority to authorize formal order authority to the Director of Enforcement. The Director of Enforcement, in turn, delegated this authority to regional directors and enforcement associate directors. As a result, the staff could, within an hour (when necessary) obtain formal order authority, as compared to the days, weeks, or at times months, that it had historically taken to obtain formal order authority from the Commission. Not unexpectedly, the number of formal investigations opened by the staff dramatically increased.

Acting Chair Piwowar’s recent move eliminates the second layer of delegation by limiting the 2009 delegated authority to the Director of Enforcement. While the effect of this change on the number of SEC investigations remains uncertain, multiple sources report that Acting Chair Piwowar enacted the policy not to reduce that number, but to bring greater oversight and consistency to the investigation process. Further, while he is not authorized to take the step alone, as it would require a vote of the Commission which is currently comprised of only two members, Acting Chair Piwowar and Commissioner Kara Stein, the acting chair has asked the SEC’s general counsel to consider whether the agency should further restrict formal order authority by returning the power to grant it to the SEC Commissioners. Thus, at Acting Chair Piwowar’s direction, the SEC is considering a return to the pre-2009 formal order authority review and approval process.

The revocation of the regional and associate directors’ delegated ability to approve formal order authority is the latest action taken by Acting Chair Piwowar, who stepped in as acting chairman after former Chair Mary Jo White stepped down at the conclusion of the Obama administration. His actions have included requesting that all authorities granted to staff members be reviewed and that public disclosure rules required by Dodd-Frank be reconsidered.  Such actions indicate efforts to begin the reshaping of the agency as it awaits the confirmation of President Trump’s nomination for chairman, Jay Clayton.

FINRA Releases its 2017 Annual Regulatory and Examination Priorities Letter

Earlier this month, FINRA published its Annual Regulatory and Examination Priorities Letter (the “Letter”). This is the first Letter under the tenure of new FINRA President and CEO Robert W. Cook. Notably, Mr. Cook introduced FINRA’s annual Letter with his own “cover letter” in which he shared several thoughts with the broker-dealer industry, including a common thread running through FINRA’s Letter—specifically a focus on core issues of compliance, supervision, and risk management. Mr. Cook also discussed his “listening tour” to meet with member firms, regulators, and investor groups since joining FINRA in August. In doing so, he shared two takeaways. First, starting this year, FINRA will publish summary reports that outline key findings from examinations in selected areas to serve as additional tools that firms can use to strengthen their controls. Second, in response to feedback from smaller firms, FINRA will start providing more, and perhaps different, compliance tools to assist smaller firms in complying with regulatory requirements.

Turning to the Letter, FINRA annually publishes such a letter to provide its member firms with helpful insight into the focus areas for the upcoming year’s examinations. Though we encourage all clients, blog readers, and interested parties to review the Letter in its entirety, we have highlighted certain topics and points that we believe are the most important for our clients and followers, as discussed in more detail below. At the offset, however, we should note that in its introduction FINRA advised that starting in 2017 it will conduct electronic, off-site reviews in addition to traditional on-site examinations. These new electronic reviews will involve a select group of firms that are not currently scheduled for a cycle examination in 2017. These reviews will focus on selected areas including those identified in the Letter. In another change for 2017, FINRA will release a “compliance calendar” and a directory of compliance service providers, with the goal of helping small firms better meet their regulatory requirements.

In the body of the Letter, FINRA provides several broad categories for its priorities: (1) High-risk and Recidivist Brokers; (2) Sales practices; (3) Financial Risks; (4) Operational Risks; and (5) Market Integrity. Within these broad categories, FINRA also identified sub-categories. For ease of referencing the Letter, our summary below follows the organization of the Letter.

High-risk and Recidivist Brokers

Not surprisingly, FINRA will continue to devote particular attention to the member firms that hire high-risk and recidivist brokers and apply greater scrutiny to such firms. First, FINRA recently established a dedicated examination unit whose sole mission is to rigorously review and monitor high-risk and recidivist brokers’ interactions with customers. Second, FINRA will also focus on the ways that firms hire, retain, and monitor statutorily disqualified and recidivist brokers, and will also focus on firms that have a high concentration of brokers with significant disciplinary records, complaints, or arbitrations. Third, and more generally, FINRA is committed to ensuring that firms have sufficient inspection programs and supervisory systems for their branch offices and non-branch office locations, including independent contractor branches.

Sales Practices

  • Senior Investors – FINRA will continue to closely evaluate recommendations that senior investors purchase speculative or complex products, particularly in light of the investor’s profile and risk tolerance. Last year, fraud schemes involving microcap (or “penny”) stocks were on the rise, and often targeted senior investors. FINRA encourages firms to take steps to protect elderly customers from such fraud by contacting these customers to verify those types of transactions.
  • Product Suitability and Concentration – FINRA will continue to assess how firms conduct reasonable-basis and customer-specific suitability reviews, and will increase its focus on the controls firms have in place for recommending new products and for recommendations that result in excess concentration in customers’ accounts. FINRA makes specific reference to ETPs, non-traded REITS and BDCs. Furthermore, firms should be prepared to discuss how changes in the interest rate environment impact their recommendations to clients.
  • Excessive and Short-term Trading of Long-term Products – FINRA is clearly concerned about excessive and short-term trading of long-term products, as such activity is detrimental to clients but can bolster sales credits for registered representatives. FINRA makes specific reference to UITs. In addition to FINRA’s examination of this activity, FINRA urges firms to determine whether their control systems are sophisticated enough to detect deliberate attempts to avoid automatic surveillance for excessive switching activity.
  • Outside Business Activities and Private Securities Transactions – FINRA will continue to focus on firms’ controls, documentation, and evaluation of written notifications of proposed outside business activities by registered representatives and associated persons. In addition, FINRA will focus on associated persons’ notification of private securities transactions and firms’ ongoing supervision of approved private securities transactions.
  • Social Media and Electronic Communications Retention and Supervision – FINRA makes clear that both SEC and FINRA record-retention requirements extend to all business-related communications, regardless of the devices or networks used. FINRA will ensure that firms are complying with these retention requirements, as they are essential to a firm’s ability to detect inappropriate business conduct.

Financial Risks

  • Liquidity Risk – FINRA’s 2016 assessment of liquidity management practices at firms identified a variety of issues. As a result, in 2017 FINRA intends to focus on firms’ funding and liquidity plans to determine whether firms adequately evaluate their liquidity needs, develop contingency plans to handle market stresses, and effectively test those contingency plans.
  • Financial Risk Management – Furthering its attempts to understand how larger firms manage risk across their organizations, FINRA will ask a select group of firms to explain how they would react to specific stress scenarios, considering the areas of readiness, communication plans, risk metrics, and contingencies.
  • Credit Risk Policies, Procedures and Risk Limit Determinations Under FINRA Rule 4210 – On December 15, 2016, the first phase of the new amendments to FINRA Rule 4210 became effective. In 2017, FINRA will evaluate firms’ compliance with the first phase of the rule amendments and the corresponding supervision, policies, procedures and processes.

Operational Risks

  • Cybersecurity – According to FINRA, cybersecurity threats are one of the most significant risks for many firms. FINRA will focus on reviewing firms’ data systems, the controls designed to protect those data systems (including from insider threats), the strength of controls and practices at branch offices and independent contractor branch offices (which tend to be weaker), and firms’ compliance with Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (SEA) Rule 17a-4(f), which requires the use of write once read many (aka “WORM”) format.
  • Supervisory Controls Testing – FINRA reminds all firms of their obligations with respect to supervisory controls testing and chief executive officer certifications with specific reference to FINRA Rules 3120 and 3130.
  • Customer Protection/Segregation of Client Assets – Compliance with SEA Rule 15c3-3 is also a priority. FINRA will assess the sufficiency of firms’ documentation of the absence of liens and encumbrances on securities. In addition, FINRA will be examining whether firms are engaging in transactions that are designed, in whole or in part, to reduce a firm’s reserve or segregation requirements.
  • Regulation SHO – Close Out and Easy to Borrow – Due to recent SEC enforcement actions regarding SEC Regulation SHO, FINRA will focus on the locate processes employed by firms in connection with short sales, and emphasized that firms should closely monitor their close-out process to ensure they are complying with Rule 204 of Regulation SHO.
  • Anti-Money Laundering and Suspicious Activity Monitoring – Anti-money laundering programs will continue to be a FINRA focus in the upcoming year. Firms must incorporate anti-money laundering red flags into their trading surveillance systems, and should evaluate their controls around accounts held by nominee companies.
  • Municipal Advisor Registration – Firms that advise state and local governments on municipal securities should ensure that they are registering correctly with the SEC and the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board and that individuals engaging in municipal advisory activities pass the Series 50 Examination made available on September 12, 2016. Firms that do not register but still provide services to municipal customers should ensure that they meet the appropriate statutory exclusions and regulatory exceptions.

Market Integrity

  • Manipulation – Manipulation is a perennial top priority for FINRA and FINRA is taking several steps to detect and deter such manipulation, including: (1) enhancing its layering pattern detection capabilities to look for larger groups of market participants engaging in this manipulative activity; (2) enforcing the recent amendments to the Order Audit Trail System (OATS) rules; (3) monitoring potentially manipulative trades surrounding market open and close; and (4) expanding cross-product manipulation surveillance to include exchange-traded products. Lastly, in 2016, FINRA introduced the Cross Market Equity Supervision Report Cards for layering and spoofing activity as a compliance tool to complement firms’ supervisory systems and procedures to detect and deter manipulative conduct by a firm or its customers.
  • Best Execution – FINRA emphasizes the importance of Regulatory Notice 15-46 and the importance of providing accurate payment for order flow disclosures. FINRA further advises that firms need to consider how the continuing automation of the markets for equity securities, standardized options and advances in fixed income markets affect order handling decisions, and factor these changes into their review of execution quality.
  • Audit Trail Reporting Early Remediation Initiative and Expansion – FINRA expects firms to address potential equity audit trail issues identified through the Audit Trail Reporting Early Remediation Initiative. If firms take quick corrective measures in response to these alerts and the problem is limited in scope, it is possible that a formal investigation can be avoided.
  • Tick Size Pilot – The Tick Size Pilot will continue in 2017, and FINRA notes that it is “critical” that firms submit accurate OATS and market maker data. FINRA intends to monitor compliance with these data requirements, and restrictions on quoting and trading.
  • Market Access Rule – Firms should focus on improving their compliance with the Market Access Rule. In this subsection, FINRA provides a list of best practices, including: implementing, memorializing, and monitoring pre-trade and post-trade controls; implementing procedures for the supervision, development, testing and employment of algorithmic trading, including code development or changes; and maintaining reasonable processes to monitor whether trading algorithms operate as intended, and processes to disable algorithms or systems that malfunction. FINRA directs firms to Regulatory Notice 15-09 for further discussion of effective electronic trading practices.
  • Trading Examinations – Conflicts of interest, the adequacy of alternative trading systems’ disclosures, and the handling of manual option orders by floor brokers and upstairs firms under their best execution obligations will be examination priorities this year. Also, FINRA intends to begin a pilot trading examination program to determine whether targeted examinations of smaller firms are worthwhile.
  • Fixed Income Securities Surveillance Program – FINRA will continue to focus on surveilling wash sales and interposing activity, and will review written supervisory procedures and systems designed to detect non-bona fide trading to create an artificial price level in a bond, in order to hide an excessive mark-up to a customer trade or reset the aging of positions held by the firm. FINRA will also continue its focus on securitized products. Also, in light of the TRACE reporting requirements, which are scheduled to become effective in July 2017, FINRA will develop ways to monitor compliance with rules applicable to U.S. Treasury securities.

Drinker Biddle Conclusion

Mr. Cook’s cover letter is revealing in terms of his initial views as FINRA’s new leader. Mr. Cook appears to aspire for increased and better communication with FINRA’s members. He also stated that one of his areas of focus will be the role that member firms “…play in facilitating capital formation by small and emerging growth companies, which are vital engines of our economy and job creation.” Turning to FINRA’s Letter, consistent with its mandate as the main self-regulatory organization for broker-dealers, the Letter and priorities ambitiously seek to cover all corners of the broker-dealer industry. That said, many of the plans discussed are continuations of long-standing efforts, though others are new priorities that demonstrate the ways in which FINRA’s oversight is evolving, expanding, and improving, such as the increased discussion of electronic and algorithmic trading. For our clients and readers, we will continue to monitor the way that FINRA’s priorities unfold over the course of 2017. In the meantime, if you have any questions about any of the topics covered in the Letter, please contact Sandy Grannum or Jim Lundy.